A real gem of a place

Rare black opal is the lifeblood of Lightning Ridge, 770 kilometres north west of Sydney on the edge of the Outback. Wrenched from deep within the earth, cut and polished, it produces gems of shimmering, intense, varied colour. Some opals rarely go on sale. “Dad found this in the 1970s and wants to be buried with it,” said one Ridge miner about a truly spectacular stone, then added with a chuckle, “but I’ll dig it up soon afterwards!”

Opal is classified black, dark or light according to underlying body colour. Molecular structure and alignment determines the variety of hue. For miners, “colour is money”. Red is the rarest, violet the most common. Translucent opal of just one colour, called potch, is discarded.

Brilliantly-coloured black opals are the most valuable and Lightning Ridge produces more than anywhere else in the world. The finest are breathtaking, displaying a supernova of fiery red, flaming orange, deep sea green and inky blue, a radiant universe captured within stones the size of a thumbnail.

Such top quality stones explain the irresistible allure that turns certain people into moles, condemning them to long periods underground, carving out chambers the size of ballrooms in the pursuit of a personal holy grail.

Gem-bearing nuggets are called nobbies. Opal is also found in narrow seams. Hoisted to the surface the freshly dug sandstone and clay is washed in an agitator – the “barrel of dreams” – to release its hidden treasures.

Fortune rarely comes easily. Successful opal mining is hard toil driven by hope, extensive patience, unwearying effort and plenty of luck.

Peter Sherman, a third generation field miner and buyer whose grandfather Ernie started digging in 1896, enthusiastically shared his passion for the business. “Black opal is the most beautiful stone on the planet because of its depth and colour change and the Ridge is its home, a unique gem in a unique place.”

Opal can be all things to all people. “Opal is emotive, like art,” said Sherman. ‚ÄúSome people prefer red, others green or blue. Unless you’re buying specifically for investment the rule is to buy with your heart, buy what you like.”

Opal is truly seductive. Many miners tell an identical tale. They initially came to Lightning Ridge as tourists but have stayed for years. Usually this means they return each year to dig but escape to the coast during summer’s hottest months when temperatures of 50C or more broil the land.

Some have followed this routine for 30 years yet are still considered “six-monthers”, not true blue locals. That honour is reserved for the hardy, resolute few who mine year-round.

Danny Hatcher’s one such person. The youthful, energetic president of the Lightning Ridge Miners Association says 6000 people have done the mandatory opal mining safety course to date, but the association lists just 600 members.

Hard data on the Ridge is rare. The very nature of the place is as elusive as finding gems. Some 50 nationalities are believed to be in town. A great deal more people collect mail at the local post office than appear on the census. Without a trace of irony a buyer from Perth tells me “there’s a whole lot going on here under the surface”.

Black opal is a cash economy estimated to be worth about $45 million a year. But who really knows? No accurate records are kept but I’m told the local bank has the biggest stash of cash in the country at times. While there are opal millionaires there’s absolutely nothing flash about Lightning Ridge.

Vehicles on the opal fields are all candidates for the scrapyard. Miner’s “camps” are beaten-up caravans or shanties. Displaying wealth only signals you’ve struck it rich, making your mine a target for “ratters”.

A stranger’s presence registers instantly with the elusive inhabitants of the Coocoran, The Grawin and Glengarry, a trio of dusty opal fields an hour’s distance from town. Dirt-smeared fellows with matted hair and long, scraggly beards peer from behind trees then disappear.

A main concern, I’m told, is the tax man, which helps explain the rigorous preference for such superannuated equipment and housing. And woe betide anyone foolish enough to tramp over a 50m x 50m claim. This is macho country, Territorial possession is fiercely guarded.

Lightning Ridge’s gritty “wild west” disposition is its key appeal to visitors, who find the town as fascinating as the gems on which its fortunes lie. A rich seam of eccentricity running through the population provides much vivid local colour.

A man simply called Amigo has built a castle of ironstone boulders all by himself, a labour of many years. Underneath it, this quiet Italian has dug a maze of tunnels but not in search of opal, simply because he likes digging.

Miner Ron Conlin carves out underground sculptures with his jackhammer, filling seven chambers with subjects ranging from the Last Supper to the Simpsons.

The Black Queen cottages have walls built using 14,000 empty bottles and cans recycled from local pubs by teetotaler Joan Andrews, who has since gone travelling the world. The current owners have added their fabulous collection of kerosene lamps.

Other local attractions include touring routes marked by painted car doors, a walk-in mine, artist John Murray’s gallery, an Easter rodeo with goat races and the bore baths on the edge of town, where you can wallow in hot artesian waters under a full moon.

Visitors can try their luck beside the local information centre, picking through a heap of discarded dirt from the mines. You might think this futile until you hear about Mary and John from the NSW South Coast who, in April, found a 14.2 carat opal worth $24,000.

Sometimes you don’t even need to search. Peter Sherman tells the tale of the American tourist who picked up a nobbie that rolled off a passing truck in the main street. It paid for his entire Australian holiday!

Opal is Australia’s national gemstone and black opal may soon be declared NSW’s gemstone, which would delight all involved in the annual Lightning Ridge Opal Festival.

Every two years this event includes the International Opal Jewellery Design Awards, as it did in July. The judges were Texan lapidarist Dalan Hargrave, gemologist and writer Gary Roskin from Philadelphia and local opal cutter and assessor Michelle Schellnegger.

Show stalls spilled beyond the local Bowling Club into the street. Brisk trade was done in raw rock, semiprecious stones and bejeweled accessories. The design award winners were displayed upstairs at the IOJDA trade show, where opal buyers mingled with miners.

The grand prize went to a pendant of white gold with two black opals framed by pink sapphires and yellow diamonds created by Vicki Rodd of Sydney, who also won the professional ring category.

The proposed $8 million Australian Opal Centre, designed by architects Glen Murcutt and Wendy Lewin to house the country’s premium collection of the national gemstone, could well boost the town’s fortunes – like the Stockman’s Hall of Fame did for Longreach. Construction could begin within a year.