We found this large N.S.W. country town far more attractive than its name.
Situated approximately midway between Melbourne and Brisbane, Dubbo has
a population of forty thousand. Though the caravan park was very nice,
we only planned to stay six days before travelling on north to Lightning
Ridge which would bring us back onto our ten-month schedule. Ross and
Jan were travelling west so we didn't know when our paths would cross
One of the first things we were told on arriving in Dubbo was that the Burrendong Dam, which supplied the town's water, was down to 2% of its capacity. Frankly, I found this difficult to believe, especially as nobody seemed overly concerned. We drove out to the dam, which is near the town of Wellington, to see for ourselves. This is what we found:
The Burrendong Dam's capacity is 1,677,000 megalitres - that's a big reservoir - and its catchment
area is nearly 14,000 square kilometres. But what use is a catchment area
that size if there's no rainfall to catch?
Dubbo is renowned for its zoo and its old gaol, both 'must see' attractions. We visited the gaol first and found it well worthwhile. Some of the old buildings date back to 1847 and care has been taken to retain the atmosphere of the prison where eight men were hanged between 1877 and 1904. One of those was Thomas Moore; he was hanged in 1897. In the gaol's condemned cell sits the figure of Thomas Moore. When you approach the bars of his cell, he tells you his story.
Dubbo's Western Plains Zoo was also well worth a visit. All the animals were in large enclosures where they could roam at will. We did not see one animal behind bars, not even this magnificent creature.
The zoo was so large that it was better to drive around, parking the car at strategic places to see the animals. Each admission ticket is valid for two days. To see everything in the zoo would take both of those days. The animals all looked clean, healthy and content. The Western Plains Zoo is reputed to be the best in Australia; it is certainly a far cry from the zoos of old where animals paced back and forth in small cages - these enclosures were vast.
We left Dubbo at nine o'clock one Sunday morning. We've taken to travelling
on the Sabbath as there are fewer heavy trucks on the road. Not that they
are a problem, we are the problem. We plod along at around 90
k.p.h. with the rest of our lives at our disposal. For the truckies, time
is money and they don't hang around. We've found that the best way to
assist them to pass us is to spot them early when they are still some
distance behind, then look for somewhere to pull over so the trucks don't
need to slow down. They have a difficult enough job keeping to their schedules
without the frustration of getting stuck behind a caravan. Most of them
show their appreciation as they pass.
Despite travelling on a Sunday we still encountered quite a lot of trucks until we'd passed through Gilgandra; after that there was almost nothing on the road. We came upon a herd of cattle making use of 'the long paddock'. For our Brit readers, God bless 'em, 'the long paddock' is the term used for the wide, grassy road verges that offer sheep and cattle grass to eat when all their grazing paddocks have been eaten bare and the drought has prevented fresh grass from growing. These particular cattle were virtually unsupervised, grazing along both verges and wandering across the road at will. We had to slow to a snail's pace for about a kilometre before we were clear of them. Later we came across flocks of sheep, also wandering the verges. One was lying dead in the road, the crows making the most of the unexpected feast. As we passed, the accountant in Pam murmured,
Tax deduction for the farmer.
Several times we came across emus. One panicked at our approach and, running full tilt from the road, crashed heavily into a wire fence, then fought to get through it. There were feathers flying everywhere but the best thing we could do was keep going and let it settle. Had we tried to untangle it we'd only have panicked it more.
The 358 kilometre journey was almost entirely along straight, quiet country roads across wide, flat countryside under a warm sunny sky. Had the road surface been good it would have been a dream trip. However, the road was anything but good; it had us bouncing the whole time. Frequently the edge of the bitumen had broken away leaving jagged, sharp steps. When we arrived in Lightning Ridge we found that our television had fallen from its shelf, swung for a while on the end of its cables, then dropped, luckily onto the settee. Apart from a couple of scratches it seemed none the worse for wear.
The Ridge, as it is called, is about as different
to Canberra, as is possible to be. It's a typical outback Australian town
- no frills, no ornamental lakes, no fountains or gardens, but lots of
warm, friendly people. It's an opal mining town though different from
Andamooka and Coober Pedy (see page 6) in that the ground beneath the
town is all 'mined out'. Consequently, all the shacks, piles of dirt,
rusty equipment and bore holes have gone from the town area but are still
to be found aplenty around the fringes where the 'hobby miners' come in
the cooler weather to try their luck. The true professional miners are
now working a new opal field about 20 km out of town.
The ridge itself is just a gentle rise on the vast surrounding plain. Its apparent attraction to lightning is attributed to its high iron content and there is a story about a shepherd, his dog and many sheep being killed by one strike.
The caravan park was completely relaxed. As always there were rules, but they merely consisted of:
Hey, we could manage those
with no difficulty. Better still, there were no water restrictions and
no keys or codes required for the toilet doors. The first morning I went
for a shower at the civilised hour of eleven o'clock to find the cleaner,
who should have been long gone, just starting. No problem, she cleaned
one of the showers quickly then I showered while she carried on with the
We then went for a drive around the town - Pam and I, not the toilet cleaner - and the first place of interest we found was 'Father' Cooper's Cottage . . .
Bert Cooper (1907 - 2003)
was one of Lightning Ridge's earliest inhabitants. He wasn't a churchman,
he was known as 'Father' Cooper because his wife, Toots, always called
him that, so Father he became to one and all. He was a shearer by trade
but went opal mining for pocket money.
