Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Lightning Ridge to Blackall

A long drive across country brought us to Lightning Ridge, an opal mining town known for its high quality black opals. We decided to stay a few days here to give us a chance to do some washing, some re-stocking of supplies, and general tidy-up, as well as time to see all the delights of the town. I was surprised at how much it differed from Coober Pedy the milky opal mining town in outback South Australia. Lightning Ridge has a much more settled layout with wide paved streets and a good selection of shops. Mining is still done fairly close to the town, but streets and houses seem more 'ordered' than ad hoc. Of course being a mining town there are nationalities from all over the world - some arriving decades before and those bitten by the opal fever have remained constructing for themselves homes of their own imagining and bizarre some of them are, too! One Italian miner began building his home over his mine entrance - and didn't stop. The castle-like building is now quite extensive although most of it is not roofed over.

Other miners, not content with just finding opal, began a series of underground caves and these have massive carvings throughout. Egyptian motifs, 'terracotta' soldiers as well as cartoon characters abound. This has been turned into a popular tourist attraction and probably brings in as much money as the elusive black opal.

Far beneath this area of Australia is the Great Artesian Basin, and bores in the dry outback make good use of the warm water. I was quite surprised that several parks toilet facilities flushed with hot water before I realised it was bore water. In Lightning Ridge a open air public pool is fed with hot (40degree) water from beneath the earth's surface and I happily joined others having a good long soak and a swim. Young aboriginal children also were having fun at the pool with some as young as 4 swimming like fishes and older boys joyfully taking tumbling dives into the middle of the pool.

After our stay at Lightning Ridge we moved on to Charleville and this turned into one of our favourite places so far. This outback town is working hard to develop its attractions and as a result the town is doing well with visitors staying extra days. We enjoyed the WW2 Secret American Air force base 'tag along' tour (over 2,500 American servicemen stationed at a huge base but with no interaction with the townspeople at all!). In the evening we visited the Cosmos Astronomical Centre for a talk about the night sky and a viewing of the heavens through huge telescopes. We could see Saturn and its rings quite clearly! The night skies here in outback Australia are incredibly clear and the cosmos vast and bright - it is the ideal place for an observatory.

On display in the town are several Vortex guns. In1902 Queensland was in the grip of a great drought. In desperation  Queensland's first Government Meteorologist decided to experiment with Steiger Vortex Guns, developed to break up hail over the vineyards of Italy. The experiment failed to produce the much needed rain, but several of the guns remain for us to view.

On another day we enjoyed 'Stories and Scones at Corones Hotel'. The story we were told was of a penniless Greek immigrant with no knowledge of English who arrived in Australia with his young nephew and eventually found his way to Charleville. He started a successful cafĂ©,  became a licensee of a pub for 10 years, and then built his own very grand hotel in town in 1929. He loved Charleville and was instrumental in getting a hospital built, the fire brigade started and other essential services. Mostly I think he was loved because after both the first and second world wars, he and his wife insisted on employing widows of servicemen in his business. For his work, he was given an MBE for his service to the town. It was an amazing story of the life of one poor immigrant, and the afternoon was made even better by a delicious serve of scones and cream and coffee!

Later that evening we visited the Bilby Centre in town and learnt about efforts to save this endangered species of a small, little known (but undeniably cute) Australian marsupial. Being nocturnal, they are rarely seen in the wild, but introduced predators (wild cats, foxes, etc) have reduced the population alarmingly. A major effort mainly by volunteers are doing their best to protect and breed up the number of bilbies.

We have been quite surprised at how a number of outback towns are developing and promoting the various attractions of their areas. Bourke was the first one we encountered and Charleville too. Both have hardworking people prepared to do their best for their own towns, and travellers like us are delighted to participate.

Moving on - we continued our drive north making an overnight stop at Blackall where the park offered travellers a roast beef and vegetable dinner followed by damper and golden syrup for $20 per head. It was delicious - and best of all we didn't have to cook it ourselves. We've noticed quite a few parks do this and it is a lovely way to share a meal and chat with other travellers after a long day on the road. Some parks also offer entertainment in this case it was an Australian country music singer - but not being fans of this type of music, we stayed away.

We intended to start reasonably early for the next stage to Longreach, but again we got talking to other caravanners and an hour or so later, we finally began the drive. We have reached the lovely stage when an hour here or there talking to people is no problem at all - clockwatching on this trip is happily not high on our agenda.


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