Lightening Ridge, Opal Mining

A week away with friends at Grawin

We are spending this extended long weekend with some of our friends from the astronomical crowd. We have all journeyed to Northern NSW to visit Frances and Brett who own mines at Grawin, west of Lightening Ridge. On the way is certainly interesting landscape. Lengthy flat roads , bright yellow canola fields ,the wide expanses of farmlands splattered by trees and red clay areas. Hills in the distances and quaint country towns to break the silence and stop for coffee or lunch. It is somewhat sad but thought provoking to see the uninhabited homesteads left to ruin. So many stories left to our imagination. The once vibrant shops now empty and forlorn. We are pleasantly surprised that the grounds show signs of recent rain and green pastures increasing. Lands that were surely brown a few months back. 

Friday night we all arrived at the Opal caravan park. we had booked a small cabin on line and were really happy to see it was in very good condition, clean and comfortable. With some friends already there our first night started with wine and cheese moved onto a makeshift barbecue dinner with whatever we had to contribute and lots of catch up conversation. We all chatted about the varying routes we took to get here and relaxed under the perfect serene country dark sky. A good clear night sky is always a priority for this group.

The following morning we headed to Grawin Opal fields to experience life as an opal miner. Certainly a new experience for us. The drive there is pleasant with a few homesteads dotting the countryside, some native flora and fauna along the way. The small quaint town of Cumborah with a population of roughly 500 indicates we are close to our destination. Driving a little further on bitumen we get to a dirt road to our left. Our first amusement came with the sign for the golf course. Advising us to be wary of flying golf balls.There were no green pastures, no buggies or men in golf shirts. We had trees, bushes, dirt and rickety signs depicting which hole you were on. We thought it was a bit of humour but in fact it is an active used golf course. Next we were to find our meeting place.There are no streets to speak of in Grawin and no Macca’s for direction so our friends told us to meet at the local, the Club in the Scrub, and they would direct us from there. I will fill you in on this unique abode when we come back for lunch.

Once everyone had arrived and we had used the pubs facilities we got back in our vehicles to follow our hosts. They were wise with this decision as we would never have found their dwelling. The first thing that strikes you as unexpected is the multitude of inhabitants scattered all over the area in makeshift dwellings, partially built homes, sheds and wrought iron buildings. We are surrounded with much corrugated iron, rock mounds, trucks, rusted out cars and abandoned mine shafts. We arrive at their humble home for a cold drink and some nibbles. Outside their home is no different to the others, it is iron and wood and whatever else is available. Inside we are greeted with a very cool, quirky comfortable kitchen with a mixture of old and new. A beautiful old ceramic /iron stove complete with cast iron pots and special iron heat fans for warming the air on the cold winter nights, Separate comfortable bedroom and a work in progress shower recess. Living room with flat screen, wifi and a working Hot tub in progress. All the comfort you need after a hard day down the mines or noodling for those elusive opals in the hot day sun. Brett has built a very unique astronomical observatory on the top of one of those rock piles. He is a miner but also an astronomer and the clear black skies and the absence of suburban street lights allows him the luxury of doing what he loves after a day of hard labour. Frances then takes us outdoors to explain and to try our hand at noodling. This is the process of searching, selecting and washing the rocks with the express hope of finding glittering colour amongst the white mounds we are surrounded by. You are hooked immediately. It is fun, scrounging through buckets of rocks looking for those shiny sparkles which catch your eye, then rinsing them off to see what you have discovered. A very mindful exercise which takes you away from the continued jumbled thoughts which tend to crowd our heads daily. The quiet achiever comes to the surface as you strive to be the one who makes the discovery. Is this my lucky day! They provided us with little jars so we could take home our findings. I have put my in a cupboard of treasures and each time I notice it, I am reminded of this trip.

