Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Lightning Ridge

This past weekend was a three day weekend in Australia - Monday everyone was off for the Queen's (celebrated) birthday.  We thought it would be an excellent time to take a road trip into a completely different part of the country.  As you will see, we were very successful in our endeavour.

We knew it had to be not to long of a trip and we didn't want it to be the beach.  Our beaches are the best I've ever seen, so why go to the beach somewhere else.  I also knew that I wanted to buy an opal at some point during our time here, so we put the two together and chose Lightning Ridge, which is in the Opal Fields of Australia.

We picked the boys up from school a bit early on Friday so we could reach our first destination of Dunnedoo prior to sunset.  Part of the point of this trip was to see a different side of Australia, so we wanted to be able to pay attention to the scenery.  Possibly a greater concern was not knowing what kind of roads we would encounter - we were told they would probably be paved the entire way - and the chance of kangaroos bounding across the road at sunset, kind of like the issue Americans have with deer.

After driving for a bit over 300 kilometres, we reached the Swan Motel in Dunnedoo.  Side note about Dunnedoo - apparently some people wanted to build a giant dunny (Australian for outhouse) as a landmark.  Luckily somebody with intelligence shot that idea down.  The motel was just what we expected - no frills, but clean and with decent beds.  In other words, a great place to stop after 4 hours of driving.  We had dinner at the local cafe and went to sleep, ready to start decently early in the morning.  We later found out that the Swan Motel had previously been owned by one of Brian's coworker's fathers.  Tis truly a small world!

Per usual, the kidlets were up at 6am, so we grabbed some brekky and were off for another 350 kilometre drive to our destination!  We were pleasantly surprised by how nice the roads were.  The speed limit was usually 110 kph - 68 mph.  While it was two-lane the entire way, we hardly saw any other vehicles.  In fact, it was a good hour between towns - and there was nothing in between, except for sheep and cattle.

The boys just adored this picture at the information and had to have mum and dad pose.  And this picture sums up Lightning Ridge fairly well.  Everyone kept telling us how interesting of a place it would be - and that's the best word to describe it.  It is in the middle of nowhere - you have to intend to get there.  Groceries are airlifted in once a month.  There were three restaurants to eat at, and one of them was closed because they had sold out of food.  They have their population listed as a question mark, with good reason.  It's a place to go when you want to disappear.  Every resident we talked to always said how long they had lived in Lightning Ridge and where they had come from - nobody had grown up there.  There were not many houses. Most people lived in caravans parked somewhere on their claim.  We drove past many of those and wondered how many of the claims were actually legal.  That's not to say that the people weren't lovely - you just wouldn't ask them much about their background!  I haven't visited anywhere like it, but I'm assuming it may be like living in the wilds of Alaska, as far as a close community.  The people seemed like they would take care of their own and close ranks if you came looking for someone.  We're assuming that gun ownership is probably very high there!

Our first stop was at the bottle house.  This gentleman found a pile of bottles lying around and decided to build a house out of them, and then fill said house with antiques.  He collected anything he thought might be interesting!  Probably wasn't worth the price of admission, but it's a good example of the quirkiness of the townspeople!

Outside of the house

He actually lived up in this loft

An old time punch clock from Cincy

After we checked into our bed and breakfast - which I use in the loosest sense of the term - we headed off on the Yellow Car Door tour.  Throughout the town, there are four tours taking you off road to see several points of interest.  The track is marked by, you guessed it, painted car doors!  Interesting way to mark your path...

In the middle of this tour was the Chambers of the Black Hand.  This is an opal mine that has been turned into an art gallery.  The man who owns the mine would wind down from his day's work by carving pictures into the walls in the mine.  The walls are made of pink limestone, so the carving wasn't as physically difficult as it sounds.  However, I can't imagine the time he put into some of the carvings.

Will wanted me to share this one - his soccer team is the Marlins.
Also, can you spot Wally?

He's serious about his carvings

We also took a tour to learn about mining for opals.  It is the black opal that is found in Lightning Ridge, which is one of the more rare opals you can find.  The miners would look for black potches to find the opal.  More likely than not, you would find a thin seam running through.  However, every once and awhile you could find something larger.  Our tour guide said he found an opal worth $15,000 on his property, which he gave to his granddaughter.

Checking out a tunnel

The posts behind us mean a lot of opal was found in that spot

Apparently people will watch for the wood posts to be bought, and then you have to worry about thieves getting to your opal.  Someone asked what would happen and our guide replied that you would kill them - then quickly said he was joking, however we're not sure he actually was.  He did say some thieves had recently been arrested and given a slap on the wrist.  They mysteriously had broken arms and legs the next day.  Apparently another set of thieves were down in an opal mine stealing, so dynamite was thrown in after them.  Like I said, it's an interesting place!

We drove on out to one of the open cut mines.  Here we let the boys dig around in a wheelbarrow that had some of the rocks from the mine.  You pour water over the rock and make sure you aren't blocking the sunlight, then look for any glimmers.  The boys filled a small bag full of bits of opals.  Probably wasn't worth more than what we paid to do it, but they had a great time doing it!

Digging with daddy

Look mum, it's an opal!

We drove out on another car door tour to the site of the first mine in Lightning Ridge.  All that's there is a plaque and heaps of piles of debris from old mine shafts.  On our way out, we drove past lots of claims.  Here is a picture of a typical set-up.

Can't even fathom..

And now onto some quirkiness.  Here is a picture of the Astronomer's Monument.  It is built by "Polish Alex" on his mining claim because - well, why not?  You can't actual tour it, lest you are shot at by Polish Alex.  The dome on top does not open and apparently he never owned a telescope...

He used plastic buckets to shape things, just like building a sand castle!

Next up is Amigo's Castle.  Amigo has spent 25 years building his castle.  He has no running water or electricity, but he has 13 cats that we counted.  He drives around finding stone to add on to his building.    The best part - he doesn't actually own the land, he's squatting on it!

Will is watching some cats play

This is a building built out of beer cans - mostly Toohey's Draught, if any Aussies are wondering.  There was a big sign saying not to go inside, as it's someone's home.  Of course it is!

Seriously, someone live here

And here we are going into another mine.  I can't believe how fascinated the boys were with learning about mines and opals.  They can even rattle off how the opals were formed.  Basically, this part of Australia used to be a sea.  Salt water seeped in through cracks in the limestone, catching silica on it's way down.  The water dried up after being under pressure, and an opal was formed.  Red on black opals are the most expensive, as they are the rarest.  I tend to like the blue/green shades of the black opals.  The boys were sure that every splash of red was going to make them rich.  Nothing like explaining to your child that it's simply a red rock, not worth anything!  And never let your child pick your hardhat.  I had a new nickname for the rest of the trip...

They still are calling my Boff and giggling hysterically.
They're lucky I love them.

After some time down in the mine, we let the boys try their hands at fossicking.  Wills had a great time, while Nath quickly became frustrated when he found nothing and decided to quit.  That says all you need to know about my two kiddos!

Digging in the heap

Using the sieve to get rid of the dirt

Anything in there?

Since this has been a massive post, I'll stop with us leaving Lightning Ridge and save our trip back home for tomorrow.  I hope I've given a decent peek into what the town was like.  It was an interesting place to visit and I'm glad we did.  We had a great time there and I am now the owner of two solid opal pendants that my very generous husband bought for our anniversary and my birthday.  

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