Part 4 – Exploring the NSW outback…

It hadn’t taken us long to slot back into the daily routine of setup and pack up as each day rolled into the next. There were places to see, people to meet and memories to be made and it was time to head off again to see what was down the road!

Unable to travel the track along the Darling River to Wilcannia because of flooding, we left Kinchega National Park and returned to civilization in Broken Hill then made our way towards Wilcannia along the Barrier Highway.

As we travelled back over the same route we had travelled to Menindee Lakes through scrubby, semi desert, saltbush plains inhabited by kangaroos and every other imported feral pest you could image; goats, cats, rabbits and foxes, we were rewarded with our first sighting of Sturt Desert Peas in full flower. These beautiful flowers were such a stunning sight of vibrant colour that they almost seemed out of place in their desert surroundings.


The next leg of our journey would take us east to Wilcannia where we would take a side track 95 kilometres just a bit north on the map along the Opal Miners Way to the old mining town of White Cliffs then back to Wilcannia on to Cobar, Nyngan, Dubbo then up to Walgett and Lightning Ridge.

From Broken Hill it wasn’t a long drive via the Barrier Highway to Wilcannia where we planned to make an overnight stop at a free camp beside the Darling River, but after advice given to us at Silverton warning us not to stop at Wilcannia due to safety and theft concerns we were reluctant to camp there, so we decided on heading straight to White Cliffs.

Stopping at these small country towns we talked to lots of people – travellers and locals; and obviously our conversations mostly centred on travelling…. ‘Where have you come from?’, ‘where are you headed next?’, etc. etc. and of course we all swapped stories and ideas about where to go, where to stay, and where not to go and we had constantly heard of late… don’t stop in Wilcannia! Many people had good intentions and we tended to keep an open mind and find out for ourselves but in this case, even the Telstra guy repairing the telephone box in Silverton told us not to stop at Wilcannia!

Wilcannia is actually halfway between Broken Hill and Cobar and as we were heading from Broken Hill to White Cliffs then on to Cobar it was hard not to stop in Wilcannia!

The scars of the riots here a few years back were still visible as we drove into town. Most shops were burnt out or vandalized and boarded up and apart from these not much else remained in the main street except a few beautiful old sandstone buildings from the paddle steamer era.

As we ventured further along the main street we had the distinct feeling we were being watched from the boarded up windows and we could understand others reluctance to stop here. The last shop had been boarded up in August of this year, 2012.

Nestled along the Darling River, lined with gum trees  this could have been a really pretty little town and probably was in it’s heyday when it relied heavily on the Darling River trade… but now without the river traffic and 200 kilometres to the next town in any direction along the highway it was no wonder they had a large Aboriginal population and high unemployment rate. Two-thirds of Wilcannia’s residents were Aboriginal.

With a population of only 596 Wilcannia had a hospital, Department of Community Services office, a local council and other government offices… all that seemed to be designed to provide services to the community rather than employ them, which was really sad!

Turning north from Wilcannia and following the Opal Miners Way we travelled another 95 kilometres through dry and barren country to White Cliffs. This place of harsh beauty surrounded by rich red soil, prickly low growing scrub and wide-open cloudless skies was the first commercial opal field in Australia. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

White Cliffs was first and foremost an opal town with the first mining lease granted in 1890. The discovery of opals in 1884 subsequently led to a population explosion from around 30 people to 5000 people living in the township area. Life in White Cliffs was tough and with the combination of a poor water supply, drought, disease and a reducing market for opals the population soon reduced back to 30 people by 1914. Since then a small number of optimistic miners have continued to seek the precious white opals and the population of White Cliffs has marginally increased painting a fascinating picture of human behaviour and the desire to get rich quickly.

As well as opals, particularly the odd shaped unique ‘pineapples’ that are only found at White Cliffs, this area is also known for the opalised remains of a Plesiosaur (an extinct 3 to 12 metre tall ocean reptile with a long neck  and small head ), a 100,000,000 year old fossil from the Dinosaur era and found in this area in 1976. It was hard to believe the ground we were standing on was once under the sea!

