Walking and talking down Stoneys Road

We haven’t had much of a winter, certainly not as cold and wet as the winter of 2016, but this weekend reminded us that August isn’t spring. The wind was cold and gusty and, though the skies were blue and cloudless, it felt like indoors weather. Which was good because I had a big editing job, proofreading the references of a gigantic multi-authored work on Aboriginal song cycles. By lunchtime of Day 2 my head was like a block of cold lard and so when N texted to see if I wanted to go for a walk I could barely contain myself.

I motorbiked up to Big Town, parked the Kwaka, and we started footwalking past the water towers to Stoneys Road.

I haven’t been down Stoneys Road, but then I haven’t been to about 98% of the Ridge. I need a dog. Dogs get you out.

The “town” part of the Ridge, such as it is, quickly falls away once you step off the bitumen. Fifty yards in any direction and you hit a kind of liminal zone where humans and nature push back and forth against each other, like a First World War battle front. Sometimes one side pushes harder than the other and claims a patch of scrub for a while but then the other pushes back and reclaims it. Everywhere is evidence of occasions where one side has sallied forth and, for a short while, swaggered about in its hard-fought victory.

There are houses along the way, civilians caught in the crossfire.

I didn’t know anything about the New Jerusalem, though I kind of felt like I should. It’s mentioned in the Book of Revelation:

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God , having been prepared as a bride having been adorned for her husband.

You can get quite caught up in the internet with these things. (I say “you” but I mean “me”.) The apostle John drew the New Jerusalem as the bride, drawn in contrast to the harlot Babylon. I have to say that Babylon sounds like a lot more fun, in the same way that the smoking carriage on trains in the olden days was always a million times more of a lark than being stuck with the Baptists and Presbyterians in non-smoking.

There’s still working mines off to the side of the road. In the past I’ve edited environmental impact statements for proposed mines and there’s always a good couple of kilograms of words about the rehabilitation work that will take place when everything’s been dug out. It’s all bullshit, of course.

Ridge folk take a refreshingly honest approach to rehabilitation: they don’t claim that they’ll make any effort to rehabilitate the environment, and they stick to their word.

A bit further on and the wind that had been tugging at the brim of my hat brought with it the heady stench of roadkill. You know when you hit the centre of the scent zone and it feels like the air is almost chewably full of stinking dead beast particles? At least in a car you can put your foot down and be gone, but on Stoneys Road we fell into the epicentre of a throbbing, flesh-buckling miasma. The source was two fat pigs, pushed off the tray of someone’s ute.

I take my work seriously. No long-range lenses were used.

Then on, past more mines and bits of dead machinery and busted, rusted car chassis. We came across a big pole in the ground with a thing on top that looks like a hook goes into it. I know nothing about mining. N has an impressive working knowledge of what goes on, down in those holes in the ground, but even she had no clue. We surmised for a while, made up theories, gave up.

After skirting the airstrip for a while Stoneys Road eventually cuts into the Three Mile. Here we had the option of turning round and heading back, or cracking on. The thought of all that proofreading made me sicker than photographing a dead tusker close up so crack on we did.

The next stretch of road was a bit dull. I’ll take pictures of anything but I didn’t take any of this bit. Instead we talked, talked about all the stuff you talk about when you’re walking and talking on a windy day. We didn’t talk about Charlottesville or Barcelona or Turku, we didn’t talk about same-sex marriage or the dual nationality of politicians, we didn’t talk about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions or the wisdom of a Christian woman wearing a burqa into parliament. We talked about the other stuff.

And then we were at Bill O’Brien Way, the main road that links the Ridge to the Castlereagh Highway. The track cuts in at Benny Walford’s Crossing. We paused to look at the little memorial, the plastic flowers wagging and flapping in the buffeting breeze. So poignant, these modest acts of remembrance.

The rest of the walk felt utilitarian and more like a pedestrian commute than a refreshing stroll. We walked on the sloping camber next to the bitumen as tank-sized four-wheel drives hauled caravans into town. Grit swirled around us until we hit the paved sidewalks of Morilla Street. By this time it was mid afternoon and the town had that siesta feel about it, with barely even a dog to be seen. We stopped in at the Australian Opal Centre and admired the fossilised pine cones and sea creatures and I thought about all the things that N and I had talked about, the inconsequential things that will be forgotten when we’re fossils.

