BACK OF BOURKE AND BACk
In late August, after attending our granddaughters christening, we headed North on our great adventure and thanks to timely advice from Des McKiernan it was a great success.
Going North from Dubbo we discovered the new tourist office on the highway at Gilgandra, the centre has excellent displays of aboriginal artifacts, shells, fossils, rocks and minerals and some local historical items, entry by donation and you can have a cup of freshly ground coffee for $2, which makes it an enjoyable experience.
We reached Lightning Ridge that day and after settling into our cabin at the caravan park we booked a tour of the local opal fields. Our guide, a widely travelled American lady name Barbara, was astounding, from the moment we got onto to small bus she gave us a non stop commentary on the fields, sights, conditions, local characters, stops to view a large abandoned open cut mine, entry to an underground mine with a cinema for viewing a video on the history of Lightning Ridge, an incomplete concrete multi story building constructed by an eccentric miner with a fascination for astronomy and a man's “castle”, a tessellated house with tower. The story goes that he wanted a wife, his mates told him that he would need a house first, after 20 years he has his castle but no wife. The tour was broken by a pleasant afternoon tea stop of cream and jam scones and a drink outside a train carriage opal shop.
Then it rained all night, registering 38mm, the sun was out in the morning but our car was surrounded by water, which put a “damper” on our proposed prospecting for the day, however, it gave us a chance to explore the town. The town of well laid out residential areas, is serviced by a wide variety of shops including a very large new IGA supermarket, the prices of most items was comparable to city prices. Next to the local tourist office is an official fossicking area, consisting of a regularly topped up mound and once you get your eye in you will find small samples of colour, one lady we came across regularly spends hours on the heaps as there is no fossicking allowed on the field unless permission is given by the claim holder.
The following day the sun came out and as the ground had mostly dried out we set off to Grawin, an area of extensive opal mining activities. The settlement consists of a scattering of houses, a general store where the necessary mud map can be bought and free advice from Maureen, in the centre of all this is the public toilet , a typical Aussie corrugated tin dunny with a 180 degree view because the door is lying on the ground and, as I found out, you need someone to hold it in place otherwise you can have a face to face conversation with the local populace. The mud map directed us to the two huge mine dumps where local miners are required to dump all their mines debris and fossickers are allowed to noodle. While there, six loads were dumped, in the first we found a lot of potch, in four others there was nothing and in the sixth we found some nice specimens, as they say, the excitement was electric.
Back at Lightning Ridge, after a hard day of fossicking, what better way to relax and unwind than a relaxing dip in the towns large round artesian pool. The pool temperature is around a constant 40 degrees centigrade, there is no charge, good change rooms and what was strange that other users were just sitting in the water around its edge, popping in and about to do some serious lap work I noticed the list of “don't doo's “ which included the warning that you must not immerse yourself below shoulder height, there must be some nasty stuff in the water. However, it is a very social gathering and there wasn't a single word of English being spoken, it just goes to show the diversity of local populace.
We dropped into the local motel/book shop, the shop has a large range of rocks, minerals and opals for sale as well as a huge number of related books. The owners own a mine and they state that in 5 years of mining they recovered a total of $15,000 in opals. The rule of thumb is that 10% of miners will find opal, 10% of these will make a living, 10% of these will strike it rich, the question that arises is how do the unsuccessful miners survive, perhaps noodling at Grawin?
Our last day there was a Sunday and as luck would have it, it was also the local monthly market day. Most of the stall holders had opals for sale, the quality was generally very poor and one dealer was quick to halve the list price of displayed stock. On the edge of town is the “Kangaroo Hill Tourist Complex”, consisting of a personal display of the family's antique heirlooms, shells, fossils, bottles and an extensive rock and mineral display including a portion of the Murchison Meteorite, which consists of a rare material, found by the owners of the museum and originally weighting several kilograms. We had an enthralling detailed tour of the display by the lady of the house, she and her husband opened the first rock shop in Australia in Shepparton. We were given free reign over their mullock heap collecting a lot of small pieces of colour, in addition the kind lady gave us some freshly laid eggs.
After an evening stop over at Bourke with its lovely old buildings and flowing Barwon/Darling River, we headed off to White Cliffs. Passing through Cobar, a town with a mining history, the local museum/tourist office has a good display but unfortunately we had no time to go and see the local mines at work, maybe next time.
White Cliffs is the epitome of an outback mining town with the minimum of services and you wonder where everybody is. Only Biofuel is available and cheaper than unleaded so it is best to get fuel at Wilcannia and only at the BP depot. We stayed at the underground motel, a bit of an indulgence but great accommodation, meals were good but check out the towns only general store for variety and price, we had a lovely fishermen's basket for $16 each. The motel has a beautiful alluring pool, and after a hot day fossicking we headed for a dip only to find that the water is actually ice cold all year round. Visit the closed experiment in solar power on the edge of town, it consists of a large number of disks set with thousands of tiny mirrors which reflected the suns rays, truly fascinating. Mining methods here are totally different to Lightning Ridge, instead of a central shaft numerous shallow shafts are dug on each claim resulting in the familiar moon scape. There is one open cut mine known for the recovery of the famous opal pineapples, that resemble a spiked tennis ball hopefully of solid opal, the owner of the mine showed us some examples and numerous photos of previous finds, they absolutely fabulous.