Wedge-tailed eagles soared on the thermals as we drove along, some feasting on road kill and barely taking flight before they became road kill themselves.  As we entered White Cliffs we were surrounded by pile upon pile of white rubble brought up from below the ground and it was immediately obvious to us that there was only one thing that drove this little community… seeking a fortune!

This lunar landscape reminded me very much of Coober Pedy with most people living in underground houses in the three hills that surrounded the town. The buildings left on the surface were surrounded by a pale and eerie moonscape with thousands of abandoned opal digs.

Around the world there are many locations where people have dug their homes into the ground due to stable soil conditions, the lack of building materials and to escape the heat. In Australia there is a long history of these underground homes called dugouts, mostly in the opal mining towns of outback Australia.  The most famous dugout town is Coober Pedy in South Australia and I would say the lesser-known dugout option would be this tiny, remote township in NSW.

The housing was simple with most of the town’s buildings being underground and for every building we saw on the land there are as many as ten more underground. As well as the dwellings many businesses were also underground even the motel.

Portals surrounded the countryside that marked the entry point to these amazing underground caves, … it was like walking into an Aladdin’s cave with their white painted stonewalls and the cafes, restaurants and shop walls dripping with jewellery… precious opals of all shapes, sizes and colours that we just couldn’t afford.

Outside some of these structures were struggling vegetable gardens and ornamental gardens of all kinds of homemade decorative things and as we wandered the streets we discovered other amazing rustics gardens … one decorated with old broken, rusting bits and pieces that had obviously been collected from the old mining sites. Old nuts, bolts and old metal strips had been lovingly constructed into people doing things… things that replicated mining tasks or just general living and these lifelike pieces were amazing.

It was certainly a unique and interesting place and even though it was a great place to visit, I struggled to understand why people chose to live here. There were people who had lived here for 30 or more years, and obviously loved it.  There was a golf course similar to that of the Coober Pedy terrain adventure course, a sports field, a tennis court, a pool but is was closed when we were there, a visitor centre, a pub, a café, a post office and a general store.

The pub was dusty and lonely, the general store small and simple and the roads were rough and unsealed with the settlement spread in every direction.

One old woman sitting on the pub verandah just had to say hello. She had lived here 34 years and was such an interesting lady. So interesting she knew everything about everyone and had helped to document all the towns’ history and she just couldn’t wait to share the information with anyone who showed an interest… and even though the history of this town was proudly documented on signs around town she still showed up at our tent with a USB in hand for us to download a copy of this town’s life story!

We also chatted to Jock who couldn’t wait to invite us into his abode. He was a larger than life character and a local icon of White Cliffs. He showed us all around his mine and underground home and told us all about the history of White Cliffs. His charming underground residence comprised a bedroom, a lounge room come dining room, a kitchen, a toilet and shower area and a mine in which he had accumulated a lifetime of historic opal mining equipment as well as other junk. The above ground area was characterised by numerous potted plants, an odd tree, an aging dog and a lively and noisy community of green tree frogs!

We camped at the local caravan park with not a a blade of grass in sight, only red earth. Willy-willies whizzed through the park and we had to make sure our tent was firmly pegged down. The park had great amenities and was a handy location for all the local sights including the nearby solar power station that powered the town several years ago but given there is no underground camping I would suggest it would not be the place to visit in high summer!

The whole opal field can be viewed by foot or on bike if you’re up for the challenge and of course we headed out on our bikes and we had to be very careful not to veer off the marked roads and paths as one careless step and we could well end up at the bottom of a long dark opal mineshaft. We also had to watch for signs to ensure we were not trespassing on a mining lease as there were still a lot of active mines in the area.

The vastness and emptiness of the landscape around this tiny town was massive and had to be seen to be believed and was not unlike a rubbish tip with old rusty machinery, broken down trucks and cars of every vintage and the accumulation of discarded mining equipment strewn everywhere… and what appeared to be humpies made from stone, tin and rock.

Everything was stark and very empty and there was not a person to be seen as we rode the dirt tracks around these old mine sites…only a few creatures to share the countryside with!

Kangaroos sheltered from the hot sun under peppercorn trees, one or two jumping out in front of us as we rode past and the odd wild goat poked about in the dry scrub, as did a mob of emus!