Or maybe even sooner, maybe tomorrow.

Drawing 002

Progress has been slower than I expected. This one was an absolute bugger and I kept looking at it and coming back and buggerising it up a bit more then leaving it then coming back to it. I’m sick of looking at it now and it’s time to have a go at a new one, so here it is anyway.

It’s of a windlass set-up that I saw out on the Green Car Door Tour. When I took the photo (below) it was on sunset and so I filled up the picture with lots of sky: pale metallic blue fading into rose. Unfortunately this was not such a great concept or frame for a black and white drawing. And I started too low on the page so there was even more sky than there was on the photo.

I’m learning.

Lunatic Hill

I left school at 16 to become an electrician. I did an apprenticeship and learned all kinds of things, but I have to admit that – deep down – electricity is still a mystery to me. I know that when I connect wires to each other, stuff happens and lights go on and off but I don’t really get the whole electrons and protons bit of it. I just have to believe it’s a thing, like God or the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Australia’s Got Talent.

The creation of opal falls into this category of Processes I Don’t Get.

I read on a sign about the Griman Creek Formation, which was formed:

… during the Early Cretaceous period, 100–120 million years ago, when freshwater rivers and streams deposited layers and sand and fine silt that turned into sandstone and claystone. Much later, cavities in these rock layers filled with a silica solution that turned into opal.

Well, okay. If you say so.


The sign’s at Lunatic Hill, which was apparently the site of the first mining settlement that eventually became Lightning Ridge. There’s a video of the indefatigable Barb Mortiz explaining the town’s different locations over time.

I went to Lunatic Hill one day when it wasn’t super hot but the air and the light had that eye hurtingly-bright quality to it.

The historical society has preserved all kinds of olden-times machinery and bits and bobs from the early days of mining. I’m not sure what part this BMX bike played in the establishment of the town, but I guess that even hardened miners have to let off steam after hard day down a shaft.


This mini agitator is brilliant. I can say that because I’ve never spent a week chiselling dirt from a rock face, bucketing it to the surface with a hand-operated windlass and then churning the bugger of a thing for zero return. To me it’s just an artefact: cute and rustic.


Lunatic Hill itself is neither cute nor rustic. What it is is a bloody massive hole in the Earth, the first industrial-scale attempt to get opals out of the ground. Having seen how tiny some of the most valuable opals are I could only wonder at the nature of the people that mine for a living. How many fifty thousand dollar opals get overlooked when a ton of wet slurry’s broiling out of a massive agi? God, it must be heart-breaking.


I went with a mate from Newcastle, the artist Trevor Dickinson. He draws places, which I appreciate isn’t a very thoughtful description of what he does as lots of artists draw places. He wasn’t all that impressed with the faded agricultural service towns that string the Castlereagh Highway but he did like the Ridge, with its crazy ramshackle buildings and the general punter-focused nuttiness of the place.


We took photos of holes.

Some of the holes had lids on and little fences around them.


Some didn’t.


And we took photos of bits of metal that used to trucks and cars.


Even with sunglasses on our eyes hurt from the bright sun, the clear air and the white shincracker rock. I can understand how working out here would make you crazy. It’s illogical and unbelievable that this inhospitable patch of dirt should yield the incredibly beautiful opals that I see in the shops.

Like electricity, it’s beyond my ability to understand how some things exist: they just are.

Green Car Door Tour

If you go to Trip Advisor and check out “things to do in Lightning Ridge” there is a list of 19 attractions. This is worrying as I’ve already done numbers 1 (Chambers of the Black Hand), 2 (bore baths) and 3 (John Murray Gallery). Am I tearing through the attractions too quickly? What will I do once I’ve visited all 19 of the Ridge’s attractions? Disappointment  and long, empty days loom ahead.

But life is short. I might be struck down by a comet tomorrow having held off from visiting the other attractions and so I might die having never visited Amigo’s Castle or Bevans Black Opal and Cactus Nursery. With this new-found carpe diem spirit I leapt up from the settee, turned off the telly before the sport section had even finished and headed out to the Green Car Door Tour (Trip Advisor’s #4 attraction).


