Through my eyes

living my life without regrets

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Lightning Ridge, Black Opal Capital of the World

Are you smiling to read about opals again? Yes, we visited Lightning Ridge. The spot for black opals, one of the rarest gem stones in the world. (The town name comes from a shepherd who was seeking shelter from a heavy rainstorm on a ridge. He, hid dog and all his sheep were killed by lightning.)
While there are a lot of opals, black opals are only found here and we just had to take a look at this place. And what a treat it turned out to be. Imagine an old fashioned gold rush town of the 1890s. Claims need to be staked, shacks are put up to live in, the motors of old cars serve as mechanical pulleys or hoists for mining, all helter-skelter or so it seems. It is not a free for all, there are rules. The rules within the city limits of Lightning Ridge are your typical city rules, down to the trash collection and building codes. The opal mines are not within city limits, they are right next to the city and these areas have their own rules, the outback rules of Australia. Survive if you can.
The population is very European, Eastern European especially. The diggers are here to find the big one, the one stone that will ease all their money problems. But there are also a myriad of true characters. Their lore abounds, particularly among the miners themselves. Story telling is an art here. Tales of the big finds, of the lucky few are spread all around. We visited a copy of a castle build by a miner in his off time over a 40 year time frame and using no machinery. We saw the shack of a wrongly accused murderer who became an artist and astronomer, then blew himself to pieces by accident while lighting his propane stove. Oh the stories are great. Baloney? Malarkey? The gift of the gab? Blarney? All of those!
Yet there is a serious side to it all. This rather small town in the beginning of the Australian outback supplies the world with rare gems. This small town keeps jewelers busy, customers happy and most women wanting. There is a true science to it all. There are no shortcuts, one has to dig for those very small treasures. And the digging is not easy and luck still plays a huge part in all of it.
Any immigrant to Australia can buy an official claim. A claim is 50x50 meters. A yearly rent of $ 350 must be paid to the government. Plus one has to deposit a $ 750 bond to make sure the mine will be refilled with rocks if you want to abandon the claim. You forfeit the bond money if you do not refill before you leave. Also, if you do not pay the annual rental fee, you forfeit your bond money and your claim will be given to somebody else. Ok, suppose you receive a piece of land that measures 50 by 50 meters (160 x 160 feet). Where exactly will you dig for your opals? How deep must you dig before you hit the opal layer? Are you sure there are opals under your claim? How will you know, if you find the opals under your claim, if "your" opals are the valuable ones? How will you recognize them? The list goes on and on. Off course there were and there are the lucky people, the lucky finds. Most miners, however, are working hard and are making a living. If you like this kind of work, then this is a great life. You are your own boss, you drive yourself. Some even drove themselves to insanity. It takes a special person to be a treasure hunter like this.
The town of Lightning Ridge is a small Australian town on the edge of the Eastern outback. A bit modern due to the tourists that keep this town breathing. The town council tries hard to find 'other' venues to make this town needed or essential, such as putting in an Olympic sized pool with the latest design in diving platforms, and some athletes even practice there along with good coaches.
Yet what do you do in a town so far away from civilization? Opal mining is the main reason this town exists. The area around the town proper looks like human moles dug holes in the ground. The rocks not needed are piled right next to the mine entrances and they look like mole hills. The living conditions within the 'mole hills' seem primitive. Some of the shacks look dilapidated and haphazard. There is no running water or electricity. The whole area looks like hoarders found each other and like it there. The people are not dangerous or deranged, just so focused on the big find, they do not let the frills interfere with their pursuit of happiness. Cars are just for transportation, so car body repairs are not color matched. They are not plated. Brakes? A car drives without brakes on this totally flat landscape. Even window glass seems a luxury. Well, I think you get the idea. Mufflers ? Insurance ? as long as the car drives it is good enough. But, don't take this contraption into the town proper, I saw the police stop a man and talk to him. The town is a regular town, but around the town is the outback, there are different rules in the outback.
Some miners have moved to other areas a bit away from Lighting Ridge and even found opals there. Sure there are more opals if one follows the lay of the land and the underground crevices and layers that contain opals. But, and again but, those opals found away from Lighting Ridge are not the black opals. The black opal has a naturally adhering black back which enhances the color. The other opals found have a different composition, a different look.
Black opals are only found in this very small spot, the town we visited called Lighting Ridge, Australia.
Carol and I left after two nights in town. I could not do the physical labor those miners do. Even with the use of some modern equipment. The digging today is still done by hand. Opals are too precious to be dug up with the use of heavy machinery. The actual yielding layer of nodes can be as shallow as 4 feet below ground to 40 feet or beyond. There are no rules, there are no signs. Ground penetrating radar will not work. The opals are not magnetic. There is no other way gto find them but to dig. Opals are pure silica.
What a weird town !

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