Lightning Ridge – Finch County, NSW AUSTRALIA

Lightning Ridge is a series  of sandstone ridges and home of the beautiful black opal.   Lightning Ridge got it’s name when in a huge thunder storm, lighting  struck a sheep herder and his flock of over 600 sheep and killing them all. Since this happened on the series of ridges overlooking the land, the locals named it “ Lightning Ridge “. That was back in 1860,  and it was shortly thereafter that opal was discovered there.  it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that  a miner pegged the first claim to mine opals.

Opal buyers were a bit skeptical of  black opal since the only opal people were familiar with was the white and crystal from the mining fields of white cliff,  but some opal buyers were amazed at the beautiful deep rich colors of the black opal and were more than willing to pay a fair price for them.  Soon the Ridge grew as more miners came to seek their fortune in black opals.

As you enter Lightning Ridge there is a sign that greets you saying “Lightning Ridge Population ??.  That’s because no one really knows what the population is. Lightning Ridge has a very transient population and although mining is done mostly in winter time, May through November.  Summers are hot and many head for the sea coast and cooler temperatures, seasons are reverse down under.

I started going to Lightning Ridge to buy opal about 1976.  At that time it was pretty much dirt roads.  The first time I went was by train to Dubbo and then by bus to Lightning Ridge. On my first train trip up to Lightning Ridge I noticed that all the  people had blankets and  comforters.  I remember thinking that all these people sure like to be comfortable when traveling.  I had no idea the trip was about 10 hours and the train had no heat.   It was mid -winter and although it was about 50 or 60 in Sydney during the day, the train went up through the hills of Orange, snow country, and there was snow.  I nearly froze to death with only my light jacket for warmth. It was a very long night. What a person won’t do for opals.

From Dubbo there was a bus that took me the rest of the way to Lightning Ridge.  it had heat, praise God for small favors.

Sometime in the 1980’s the old wooden train that I was used to, was replaced with a new modern “XPT” train. It had heat and the trip to Dubbo was now only 5 hours long. From there it was another 5 hours to Lightning Ridge. So the whole trip was now only 10 hours in total, not 15 hours like before.  It was also during the day, so  I could enjoy seeing the county side and in comfortable seats.  I never mourned the passing of the heatless wooden train.

When I first started buying at Lightning Ridge, I just walked around the town knocking on doors. Most of the buyers set up at the Black Opal Motel. It seemed to me that every one talked in terms of 100’s of thousands of dollars regarding opal. “He bought an 800 thousand dollar parcel from someone or that buyers  good for millions. runners would come to me and ask if I was interested in a small parcel of 80 or 90 thousand.  I only had abut $3000 or $4000 to spend on rough opal at the time and I figured that the Black Opal Motel was just for buyers with 100’s of thousands of dollars to spend.  Eventually I found out that some miners had only small parcels of $300 to $500 so I  also started buying at the Black Opal Motel.  I did see a lot of beautiful opal and even though I couldn’t  afford some of those opals they were certainly entrancing to look at.

The funny thing is that some of my best contacts in Lightning Ridge were early on when I was walking around knocking on doors  asking people if they had any opals for sale.  At one of the doors I knocked on the occupants wanted to know if I was going to take the Opal out of country.  They asked me several more times during our conversation and then it dawned on me that the reason they were asking me was because they were ratters or night shifters.  Night shifters  were men that hear about someone’s opal find and would go out during the night and gouge out his mine and leave before daylight. I left this particular parcel alone as I wanted nothing to do with this setup.

There are a lot of great people on the Lighting Ridge opal fields and and then there are the unscrupulous ones that will reap what they sow. So for these night shifters gain is only temporary.

Every opal field is a little different in what it produces in opal.  At Lightning Ridge most of what is mined is Black Opal, but it also produces a fair amount of Crystal Opal and Grey Opal. Grey Opal is opal that has a light grey backing.  many call it semi-black just because it sounds better.   Lightning Ridge also produces the most outstanding crystal opal.  In terms of brightness, no other opal field can compare to the quality of crystal opal at Lightning Ridge.  Although Lightning Ridge is know for its beautiful Black Opals, I’m always on the look out for fine Crystal Opals and so should you.