Emus… now you might think they’re just the harmless half of the coat of arms but forget it, this one was mad!

An emu was pecking the red dirt as we rode past so I circled back to get a photo while Guy continued to ride down two others that were sprinting down the side of the track… and that’s when the big bird that was pecking in the red dirt charged down the road after him. It lifted it’s head as high as it could, puffed its feathers out and off it went.  It was such a surreal experience and I was quite b-emu-sed (bemused) to be exact… that was until I realised what was really happening and turned my camera in the direction of the roadrunners! It was so funny I almost fell off my bike… you expect to be swooped by magpies when you go out for a ride but you don’t expect to be charged by emus!

After staying in White Cliffs we felt as if we had truly commenced our journey into outback Australia. The next leg of our journey would take us back to Wilcannia then on to Cobar ‘The Gateway to the Outback’, and contrary to what people had told us about Wilcannia we did stop for fuel on the way out of town at the petrol station that was all locked up and even had padlocks on the petrol bowsers… it appeared there was not a business in Wilcannia open. We then had a very quick look around the town and of course the very friendly locals on the river bank where we stopped for a cuppa, were quick to suggest the sights to see and the places to go and one was a beer at the ‘Bowlo’, that’s Aussie slang for Bowling Club… which we gave a miss!

It wasn’t a long run from Wilcannia to Cobar along the Barrier Highway, only a 260-kilometre drive through countryside that was much the same as what we had already been in… flat, dry and featureless and apart from trying to avoid wildlife along the way it was quite a non-eventful drive.  We swapped driving, played license plate and spot the goat, guess what song I’m playing on the harmonica, good old I Spy and even sang along to our CD’s.

Road signs showed kangaroos along the highway but we only saw one kangaroo, hundreds of feral goats and a number of emus that one had to keep ones eye on as they all seem to have a death wish and cross the road just as we were going past.

In the middle of nowhere we decided to stop for a break at the very lonely but unique and rather rustic roadhouse at Emmdale where we could finally fill up with fuel before turning off and heading along a gravel road for 32 kilometres to Mount Grenfell an historic Ngiyampaa Aboriginal site and rock art.

Dark storm clouds were threatening by the time we arrived at Cobar, however the rain held off and by the time we pulled into a free but very crowded rest stop (with lots of road trains and caravans), at the junction of the Barrier Highway and Kidman Way the clouds had cleared completely. Any plans to set up camp here were soon dashed though as we couldn’t get our tent pegs in the ground so we packed up and moved on to Cobar Caravan Park.

Cobar is known as the gateway to the outback and is only a day’s drive from the five capital cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide and Brisbane. It is bordered by the Darling River to the north and the Lachlan River to the southeast and is surrounded by a flood plain. It is a bustling and prosperous town with a pastoral heritage and is steeped in history of a mining boom going back over 150 years… and a look around the town on our bikes soon revealed reminders of its mining heyday.

Cobar is a town built on the dividends of its copper, lead and zinc mines. Known as ‘The Copper City’ this little town is the jewel of outback NSW and is filled with grand old buildings, which depict the town’s prosperous mining history.

As mentioned earlier you don’t expect to be chased by emus when you go out for a ride, well I didn’t expect to be attacked by a magpie, and that is exactly what happened!

I wondered what the loud crack was and thought a coconut had fallen out of a tree and landed on my helmet as it was loud enough to make my ears ring… but no, not a coconut… a magpie!

A particularly nasty little bugger had attacked me and actually drew blood behind my ear so it was back to the caravan park for a bit of first aide before heading off to the camping store for some cable ties!! I’m not embarrassed to say they had me running scared so now it will be dozens of plastic spikes protruding from my helmet and ‘eyes’ on the back hopefully to scare them off.

Other towns and villages in the Cobar area are Nymagee a small village 98 kilometres south of Cobar and an area believed to be immortalized in Australian folklore in Banjo Paterson’s ’Clancy of the Overflow’. It is thought the poem is probably based on Thomas Clancy, an overseer and drover around central NSW from the 1860s to the 1880s who was moving a mob of sheep along the Lachlan River at that time. Thomas Clancy also had a brother, John Clancy, who lived in the region, a drover who worked on a station called “The Overflow” near Nymagee, so it is likely that both brothers contributed to Paterson’s idealised vision of the bushman. There was also a thriving copper mine here until the early 1900s.

