Open plains and big skies, that sums up the trip west from Toowoomba to Lightning Ridge, endless rolling plains, much of it under cotton. One of the great beauties of the west is the endless open plains and big skies.
Lightning Ridge is largely defined by opal mining but despite the dreams of exceptional gems and big payouts the reality is opal mining in Lightning Ridge can be a pretty frustrating business with most miners scrapping by at best. I suspect the days of big finds in Lightning Ridge itself, may be over but that does not detract from the town as a place worth visiting or from the continued search for the black opal. The Ridge is the world’s principal source of the sought after black opal, a dramatic gem that weaves a bit of a spell over enthusiasts and miners alike.
It is the history of opal mining that gives Lightning Ridge it’s character and identity, there is still a bit of a sense of the wild west about Lightning Ridge, although creature comforts abound. I think I had the best coffee I have ever had at Morillas Cafe and that is saying something, better even than Melbourne coffee. The Ridge is free of generic fast food joints but does have a couple of great cafes and an independent supermarket so it is not as if you are ever going to have do with out any of the usual comforts. And it was nice to experience a town free of McDonalds and KFC. There is nothing generic about Lightning Ridge. It is very much a town carved out of its independent, self sufficient history.
That history gives the town a rustic aesthetic that is quite beautiful. The surrounding ridges where mining has or is taking place are also quite beautiful with stark landscapes of rock and dirt in pastel tones of grey of brown. It is a strangely beautiful place and the Three mile epitomises the Lightning ridge experience with it’s scarred open cut on lunatic hill and the dusty landscapes with scatterings of mulga, warrior bush and salt bush.
That independent aesthetic is carried on in the local art traditions, of which the Ridge has an abundance. What does an opal miner do when the opal is elusive and he has a vast level of sandstone on top of his opal layer? In the case of Ron Canlin he picks up his lunch utensils and starts to scratch out carvings in the soft sandstone. With no training and no guidance Ron ended up creating a vast underground gallery of startling carvings, I suspect he probably makes more money from tours of his Chambers of the Black hand than he makes from the opal he finds. This remarkable, organic art work is a must see experience, it combines information about opal mining with what is an inspiring experience.
With just an old bone handled butter knife, a fork and time on his hands Ron Canlin created this:
You travel about forty feet under ground to reach the gallery level, 84 stairs. Despite being under ground and confined it is a surprisingly comfortable experience, the area felt well ventilated and even though the space was confined it did not feel in anyway unsafe.
There is also an opal shop on the level so if you are in the market for some of the magic rock you might just find what you are looking for. Oh and complimentary tea and coffee.
In many ways Ron Canlin and the Chambers of the Black Hand epitomises the character of the ridge. It is the kind of place where creative problem solving is more than an abstract concept, it is a way of life. Another manifestation of Lightning Ridge ingenuity can be found in the story of Eric Catterall a miner who had lost the use of his legs due to childhood polio, he had a problem that needed a solution so he developed an early version of the motorised drum hoist to get both dirt up from the mine and himself. This is a place where people see solutions, not problems.
Art ,creativity and humour is everywhere in the Ridge which we will show in the next post.