At Lightning Ridge a “claim” measures 50 X 50 meters, a meter being 3.1 feet or 50 yards by 50 yards.  When you peg a claim your pegs must be at least 3 feet above ground or 1 meter.  The cost of your claim will be $150.  You can spend as much as you want on mining.  You can go out noodling or specking for opal on dirt that previous opal miner brought up out of their mine and left, assuming you are not on a pegged claim.  Cost is nothing.

Next you can actually mine.  A pick and shovel and a set of ladders to get down the hole and a bucket.
You might get tired of hauling that bucket up the ladder so then you’ll want a hoist or windlass.  It works like the water well.  you have a wooden rod with rope wrapped around it tied to a bucket only you bring up dirt instead of water.
Then you might want to invest in an automatic hoist where you pull the cord and it automatically takes the bucket up to the top where someone will have to empty it.
Then you could buy a truck and with that a jack hammer.  The jack hammer will remove dirt much quicker and that dirt you would just shovel into the bucket send it up and have it dumped into your new truck.  That you would take to a wet puddler, for which you have to pay, and dump the dirt into a rotating mesh screen with water shooting  into it to wash all the dirt away and leave just opal, well you hope it’s just opal but usually it’’s just a lot of rocks with an occasional opal, or just rocks. This method is widely used at Lightning Ridge and although some will use a cement mixer, it does about the same thing, washes away the dirt.
You could also invest in a tunneling machiine, excavator, bulldozer, and a blower.  A blower is a machine that sucks up the dirt and sends it through a series of pipes up the mine shaft and into your nice new truck.  There’s  a term on opal fields that is often repeated.  “He’s putting his money back into the ground”  What that means is he’s buying more machinery to move more ground in the hopes of finding more opal, faster.  I talked to one opal miner recently who said it cost him about $12 a week to mine for opal.  A day earlier I talked to an opal miner who said it costs him about $4000 a week to mine for opal with the machinery that he had.  You can be sure the guy with the $4000 a week habit is moving a lot more ground, but is he finding opal?

There are of course a myriad of other things you could do to enhance your mining experience.  Satellite photography that is  heat seeking, cold seeking, and God knows what else,  Of course most opal is about 30 to 60 feet underground so good luck.Lightning Ridge is in some ways like any small town.  Post Office, Bank, grocery stores, pharmacy, laundry, Motels, pubs, olympic size swimming pool, golf course with black sand greens, restaurants, schools, and lots of shops selling black opal.  There are also a lot of signs saying “OPAL BUYER,” or “BUYING NOW.”   For sure Lightning Ridge is a town built on opal, specifically black opal.

Lightning Ridge has more trees.  bushes and greenery than the other opal fields, maybe because it’s on the edge of black soil country.  In the 1990’s Lightning Ridge was boom town.  An opal field close to Lightning Ridge called Coocoran was producing black opal and lots of it.  At the same time the Japanese yen was very strong against the Australian currency and the Japanese, great lovers of black opals,  were buying a lot and so was everyone else.

Things have changed.  There is still opal coming out of the ground but not a lot and consequently not a lot of opal miners or buyers.  like everywhere else, life is slow. Still Lightning Ridge is a unique place and by in large the opal miners are an optimistic lot always believing that the next chink will yield a gem worth  thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Some miners mine for the love of money and others for the love of the opal itself.  Black opal is a gem like no other, mystical, entrancing, it’s rich beautiful colors almost make your heart skip a beat or jump for joy.  No other gemstone that I know of elicits the response of complete awe,  from men and women alike as that of black opal.  i have seen people yell, swear, cry, and just look with stunned silence and the wonderment of a truly beautiful black opal.Many people believe that it’s nature that produces these gems but for me,  I see the hand of a loving God showing us just how awesome He is  by creating a stone with rich, vibrant colors that dance, and play, swirling, rolling, flashing, prancing and that in a rock!  Truly it is a glimpse into the kingdom of heaven and all it’s radiance.

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