Mount Hope was 160 kilometres south of Cobar and had a history based around mining in the 1880s, however, rising costs and WW1 contributed to the eventual closing of all the mines in the area.

Louth, 132 kilometres north west of Cobar, is well known for the Louth Races providing a true outback experience on the banks of the Darling River.

Euabalong, 220 kilometres to the southwest is located on the banks of the Lachlan River while Euabalong West is 10 kilometres further west and sits on the main railway line from Sydney to Broken Hill.

Nearby Murrin Bridge is an Aboriginal community and last of all is Tilpa on the banks of the Darling River, well known for it’s fishing and camping and the Tilpa Pub where many a traveller has left their mark… apparently a local tradition.

Our next day started with a colony of cockatoos who lived in the trees at the caravan park deciding to wake the entire campsite at 5am so we were up early, had brekkie, decamped and were on the road by 7.30. The good thing about getting away so early was that the Grey Nomads were still asleep when we left and there was absolutely no one on the road.

We have hardly left Cobar when we came to a large fruit fly exclusion zone sign with the usual ‘if we proceed carrying fruit’ threats so we pulled over into a handy little area by the side of the highway and consumed what fruit we had left in our esky.

Cobar might advertise itself as ‘The Gateway to the Outback’ but Nyngan residents made it quite clear we knew we were on the ‘edge of the outback’ when we drove into their little town where we were confronted by a huge sign telling us we were entering ‘The Edge of the Outback’.  Even Nyngan railway station proudly proclaimed it to be the first station in the ‘real outback’… and the flocks of Apostle birds told us we were in the outback simply because they were everywhere and they only inhabit the outback.

Nyngan, situated on the Bogan River, is also the junction where the Mitchell Highway heads north to Bourke. This little town was largely unheard of until 1990, when the worst floods of the century struck resulting in two thousand people being airlifted to safety… almost the whole town!

Our next destination was Dubbo travelling through the little towns of Nevertire, Trangie and Narromine.

Nevertire is a typical little one pub railway town on the Mitchell Highway and exists due to the grain handling at the nearby railway station. It has only about a dozen houses and Henry Lawson once described it as the edge of the ‘Great Grey Plain’ where the dry country of saltbush extends west to the deserts of the centre. When Lawson passed through this town he observed, ‘Somebody told me that the country was very dry on the other side of Nevertire. It is. I wouldn’t like to sit on it anywhere.’

68 kilometres further on we came to Trangie a small country service centre on the main western railway line and on the Mitchell Highway. As we entered the town we crossed the ‘Goan Waterhole’ which, at certain times, is said to be a spectacular display of mosses and water plants. Weemaabah station was the beginning of this little town in the 1830s. The Cobb & Co coach service from Dubbo to Bourke passed through this property stopping at the Swinging Gate Hotel up-river but the township didn’t develop until the railway arrived in 1882, en route from Dubbo to Nevertire.

Next on the map was Narromine, located near the Macquarie River at the eastern edge of the vast western plains of NSW and only 39 kilometres from Dubbo.

This little town promotes itself as the ‘Town of Champions’ due to the fact that a number of well-known sportspersons were born here, including sprinter Melinda Gainsford-Taylor, cricketer Glenn McGrath and footballer David Gillespie.

Moving on we arrived in Dubbo where we planned on camping a couple of nights and fortunately for us there was a free camping ground on the banks or the Macquarie River about 10 kilometres north of the city.

We had booked our car in for a service and we were soon to find out it was easy to fill in a day or two in Dubbo… there was a lot to see and do!

Dubbo is well known for the Taronga Western Plains Zoo, which is the main reason we wanted to visit and having arrived in Dubbo early we had sufficient time to check out the city and the zoo before moving on to our camp ground.

A one-day entry actually gets you in for two consecutive days so after purchasing our one-day entry we set off to explore on our bikes. This zoo is a zoo like no other and there were lots of ways to get around and see the animals – you can walk, hire bikes or golf buggies, ride your own bikes or sit in your car and drive over the ten-kilometre stretch to the exhibits.

