Lightning Ridge has rightfully built its reputation as the black opal capital of the world. Most of the people you meet in town are involved in the mining, cutting, buying, distribution or sale of opals, in one way or another.
But there’s another community of people who are just as influential, and have been in the area as long as, if not longer than, the miners. And that’s the pastoralists.
The glue of any rural community, the world over, is the women. And the Goodooga–Lightning Ridge branch of the Country Women’s Association is a powerful and hard-working group that has been active in the region for almost a century.
And so it was that, in the last Saturday in April, I found myself rumbling up the Castlereagh Highway to Bangate Station, which this year hosted the CWA’s annual Wool Day.
Bangate is currently owned by Doug and Pam Caley (featured here in The Land back in 2017).
Bangate demands its own blog post, and so I won’t go into the extraordinary history of the place here and now. But I will mention that this is “new” Bangate; the Bangate discussed in The Land article, which was owned by the incredible Langloh Parkers (yes, I know, another post entirely!) was at a different location, just north of the Goodooga Road.
But “new” and “old” are relative terms. The Bangate Station I came to on Saturday morning was both, at the same time. I was in for a treat of pastoral history, but as I dawdled up the long dirt driveway towards the homestead I was reminded that this is a modern, practical and functioning business. The yellow building, the old store from when Bangate as a massive concern employing dozens of people, is dwarfed by an immense solar array. Old and new together.
This was wool day though, and so my first stop was the shearing shed. What a magnificent building! Australia really has “owned” corrugated iron as a vernacular building material.
The shed was full of men in jeans and checked shirts, the uniform of the bush. As usual, the women were more flamboyant in their dress, but the style was still recognisably “country chic”.
Co-owner Pam took me on a tour of the area. We started at the elevated end of the shed where the sheep, once herded up and corralled, are brought to be shorn.
It’s breath-taking to think that, at it’s recent peak, Bangate sheared 17,000 sheep! Drought and financial conditions have brought that number down to around the 10,000 mark. That is still a bloody lot of sheeps.
There are around 10 shearing stations, and the whole business takes two to three weeks. So that’s, like (pauses to do the maths) … a very lot of sheep for each shearer.
Once shorn, the sheep are dropped through chutes and back out to the pens. God, how good must it feel to have all that wool off your back!
The classification of wool is a real science. As I understand it, the key measurements are length of the fibre and the diameter or strength, measured in microns: the finer, stronger and longer the strands of the wool, the more valuable it is. In recent years wool prices have gradually risen, mainly due to demand from China, but Bangate specialises in very high quality wools and, due to local climatic conditions, have not grown their flock.
Still, 10,000 sheep is a lot of sheep.
The shearing shed itself was an absolute wonder to behold. The timber and the iron exuded the sweat and toil of the people who had worked here over generations. In more modern times, that record is more literal.
The winning fleece was, I’m sure, amazing. To me though it looked like all the others. I really have got no idea.
After the fleeces had been categorised and the awards dished out, people moved back towards the homestead for the rest of the day’s events. I took a detour to the shearers’ quarters, still functioning after all these years.
There is a long shed, as big as the one above, for sleeping, and this one for cooking, washing and generally kicking back.
The kitchen is home to this marvellous old wood stove.
Water comes from tanks and, when it’s flowing, the Narran River. (This is easily my favourite picture from the day.)
There is water in the river at the moment, but this is not from natural flows. There was an environmental release some time back, of which this was a remnant. The politics of water in this part of the world is fraught and intensely felt. We are, here, in the upper reaches of the Murray–Darling Basin, and folk have very strong opinions about the allocation of this fundamental resource.
The lawns of the homestead were verdant, though, and this was the venue for the next set of events.
As well as allowing producers to compare their products, the Wool Day is also fun, and a fundraiser. Guess the weight of the ram is a popular perennial. Here’s local legend Yvonne W, looking suitably startled at the size of this gentleman’s reproductive organs. This isn’t his best angle; believe me, they were eye-waveringly large.
How heavy to you reckon? I guessed 88 kg. When I looked at Doug for confirmation that I was in the right weight range he shook his head a fraction, just enough to dismiss me as a callow and clueless city kid. C’est moi!
Old mate was, in fact, around 130 kg.
There was a lunch. Of course there was a lunch, this is the CWA! And of course it was spectacular.
Suitably stuffed, we flopped around the lawns and found a patch of shade beneath which to watch the wool fashion parade. The costumes are, I think, created by students at the University of New England. This one was a cracker, but I would hate to have been the one wearing it on Saturday!
Andy McLean dazzled the kids (and the grown ups) by shearing a sheep using the old-style hand shears. It was mesmerising watching him dextrously shift the beast about from one side to another, the sheers constantly scything through the fleece.
And not a single nick of the flesh.
The last event of the day was the counting of the sheep. This is an actual job, and people take it veeeerrry seriously. There are two pens and a mob of sheep are let out; as they charge past you try to count them as accurately as possible. There was a round for the kids, one for the unwashed public and one for the actual proper counters.
Unbelievably, there was a tie in the pro’s category: two blokes got exactly 102! So there had to be a play off. I, however, was rubbish.
Is there any more Aussie a sight than a bunch of kids sitting on a rail?
This wee fella won the kids’ section. He’s got a future.
At the end of the day I headed north, back towards the Goodooga Road. Pam told me about the old settler cemetery, just to the western side of the link road. I pulled up next to a grove of gum trees for a look.
The Caleys are currently restoring the cemetery, courtesy of a grant from (I think) one of the shire councils.
Many of those buried here are long forgotten, with no record. Station workers, both black and white, lived and died here. Clara: who were you? What was your story?
It was a wonderful day out. I’d recommend it to anyone. Thank you to the CWA for the organisation, and the Caleys, for opening up your home.