Twenty past seven in the evening was a bit late to be starting such a significant journey. I’d heard that this car door tour was good for sunset views but the sun sets at around ten to eight at this time of year. A better organised person would have thought about the timing of the visit more closely and maybe not lay slumped in front of the telly thinking about carpe-ing the diem without actually carpe-ing it for a good half hour. Typical.


For those who don’t know, the car door tours are short self-guided tours of Lightning Ridge and surrounds. There’s a red one, a blue one, a black one, and this — the green one. You can see a little video about it.


Apart from the sunset views the main reason for heading out on the Green Car Door Tour is to see the Historic Monument that marks the site of the very first opal shaft, sunk in 1902 by Charlie Nettleton.

There are other significant monuments. I like the use of surplus objects for mail drops and signage that you get around here.


The nighttime trips in the courtesy buses from the pub and bowlo will often wheel and skirt around the camps that fringe town. In winter the bus’s lights pan across mulga and sandalwood scrub occasionally lighting up car bonnets with people’s names on them marking their homes. Sometimes it’s just a picture or caricature. When you’ve have a few (and why else would you be on the courtesy bus?) it can be weirdly stimulating, like watching some strange psychedelic documentary from the pre-regulation days of the LSD revolution.


Or maybe that’s just me.

Once you’re off the road you quickly hit the hard, white shincracker rock that overlays the opal-bearing dirt beneath. After the huge, industrial-scale opencast mining of the Grawin these wee domestic shafts and windlasses seem cute and homespun. Which, I’m guessing, are adjectives that the tough folk who actually operate the darned things have never used about them.


The sun was getting low and the white piles of waste and tailings were coloured a range of pinks and reds and oranges.


I was still nowhere near the sunset viewing place but, when I turned around, the sun was setting. Does it still count as a sunset viewing if there isn’t a sign nearby telling you that that’s what you’re looking at?


Hiding my bitter disappointment at having seen the sun set in the Wrong Place, I chose to carry on, following the green car doors and the variously coloured other bits of cars that littered the side of the road.


One of the things I’ve decided to do while I’m in the Ridge is learn to draw. There are loads of great things to draw here. This Aussie Bake van, operating a little windlass, is begging to be drawn. I hope I can do it justice.


But the thing about sunsets is that, afterwards, it gets dark. I had to get a wriggle on (or is it “wiggle on”?), not hang around taking pictures of stuff.

At any other time I’d have been seduced by this hectic array of signs and dropped in for some fossicking and healing or to see the big milkman or the sharkadile. The video had told me that there was an opal tree on this tour and a beer-can house and a gigantic milkman made out of milk crates! My laziness in front of the telly was coming back to haunt me.


I finally made it to the place where I was supposed to have looked at the sun. I think it would have been very impressive from here. There were other people wandering around, other people who’d set off at the right time and so had experienced the full sunset experience at the location of the first shaft. Fortunately they were distracted by their small children running towards open shafts and so I don’t think they noticed me sneaking in late.


I went over to the monument, the monument that marks the location of Charlie Nettleton’s first shaft.

But what’s this?! The plaque says that the monument is actually in the “vicinity of” the first shaft. So this might just be any old shaft! Pah! Not only had I watched the sun go down in the Wrong Place, and missed out on seeing the Big Milkman, I now found myself standing not at Charlie Nettleton’s first shaft but in its “vicinity”!!!!


There will be other days and other sunsets, I get that. And, unless Khan’s mounts a retrieval mission for its crates, the Big Milkman will be around for a while. And who cares about the exact location of Charlie’s first shaft.


I’ll be fine. Life is full of disappointment. But next time I carpe diem I shall carpe it a bit earlier.

Chambers of the Black Hand

When I was about to move up to the Ridge I went in to Telstra to get my internet sorted out. The young lass who worked there got all excited when I mentioned where I was going, pulled out her phone and started showing me all these photos of her holiday in Lightning Ridge. (She also showed me lots of pictures of her dog. Lots of pictures.) One of the places she raved about was the Chambers of the Black Hand.