Most of the animals at Dubbo Zoo are kept in enclosures that are as closs to the environment that they would be found in in the wild and they all looked fairly content, except perhaps for the Russian horses who originally hail from the frozen steppes of Siberia, and the big cats who seemed to have limited space and looked to be thoroughly bored… but other than that it was a great zoo in terms of space for the animals to roam.  With all enclosures appearing not to be fenced in… even the elephants, giraffes, rhinos and hippos seemed marginally happy with their lot.

It was a beautiful two days at the zoo, really hot and not a cloud in the sky and we had a fantastic time riding around the animal enclosures…  that is except for the freeloaders who hitched a ride everywhere (flies) and were really annoying and magpies who delighted in swooping us!

Zoo done, it was then a visit to the Old Dubbo Goal where we were greeted by a guard statue at the front of the building who was wearing a real uniform that had been specially treated to preserve it. This gaol was opened in 1871 and closed in 1966 and the last hanging occurred in 1904, made famous by NSW first Chief Executioner, Nosey Bob… so called because the hoof of his horse tore his nose off.

Our camp for the night was a freebie at Terramu ngamine Reserve and Rock Grooves but a word of advice for those planning on camping here… you really need to get there early as when we arrived it was packed out with caravans, campers and tents and we were luckily to find a spot to park. Luckily we squeezed in under an old gnarly tree and pitched our tent on the lovely grassed riverbank.

It was a beautiful, peaceful place and the bird life was fantastic as were the antics of the cattle and calves on the very steep bank on the other side of the river. There was a great walking track to aboriginal rock grooves further along the river, clean toilets and the area was kept really tidy with well-mown lawns and plenty of garbage bins… and we even had free showers at the racetrack on the outskirts of Dubbo thanks to the information from a lovely couple parked next to us from Lightning Ridge!

It was a just over 355 kilometres to Lightning Ridge and our next destination. We had heard so much about this little mining town and we were so looking forward to visiting.

Leaving the reserve we continued along the Castlereagh Highway to Gilgandra . This little historic town is at the junction of three highways and ‘Gil’, as it is known to the locals,  is the centre for the surrounding wool and farming country.

This is Coo-ee Town. It is famous for the 1915 Coo-ee March in which 35 men, given no support from the army, marched the 500 kilometres to Sydney to enlist for World War I. Along the way they recruited over 200 men, announcing their arrival with a call of ‘coo-ee!’ The march sparked seven other such marches from country towns.

Next on the map was Gulargambone. Galvanised iron galahs mounted on poles beside the highway greeted us as we approach the town. First there is a single bird, then two, then three at the edge of the township. This little town has adopted the pink galah as its logo so it seemed appropriate to have these eye-catching items along the road.

North of Gulargambone we saw a couple of alpacas grazing with a herd of sheep. We had heard about this practice on Macca’s ‘Australia All Over’ but had not seen it before; apparently alpacas become protective of the sheep they live with and will take on foxes and wild dogs attacking the sheep.

Next was Connamble . Coonamble (pronounced Coo-nam-bull) is located on the Castlereagh Highway half way between Dubbo and Lightning Ridge. The ‘dry’ Castlereagh River divides this town in half. This river rarely has water flowing in it, but interestingly, there is plenty of water to be found underneath the river bed.

And you can’t  pass through Connamble without checking out the quirky  ‘Nickname Hall of Fame’. These hilarious caricatures are scattered throughout the town and originated from a variety of factors, including it’s Aboriginal heritage. Not long after arriving on our shores, the European settlers discovered that the native habitants of the land quite enjoyed calling each other names that referred to their personality or appearance. These terms translated into humorous descriptions and perhaps were the inspiration for the national appreciation of nicknames that has become a great Australian tradition.

This witty little town having found humour in the face of hard times on the land, have created a museum dedicated to the nicknames of the characters who make up this community and rather than housing the sketches in a large building or hall, they have transformed their town into a living, breathing museum and displayed them on the sides of shops, pubs and restaurants, complete with their nicknames.

