Lighting ridge is a town of contrasts, the worlds largest producer of black opal, it’s known throughout the world as one of the highest quality opals you can buy and as such demands a price. A piece of quality opal the size of your fingernail can cost thousands of dollars, so you might expect that there would be a huge mining industry surrounding it yet the opal mining industry is a little like the wild west, at least it is around Lightning ridge.
The mining of black opals is done small scale, mainly single people making claims and digging holes themselves with minimal machinery. Mining around the lightning ridge township is pretty much exhausted now and the active field for mining is about 50km away in the Grawin opal fields. Grawin area consists of many numerous small claims, the ground is littered with shafts, small sheds and shacks and machinery along with a few ramshackle pubs.
One thing that struck me about the area is that not too many people seem happy. I spent a while fossicking or noodling on a pile at one of the more famous landmarks in town, I also did the tour of the mine there and spent a bit of time talking with the owner. His response when people walked in the door and asked him “how are you?” was “fair to average”. If you pressed further with any sort of conversation it went downhill from there, “regulations destroying the industry, sick of working 7 days a week, if only I could get out.” On and on it went, I’m going to another of the main tourist mines today to do a little more noodling and to see what sort of a vibe I get from them, I’m hoping it’s just the one attraction and not indicative of the whole town. Still I have to admit that wandering around the town I get the impression that the town is on the downward slide in many ways. There seemed to be more signs around town for people wanting to buy opal rather than sell it, many of the shops in the main street were closed, empty and up for sale.
Undoubtedly the money within the town is now coming in the form of tourist dollars, all the caravan parks were packed with vans, many of them parked up for a reasonably long term, well at least longer than I’ve been here.
The one other place in town that’s booming is the bowls club on the main street, not that I think it has anything to do with the bowls as I’ve driven past it every day I’ve been here and never seen anyone bowling on the greens, but I have seen the buses arrive at the caravan park in the afternoon to pick up the grey hair brigade and ferry them down to the bowls club. The bowls club is probably about 300m from the caravan park I’m staying at so I’m not sure why you would need a bus. Bistro, drinks and a gaming room, that’s whats making money in town, that and the caravan parks. They drive here, park their vans jammed in together, many tend to sit around most of the day doing very little, then come 4.30 or so they slowly congregate towards the bbq area in the park for sun downer drinks, then off to the club for a feed, more drinks and pokey machines before coming back to the van to watch tv.
Wow, I’ve just realized how negative this whole post is sounding, I’m wondering if it’s me or if it’s the town or a combination of both perhaps. I don’t think it’s just me, ok I’m a little upset that I have spent two days noodling on the heap out at Grawin, and a few hours noodling locally in town here only to find a few tiny chips of opal. But I’m just not finding anyone around with positivity. OK there was the barmaid out at the ‘Club in the scrub’ she seemed pretty happy and up beat, but that’s been about it.
OK, Sunday today and I’m feeling a little more upbeat despite the fact that I can only seem to pick up country music on the radio. Went for a walk this morning and found the visitors centre had a market day, lots of locals and some not so local selling all sorts of things, and of course as you might imagine miners and fossickers selling their bits and pieces. Now I feel like I should get out of town before I spend any more money. Yes I bought opal. I justified it to myself in a couple of ways, firstly, I’m probably never going to be back this way and perhaps never again in opal country. secondly, I’d done some pricing of rough opal around town in the shops and at the commercial places and quite frankly it’s expensive. So considering that I’d found just a few tiny chips with all my searching to date, this seemed like a far cheaper and easier option.
This is one spice jar worth, I bought three spice jars and a jam jar from one of the local Grawin miners, here’s a few of the nicer specimens in one of my standard little plastic containers to give you an idea of stone sizes.
From lunch time till almost sunset I’ve taken about 200 pictures in all sorts of light, with all sorts of backgrounds and man it’s hard to really show the beauty of opal. During my researching of opal online so many times I’d read the comment “photo’s don’t do it justice”, now I really understand exactly what they mean, you really can’t capture the beauty of opal in a photograph.
I feel like I am now well stocked with opal, yes ok I spent about $300 but many people were buying a single stone for more than that and they then only had the one good stone, generally one type and colour of opal. I’ve got a huge variety of colours and I’m pretty damn happy, I don’t need any more opal. Hang on. I only need some boulder opal, some Yowah nuts, some opal matrix, opalized wood and an opalized fossil, then I’m set.
Plan is that I’ll leave here and head to Yowah which is about 600km away into Queensland and further inland, see if I can find some Yowah nuts. What are Yowah nuts? For the first time ever on this blog I’m going to pinch some photos from someone else, the opal hut in Yowah as I don’t have any to photograph yet.
And the other side.
I can’t believe I’ve never heard of these or seen them before, they are natural works of art.
This is just a few for sale on their website, some of the specimens I’ve seen online are just amazing, hopefully I’ll be able to find something out there fossicking, I can’t afford to keep buying specimens. I know that outside Yowah there’s a public fossicking area where nuts and matrix opal can be found near the surface, unlike the opal here at the Ridge, here it’s all deep underground and the only way for fossickers to find any is to pick through the miners rubbish out at Grawin 60km away which has already been looked through. Around Lightning ridge you can’t fossick anywhere, only on the 3 or 4 little tourist piles at businesses around town which are tiny and picked on daily.
I’ll head out in the next day or two to Yowah, then ultimately in the next week or two I’d like to make it to the Rubyvale area for some more sapphire digging. When I was at Tingha I met a couple from Rubyvale who mine small scale up there and they have suggested an area at one of the public fossicking spots for me to go. “Go there, find a hole someone else has been digging, jump in and keep digging, keep at it for a few weeks and you’ll find some good stuff.” Sounds easy.