Fossickers are allowed to noodle anywhere you like provided that the claim isn't being worked. Specimens are very difficult to find, however, try the local dry creek, particularly after rain or find the old mining sites. There is always the local dealers, particularly Top Level Opals and Mining, located on the same hill as our motel, where they have a great rock and mineral display and Donna-Lee is extremely friendly and helpful, the opals they sell are from their own mine and she insists on a tradition of giving you a warm hug if you purchase anything. As an aside, when we drove the 70Kms from Wilcannia to White Cliffs we came across two dead kangaroos, on our return two days later there were at least 20 fresh intact carcases, either there was a mass suicide of kangaroos and a lot of damaged vehicles or the local lads were a bit bored.
Both in Lightning Ridge and White Cliffs we found many friendly and interesting people who are ready to share their experiences and advice.
The drive from Lightning Ridge to Broken Hill, although a long distance between major towns was far from boring, the views and landscape was continually changing and spectacular, there are regular shaded road side stops with clean toilet facilities, a welcome break and a chat with like minded travellers. There are many emus, kangaroos and over friendly colourful feral goats.
Broken Hill, an oasis in an otherwise bland landscape. The city has many beautiful buildings, in particular the 1898 Trades Hall with its dramatic exterior, ornate pressed tin ceilings and cornices, timber staircase and stained glass windows. A walk down Argent Street is a visual delight. The Geocentre is a must as it has a magnificent display of local rocks and minerals with video and hands on experiences, the centre pieces are a solid silver nugget of 42Kgs. and the Silver Tree of 8.5Kgs. The new Art Gallery in Argent St. has a limited but lovely displayed works of old art and by the famous local artists. A very large art/craft/chocolate shop called the Silver City Mint & Art Centre, in Chloride St. has a wonderful variety of among other things, rocks, minerals and opals for sale, we managed to avoid the chocolates. At the railway/mineral/emigrant museum, you have the chance to clamber over steam engines, carriages, view the migrant development of Broken Hill and the great rock/mineral displays, the beryl specimens on display are huge, at the ticket office specimens of local minerals are for sale, but we resisted any purchases.We managed to locate Trevor Dart, the son of two generations of miners and a local geology teacher and founder of the local Mineral Collectors Club, an incredibly generous understanding person with a mine of information on local mining and history. He kindly offered to take us to a number of old mine sites to fossick for mineral specimens. With his help the following was found:
Kearn's Quarry - Translucent Beryl
- Pink Orthoclase - Feldspar
- Muscovite – Mica
Second To None Mine - Almandine Crystals– Garnet in Amphibolite
- Gahnite Crystals – Spinel rich in Zinc
Nine Mile South Mine – Plumbian Orthoclase – Translucent Green Feldspar
Thackaringa.- Kyanite Crystals– Blue Aluminiun Silicate
In addition there were a number of other rocks and minerals found at these sites that just begged to be picked up including some stirling silver at Thackaringa in the form of a 1939 threepence in good order.
A visit to Silverton is a must, whether you just like rustic old buildings or a picnic at the local reservoir set in a picturesque rocky gorge, but beware of the mob of horses straying along the road. The famous Peter Browne Gallery is still there but now has two emu decorated VW's, the owners of the cafe on the hill have a great display of bottles and beautifully restored dolls dug up from the local tip. Being a hot day pop into the local pub, featured in a Mad Max film and admire how someone has managed to make old beer cans fly. There is of course the local rock shop but the piece de resistance is the old Jail. You are met with a beautiful display of flame red Sturt Desert Pea plants growing outside the front door and inside is one of the best displays of items we have seen in Australian Museums, every room and cell has dedicated displays including rocks and minerals, a magnificent solid silver reproduction of a Broken Hill working mine showing activity both above and below ground. larger items, particularly of a mining nature are outside, give yourself plenty of time to do the viewing justice.
We returned home via Mildura and visited Mungo National Park, a rough road, take it easy as it is well worthy of a visit. The visitors centre has very interesting displays relating to the geographical, geological and human history of the area. The restored old rough hewn timber woolshed is impressive, of course the erosion of the sandstone rim of the lake producing stark pinnacles against the blue sky is impressive, there is a one way 70Kms drive around the far end of the lake, do it, as the topography, flora and fauna discoveries makes it all worthwhile.
Home and its taken me a week to wash and sort all the specimens, with all our photos and memories of persons met the trip has left us with wonderful lasting impressions.