The countryside between Coonamble and Walgett was so flat and there was not a hill or a rise to be seen. We passed a couple of large stations with very few sheep or cattle. We saw lots of cotton acreage and although the crop had already been harvested the roadside was littered with so many cotton balls it looked like it had been snowing. A couple of road trains hauling cotton bales passed us and certainly wanted more than their half of the road and we saw lots of emus taking advantage of the freshly ploughed cotton fields to find an easy lunch. Kangaroos, wild goats and road kill of all discriptions were in higher than usual numbers, obviously drawn to what little grass was growing on the side of the road.

As well as Wilcannia, we had been warned about Walgatt  and driving through the town we were saddened to see that almost every business had strong wire mesh on the windows and many, including the motel, had tall steel fences around the whole building. It was terrible to see a community so afraid that they had to live and work behind bars.

About 5 kilometres from Lightning Ridge we pulled in to a lovely rest area for a cuppa and to check out ‘Stanley’ an enormous Emu standing opposite. Originally Stanley had been designed  to go on the Birdsville Track but after meeting a lot of bureaucratic red tape he ended up staying at Lightning Ridge.

Artist John Murray, who lives in Lightning Ridge and specialises in outback pictures, often featuring crazy emus, designed Stanley, and a visiting welder, Tom Parsons who saw the design asked to be part of the project. It quickly caught on in Lightning Ridge and others donated the VW bodies, satellite dishes and the recycled steel girders from Dubbo Police Station, or helped with the construction.PA170047.JPG It took 4 years to complete Stanley, in fact he had only just been completed in September (2012), just before we arrived, and he certainly stood out as an amazing landmark!

We were also fascinated by the toilet in this rest area, which had a sign directing anyone using it at night, to shine their headlights onto a silvered surface, above which was a mirror that reflected the lights onto the toilet.  A very clever idea that seems to have come from the miners in the old days who used this method to direct sunlight into their shafts then used mirrors to reflect the light. Very ingenious!

img_Lightning Ridge Turnoff Rest Area 2

Not to be outdone by Stanley the Emu or the toilets for that matter, the local birdlife also made sure we knew they were there when a very noisy ‘Miner’ bird stood right in front of us demanding food… so as you do, we hand fed him a salada biscuit and amazingly this courageous bird was tempted enough to slowly approach, very quickly grab the biscuit then leap away… and soon there were more!

And of course the typical ‘Lightning Ridge’ welcome was… BIG and different!

Lightning Ridge was named after the site of a lightning strike which took out 40 sheep and their shepherd.

This is ‘Black Opal’ country. It is hot and dusty and besides a mineral spring there was not much else, and while the spectacular rare black opal is mainly the draw card to this town, the artistic and eccentric side was definitely the attraction for us!

It was the lure of opals that brought people to this area. The population of the town is unknown although many of the people have lived here for years.  The residents seem to live simply, some in town,  some – the majority of the population living happily in shanties on their opal claims in anything from makeshift shelters, tents and old caravans. The streets don’t have names and it is obvious the building codes and red tape had not made it this far west.

After booking into the very nice Opal Caravan Park we headed off to explore the town on our bikes.

Our ride through this small mining town revealed many very tired homes. In his hot and inhospitable environment I should imagine growing grass would take time, energy and lots of water and although some people had managed to create an oasis of grass and plants, in many yards people had spread stones instead of lawn.

We were up early the next morning to a riot of sound as the birds all came to life and one group of noisy miners decided that the best insects were around the doors and windows of the toilet block. They were hanging every which way and chattering away as they did it and not to be missed was a small very colourful parrot sitting nearby on a wire and some magpies warbling away in the trees. What a nice start to our day and after a quick breakfast we set off to do the Car Door Tours.

These were self-drive tours using an information sheet we bought for $1 from the Tourist Information Centre which marked different coloured and numbered car doors hanging on trees……. red, yellow, blue and green.

The car doors were quite easy to spot but most of the points of interest were trees, a power line, two small hills, a gravel pit and an open cut which was just about filled in.