It is time for lunch so we head back to the starting point for a mean hamburger and a cool drink. The club is a work of art with gregarious structures and subtle sprinkles of outback humour. Numerous historical photographs and stories scattered throughout. It is worn, it is old and the walls reek of stories of the past. Outside there is a pleasant beer garden, and further afar a large cactus garden to wander through. Your imagination goes to the miners after sweltering in the days heat or isolated in the depths of the mines eagerly joining their friends for a cold beer and a hearty laugh to bring them back to normality. A couple of handwritten signs on the trees leaving the car park of the club caught my attention as I felt they depicted the true blue Aussie spirit.

After relaxing in the beer lounge we headed to see our friends underground mine. Major decision time now, who will go down the mine shaft into the deep dark depths of the earth. This is not an organised tour when you know all is safe and its all been commercialised for your enjoyment. It is a hole in the ground with a ladder and darkness beyond. Having said this we all trusted Brett explicitly and knew he would not take us down unless it was safe. We get to see down the shaft to decide if we are to venture further. Of the 11 of us only 3 were brave or keen enough to descend the ladder into the deep pit of the unknown. We watched the hard hats of the brave disappear and wandered off to explore a little, finally retreating to a shaded area to wait their demise. No dramas here everyone returned safely with awe in their eyes. A great experience gained from their braveness. A little regret from others that they had not taken the plunge.A guided tour by our hosts took us for a visit to the war museum which had much memorabilia of the war years, surrounded by pleasant natural landscape and a large memorial site. We then saw the huge nobbies (soft greyish claystone often referred to as opal dirt) another 2 pub visits at which one I eagerly downed on the the few glasses of Beer I have had in my life due to the intensity of the dry heat surrounding us. After experiencing the entire area of the opal fields we returned back to collect our cars and head back to Lightening Ridge. We finished the night with another light makeshift dinner and plenty of beer and wine and very tired but cheerful conversation. 

Visiting the mine was the purpose and the highlight of our trip, however Lightening Ridge and the surrounding areas have a lot more to offer. There are self drive tours or walks aptly named the Car Door Tours. Each one is clearly highlighted with an old car door resting on a tree, painted in a specific colour showing you the direction to go. They all have their own unique specialties worth seeing. The town itself is full of miscellaneous shops displaying and selling a huge range of differing artifacts and many beautiful Opals. The John Murray Art Gallery is worth a visit with many stunning prints to help lighten your wallet. We were lucky to dine in a lovely local restaurant called Piccolo’s, where the food, wine and service was fantastic and reasonably overpriced. I would highly recommend it and would suggest you book early. There is also an RSL and other cafes and restaurants. On the Sunday there was market selling opals mined by locals and turned into stunning pieces for the keen eye. We are not people who spend on souvenirs when we travel. We will often buy one thing of value if we really like what we see. We both like opals and therefore checked out the markets just in case. Needless to say with the guided hand of our hosts who told us what to look for and who to buy from a couple of us are now proud owners of some stunning jewellery. Last but certainly not least is the Artesian Bore Baths. We were able to sample this on our 3rd night if I remember correctly. We did not venture down the very short walk until late in the evening. Around 10 we arrived and it was quite busy. A long line saw us sobering up while we patiently waited our turn. It was during the early stage of covid restrictions and only so many people allowed in at a time. Around the time we were discussing whether to go back and try another time a whisper came down the ranks that all would be good at 11pm. This was when those managing the restrictions clocked off and went home. No more restrictions, we were now happy. The water was absolutely beautiful, hot and yet refreshing. It was clean with fresh showers available once one decided the body was sufficiently pruned enough to alight. With our bodies now soothed and our heads a little clearer we slowly walked back to our cabins and heavily crashed into blissful sleep for the night.

On our last day a few of us returned to Grawin for an impromtu barbecue with our friends. An event was planned which we felt we could not miss. A new hole was being escavated, not for another opal mine but for something much more important. A huge, deep hole to house the sleeve for the exciting new outdoor toilet. One has to appreciate the difficulties incurred for this to happen. A simple facility we all take for granted in the modern world. Brett and Frances were ecstatic with the nearing possibility of having a decent, functioning dunny close to the homestead. We all look forward to our next trip to Northern NSW to try out this life changing facility. Hope you enjoyed this journey and welcome your comments below.

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