I looked at the pictures and thought, yeah. That looks … awesome. An underground carving of the Simpsons. And the Last Supper. Can’t wait.

It’s not like I’m some world-weary cynic. I have a fondness for dull regional museums, the ones with dusty gas masks donated by returned servicemen, displays of agricultural tools that no one knows how to use anymore, a framed portrait of some whiskery old dude who was once the Biggest Cheese in Nowhereville. But this looked a bit … meh.

I am a person of open mind though and so, one Sunday, I hopped on my bike and went down the Three Mile Road out for a look. It was closed. So the next Sunday I went a bit earlier.

At the top of the shaft a hidden loudspeaker crackled into life and a disembodied voice told me to put on a hard hat and read the safety drill. Yes sir! Then it’s down the steps, all 153 of them. (I didn’t really count them.)


The person behind it all is Ron Canlin, a Pommie ex-serviceman who settled in Queensland, then washed up in the Ridge in the 90s. It’s gone from a hobby to a big business: I was staggered at the number of people down there, and the number of people employed to show us around. The day prior they’d had 150 visitors and I’m guessing that on this Sunday there were more.


At the first level there’s a signing in and paying place, and an opal shop. Here’s the great deal for locals: YOU DO NOT PAY! Yes, it’s $35 to out-of-towners but locals get in for zero dollars. Woo hoo!

We set off with our guide, occasionally squeezing against the walls of narrow corridors to let other groups past. The man told us about the mining process: once you’ve got your claim you dig down then, using a compass, head towards your claim boundary. Once there you link your tunnel to a neighbour’s tunnel; this gives you both a second point of exit if there’s a cave in. Ingenious.


There was a small forest of supports. Apparently they’re made from cypress pine and cost $12 a pop. Miners only pay out for them once they’ve hit a seam and are making money. Being a small town, everyone notices everything and so if you start buying cypress pine then you must be doing all right down there. That’s when the “ratting” starts: the illegal break-ins and stealing of opal-bearing dirt. I wouldn’t want to be a ratter down there that gets caught by Ron Canlin!


The lower chambers are filled with wall after wall of the most elaborate – and often bizarre – carvings in the sandstone walls. If you know your art then I think a lot of them reference famous paintings and sculptures. I don’t.


The Egyptian room is pure kitsch. And yet, like the whole place, it’s strangely attractive. Is it the thought of this life’s work that makes you suspend your critical faculties and just enjoy the ride? The more I went around the more I liked it. It’s just so utterly bonkers. How can you not like it?


The bits that have been painted are even madder than the straightforward carved bits.


I took loads of pictures bit it is one of those crazy experiences you have to undergo yourself. One minute you’re looking at sculptures that reference Greek and Roman mythology …


… the next you’re looking at a pig in red wellies.


Or Gene Simmons’s tongue.


And occasionally the mythological crashes into the fantastical. It’s all utterly mad.


When I finished, one of the blokes behind the opal counter asked me how I liked it. I said, “It’s very impressive”. He looked slightly insulted but I meant it: it really is very bloody impressive indeed.

There was a little hot water urn with foam cups, tea bags and biscuits, and signage with bits of local history, shaggy dog stories and snippets of random stuff. I do wish I’d met Mrs Wilby-Wilby, she sounds formidable.


Mrs. Wilby-Wilby was renowned throughout the back country in the pioneering days. one description. “A big, powerful, good looking, attractive style of a woman. A second description “She was about the hardest case of a woman you could strike. A big strong buxom woman.” A third description: “Big powerful woman, thin when old.” A fourth description: “A good natured, generous woman, when sober.” Popular because of her capacity for versatile entertainment. Feared for her quick and violent temper.

I love the caution in the description “attractive style of a woman”. As in, not actually attractive, but I’m too scared to say so in case she catches me. And who wouldn’t want to be renowned by a “capacity for versatile entertainment”. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

If you’re holidaying in Lightning Ridge, go. It’s well worth the $35. And if you’re from in town you’re mad if you don’t go down for free for an hour. Well done, Ron Cranlin. The world needs bonkers visionaries like you.