When we stopped at a café for a caffeine fix, the proprietor told us what a safe town The Ridge is; a lone woman can walk the streets at night without a worry. This was very much at variance with a news report we'd heard just that morning. An 80-year-old woman had been severely beaten in the town and her campervan set ablaze, according to the radio. The café owner laughed when we told her. She knew the woman concerned and she'd seen the so-called victim in the bank that morning without a mark on her. That woman, she told us, is completely loopy and capable of anything. She described how the woman had broken up a social group in the town by falling in love with the group's secretary and pursuing her (yes, her) around the town with a wedding dress, wanting to marry her. In the end the poor secretary had to ask the police to restrain her, but the group had broken up and never re-formed.
We quickly found a rule-of-thumb to tell the visitors from the residents. The visitors were the ones not driving a beat-up white ute.
'Ute' is an abbreviation for 'utility vehicle', dear Brits. You used to call them pick-up trucks, perhaps you still do. Aussies are very fond of their utes. In country towns, utes are frequently seen with a barking brown dog riding on the tray.
As we sat outside a café on the main street, I compared the number of white utes that passed us with all other colours and types of vehicle of similar size. Over a third were white utes, some with brown dogs. We also noticed that every second building was something to do with opals, whether cutting and polishing them, buying them or selling them. There was a recent story in the press that two visitors had found a rock containing two opals valued at $25,000. Fact or fiction? Who knows. The locals back the story but in their version the opals' value was $20,000. The story certainly wouldn't hurt their tourist trade.
We called at the local museum which is housed in a building similar to Father Cooper's (pictured above). It was quite interesting but the item that caught my eye was a home made washing machine that I found out at the back. It wasn't ideally placed for a photograph but I did my best.
The drum of the washing machine is a plastic
bin, lid screwed on and a hole cut in the middle.
The bin is supported on two rollers and its base is bolted to the cutter
disc of a lawn mower.
A large (orange) pulley attached to the top of the mower's engine is driven
by a motor via a belt.
The motor, actually a 12 volt truck dynamo, spins when a battery is connected.
The lawn mower
engine does nothing other than attach the big pulley to the bin. Inside
the bin is a wooden baffle
to tumble the clothes. When idle, the disc cut from the bin lid is replaced
to keep out the frogs.
There was a notice in the museum which read,
SPECKING IS RATTING. Uhh? I asked the
museum attendant and was told ratting is taking advantage of a miner's
hard work digging down to the opal by descending the mine in his absence
and taking some. Specking is spotting an opal in a mine's tailings and
taking it. Everywhere in Lightning Ridge, the attendant told
me, I should constantly have my eyes on the ground, looking for
anything that flashes in the sunlight. With his words still fresh in my
mind, we set off along the footpath of the main street, my eyes scanning
the verge and gutter. Sure enough, wherever I looked I saw flashes of
light, thousands of them. Every one a sliver of broken bottle.
Changing the subject for a moment, I hate to complain about my beloved spouse, especially in this forum, but since we stayed at Emu Park last year she has become an avid collector of the ring-pulls from beverage cans. This is for charity and, as such, is to be applauded. However, it can be taken to extremes and, when we are out about the town, I find it mildly embarrassing to find Pam, bum up, with her head in a rubbish bin, pulling ring-pulls from discarded drink cans. Additionally, as we walk through this opal town it can be quite disquieting when Pam suddenly pounces upon something in the gutter, quickly pushing it into her pocket. Everyone's first thought must be 'opal', but Pam has just found another ring-pull, value about one tenth of a cent.
The caravan park at which we stayed is owned by the Lightning Ridge Hotel Motel. At the end of our first day we returned to the hotel's bar which is only fifty metres from our door. It seemed only sociable to call in and say hello. Sadly the place lacked atmosphere but we tested the product and it seemed okay. To be quite sure we tested it again, then we went home.
Next day we joined three other people on a Black Opal Tour tour of the area. Our guide-cum-driver was a lady of American origin who, I think, must have run on Duracell batteries; she never paused for breath! The first place she took us was to see a typical miner's claim. The miner had died and the tourist people bought the worked-out claim and preserved it as it was. Believe me, it wasn't dissimilar to many of the 'active' claims that we saw while on the tour.
Most of the mines consisted of a hole in the ground of about one metre diameter with some sort of winch rigged above it to haul up buckets of dirt. Some ingenious miners had rigs which could haul up a bucket of dirt, tip it, then drop the empty bucket back down while they remained underground. The advantage was that one man could operate the mine without repeatedly climbing to the surface.
A simple bucket-emptying contraption. The
square bucket comes up out of the hole on the rails,
and up the ramp, pulled by a cable winding onto a motor driven drum. When
the bucket reaches
the top it pushes on two levers which begin to compress a large spring.
The bucket tips forward,
spilling its contents. At the same time one of the levers pulls on a wire
attached to the motor
switch. With the motor now off and the bucket empty, the spring pushes
the bucket backwards
onto the ramp and gravity pulls it back down the ramp and on down the
hole. To repeat the
process the miner pulls on a second wire which runs down to him from the
To wash the ore, quite a few miners had acquired the huge concrete mixer barrels usually seen slowly rotating on the back of trucks. Rotate one way and the water in the barrel churns around, washing all the clay off the rocks; rotate the other way and the sludge tips out to be rinsed and minutely examined for likely looking stones. In Lightning Ridge, necessity is very much the mother of invention.
And here, I must end Page 47. Our tour of Lightning Ridge continues on Page 48. You know what to do.
Footnote: This re-working of Page 47 was completed on 11 May 2013. It conforms to HTML5 and CSS level 3.