Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Lightning Ridge

28 – 30 July

Leaving Nindigully we headed for Lightning Ridge, our last planned stop. It’s only about 3-4 hours’ drive passing through the villages of Thallon and Dirranbandi, both centres for the cotton industry. All the way from St George the roads have been decorated with cotton bolls from the recent harvest. Hebel is just north of the NSW-Queensland border, and has a great little café, but not a lot more. Crossing the border marked the end of our Queensland sojourn which began on June 11 about 6 000 kilometres ago.

The border between NSW and Queensland
A bit battered and skewed, but a welcome nevertheless

Driving to Lightning Ridge had one unpleasant encounter. Having invested in some roo whistles, sonic devices to deter kangaroos from becoming road kill, it became clear that the whistles don't work on dead animals. Approaching a sweeping corner, and with oncoming traffic, David was unable to avoid a bloated carcass and consequently the camper is now a bit smelly as well as grotty with travel grime.

At Lightning Ridge we booked into a rare caravan park as the free camp near the Ridge didn’t seem very suitable. The Opal Caravan Park is new and is opposite the Artesian Baths. It has the best amenities block I have seen, with hair dryers provided for both men and women and glass shower screens rather than curtains, or more usually, no curtain at all. They are making a big effort to attract customers by providing afternoon entertainment (live music) and a campfire each night in a central fire pit.
Welcome to Lightning Ridge
The shower cubicles at Opal Caravan Park

At first glance Lightning Ridge looks much like any other country town, except for the preponderance of opal shops. But a Car Door tour soon exposes the other Ridge. It quickly becomes apparent that the Ridge is a town with two distinctly different personas.  The mining camps consist of dwellings that look very makeshift, almost like shanties, among the mullock heaps. The people who live there have no access to services such as power and water so have adopted creative solutions to overcome this problem.
A typical Lightning Ridge Camp dwelling - a lot better than some 
Above and below: The Artesian Spa baths are open 24/7 and are free
The artist John Murray, a local, has a gallery at the Ridge

The car door tours also reveal some unusual dwellings such as the Bottle House, Amigo’s Castle and the Astronomer’s Monument. There is also a cactus nursery which has been in operation for over 60 years.
Car door sign. Lunatic mine was one of the largest open cut mines in the town
Amigos Castle
Astronomers Monument - dedicated by its builder to Nicolas Copernicus and Galileo

We took 2  other tours in the Ridge – the Black Queen performance and the Chambers of the Black Hand. These companies are very organised and have their own buses to collect patrons from their accommodation places.
Company tourist bus

The Black Queen is set in a house constructed with bottles arranged in decorative patterns, as you might with sequins. The performance tells an amazing story of the woman who constructed the house and its present owner, Gail Collins. There is also a magnificent collection of lamps through the ages which Gail describes in detail This was an excellent performance, and we returned the next day to photograph the scene is daylight.

Some of her oldest lamps
The green lamp on the left is from the Mitchell Library; the yellow lamp on the right belonged to US President Garfield who was assassinated
Symmetrical patterns made with glass bottles on the Black Queen's house
Leopardskin tree in the garden

The Chambers of the Black Hand is set in a section of a mine which began operation in the early 1900s. It is a magnificent gallery of sculptures, many painted as well. The sculptures are carved from the cream and pink sandstone typical of the mines in Lightning Ridge. They include heroes of myth and legend, superheroes, television characters, animals, political figures, Egyptian tomb decoration, Buddha and many more. It is a truly remarkable place, and it’s obvious that the creator of these sculptures has great talent.  

Tutankhamun's death mask
Wall of an Egyptian tomb
The Pied Piper of Hamelin, plus his mice
Dora the Explorer
A family of gorillas

While watching the entertainer we discovered that the couple sitting in front of us were from Narrabri, and after a few questions I discovered that David had taught them in the early 70s. Both admitted that neither would have recognised the other – David was about 22 and Helen McGregor, now Gett, was about 15, and both have changed significantly since then.  Helen now has a grandchild at high school. This meeting enabled David to catch up on the current activities of many of his ex-students, teaching colleagues and cricketing mates. Among these was Peter McGregor whose son Sam is captain of Australia’s water polo team now competing at the Olympics.

We also discovered that one of David’s cricketing mates, Len Sevil, still has a Stock and Station agency in Narrabri, so we had to call in on him on our way through. Len is 11 years older that David and still pretty sharp.

The stay at Lightning Ridge marks the end of our camping trip, and fittingly we spent the evening at the park’s campfire pit with a group of travellers, burning the last of our gidyea (or gidgee) wood.

Sunset at Lightning Ridge


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