The Green Car Door Tour took us through various opal fields, including the multi-billion dollar Coocoran Opal Fields which were mined from 1988 to 1996. This was also the first opal shaft dug in 1902. This track was rated as dry weather only and was along a rough dirt road with large puddles still there from previous rain and was not showing any signs of soaking in.

The people in any of these opal towns all seem to have a different outlook on life and they obviously move to these places to escape the busy life of the cities where they can pursue any lifestyle they want… they can build a castle, become a recluse, paint, build sculptures, write poetry or just mine for opal and it is certainly all here in ‘The Ridge’.

There are so many interesting things to see out here and I have to say this town has attracted a great diversity of characters and just to give you an idea of how eccentric these residents really are here… at the top of the hill at Location 12 on the Green Door self guided tour is a guy by the name of Richard Athens who arrived in ‘The Ridge’ in a horse drawn Gypsy Caravan, but unfortunately his wagon was stolen so we didn’t get to see it.

He liked it here so much he stayed, settled on a claim and then set about making his mark by creating forms of sculpture by incorporating tree branches, stumps and opal. One of his famous sculptures that takes pride of place in his yard is the ‘Opal Tree’.

Using a large piece of tree he found lying on the ground and using small, less than gem quality pieces of opal, he glued them to the tree then varnished them from top to bottom. There’s even a face with long blue hair in the middle to represent the tree spirit and a frog, and it is quite spectacular when the sun shines on it.

All his sculptures tell a story. He also built a large man out of red and blue milk crates as a tribute to his grandfather who had had a hard life as a milkman in England.

The Blue Car Door Tour includes the Walk-in-Mine which offered self-guided tours down an opal mine and Bevan’s Black Opal & Cactus Nursery with over 2300 species of cacti.

The Red Car Door Tour took us through a number of opal fields including Hatter’s Flat, Pony Fence and the Telephone Line fields. It also included Amigo’s Castle, the Astronomers’ Monument and Kangaroo Hill. First up was the Astronomers Monument that was built by a guy many years ago but he has since passed away and his relatives who live overseas have no interest in doing anything with it, so it is up for sale.

Amigos Castle was built totally by hand. Amigo collected all the stones, mixed all the concrete and did all the labour on his own and is hoping to put a roof over the area he calls the ballroom, when he meets a rich lady. The locals use this for weddings and private functions but it is still a work in progress and probably will be for a lot of years. Amigo also had around 60 cats that live with him and it all started with him feeding a few stray feral cats… now there are lots of kittens around.

The Yellow tour allowed us to see first-hand various pieces of opal mining equipment as we drove through the various opal fields which included 3 Mile Opal Field and Lunatic Hill.

Fred Bogel’s Camp was visited by the Governor General many many years ago. What a culture shock that would have been for all concerned? They even had to construct a flat road for the Rolls Royce to travel on and all for a cup of tea… and the special crockery that was bought for the occasion is still in the camp on show.

We were then dropped off at a rough looking building which had a sign ‘Chambers of the Black Hand’. The name comes from a sign above ground which has a black hand print with a finger pointing towards the mine claim and now everyone knows the area as ‘The Black Hand’. This started out as a working opal mine over 100 years ago; but is no longer mined as such.

The  current owner is an ex-deep sea navy diver come artist, who practiced carving on bits of wood while waiting out his time in decompression chambers. This then transferred into a hobby while underground. Originally he was going to carve out a room to cut and polish his opals in. He carved a few native animals on the wall for decoration, this then became the start of his obsession, and the cutting room never actually came to be. The carvings are in sandstone and mostly carved out with pick, then the finer work is done with a butter knife and fork and finally with steel wool for smooth finishes. This has taken over 14 years and is still a work in progress.

There is only four ways I can describe this unique town… charismatic, eccentric, quirky and just a little bit crazy, and just about any local you talk to can spin you a good yarn. They are a unique bunch of characters and they pride themselves on a wonderful and heartfelt hospitality that extends to all and having now visited ‘The Ridge’ I would suggest that if you are travelling through Outback NSW you really should include a few days at Lightning Ridge!

As the locals say… what goes on in ‘The Ridge’ STAYS in ‘The Ridge’ so I’m not going to tell you any more, you really need to come and experience it for yourself.



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