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Life Happens The adventures of Nora Dunn & Kelly Bedford, Professional Hobos. Nora writes, Kelly makes music. Together, we are on a lifelong journey to...wherever.

Lonely Planet Great Guidebook Moment: Lightning Ridge - The People, and The Appeal

AUSTRALIA | Wednesday, 9 July 2008 | Views [3988]

When we rolled into Lightning Ridge, after a series of unfortunate and displeasing coincidences, we were ready to roll right back out the following day.

I was crushed.

Ever since reading about it in the Lonely Planet, I wanted to go, and was prepared to travel out of our way to get there.

Lonely Planet says:

"Near the Queensland borer, this fiercely independent and strikingly imaginative mining community (one of the world’s few sources of black opals) has real frontier spirit. Battlers still dream of striking it rich underground here, and now and again some of them even do. Consequently, the streets are trodden by eccentric artisans, true-blue bushies and the general unconventional collective. And that’s all ridgy-didge in the Ridge."

So luckily, while attending a local Rotary meeting, and consequently spending the following few days enjoying the hospitality of many of the locals, we too had a chance to fall in love with Lightning Ridge.

The Rotary meeting was, of course, wonderful. As Rotarians, wherever we are in the world, attending Rotary meetings gives us a chance to trade stories with other people, all sharing the common goal of providing Service Above Self. We always have a good time.

Chris (short for Christine) was the first woman to open her heart and home to us. She had an additional flat on her property that was empty, so it was "no big deal" to her for us to stay there. Neither were the bacon and eggs in the morning, the wonderful dinner, contacts in Broken Hill and Melbourne, parting gifts, or unmitigated access to her laundry and small fruit orchard. She shrugged off all our accolades of appreciation, and said that it was just as nice to share company with somebody from abroad. We have opened up our (so far nonexistent) home in Canada to her; as soon as we get one, we hope she’ll visit!

I asked her why she and her husband (who was out of town) like to live here, since they are some of the few residents who aren’t here for the opal mining. And it seems that what makes Lightning Ridge attractive is also what makes it hard to take: isolation. At first, she and her family loved small town life, and lived in many of the smaller towns in the area. There is a rampant sense of community, and a real beauty to this chunk of land on the edge of the Australian outback. But now for Chris, with grown up children living in Perth and New Zealand, one with two kids of their own, the negative side of the isolation can be tough.

"It’s hard for somebody to visit us," Chris said one day. "You have to fly into somewhere like Brisbane, and then it still a full day of driving to and from Lightning Ridge. Not a lot of people have that kind of time these days."

This is true. You can’t just happen to pass through Lightning Ridge; you have to want to come here. With only one road in and out of town, no railway, and an insignificant airport, it’s not a thoroughfare by any means. We had basically planned our own road trip around Lightning Ridge being one of the determining factors of our route.

Looking around at the other tourists, we see a lot of "Grey Nomads", who are by and large people in their early retirements, living the dream of a nomadic life with their caravans and few cares in the world. This is currently the main demographic of people who come to Lightning Ridge; they have the time and freedom to explore more remote areas of Australia by virtue of having their homes in tow.

Kind of like us.

But we are not grey nomads; rather we are Professional Hobos. And it takes all kinds to come to Lightning Ridge. Here are a few examples of the characters we met:

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Carol, a flamboyant character who mines, makes jewelry, drives a school bus, and bakes bread among many other talents.
Peter, who came to Lightning Ridge 15 years ago to mine, never found any big opal, and opened up a successful opal jewelry shop instead.
Rob, who got tired of mining and instead chose to mine his claim by carving art into the underground walls.
George, who mines for opal in a nearby town as a retired hobby of sorts.
Gail and Roger, who came to Lightning Ridge five years ago, and a week later had purchased the Black Queen - a unique property that is also a show and legacy that they carry on.
A Swiss couple who comes to Lightning Ridge every year for about six months to fossick (which is sifting through sandstone piles from the mines that miners have signed off as worthless) for opal. Although the miners may have snatched the big payloads, there is still lots to be found by going through these piles, as this couple seems to make enough money fossicking to come back every year and do it some more.

We were given the best welcome we have received yet in a small town. I was asked to write an article for the local paper, and we saw the same people each day at the Hot Artesian Bore Baths. (This, if I may pause in the story, was a real treat: a free hot spring pool that took the edge off the chilly air beautifully. Both stargazing at night and starting off the morning were wonderful times to soak in the warm healing waters).

Even people who didn’t see us pull up in the colourful van recognized us as "The Canadians" when we met; news travels quickly through this small community.

We felt that we fit in wherever we went, and were invited by a number of people to come live in the Ridge! And we don’t take such invitations lightly either; Lightning Ridge is a treasure that many residents like to keep to themselves. They enjoy the tourist activity, but also are happy to keep Lightning Ridge’s permanent community small and intimate when all is said and done.

If there is a general theme or two that tends to bring people together at Lightning Ridge, it is Opal, and isolation. You could sum up the appeal of Lightning Ridge as being just that, but then you’d be shortchanging this eclectic town of so many other subtle treasures. Treasures that can’t exactly be explained, but instead must be experienced.

Tags: ambassador van, australia, lightning ridge, lonely planet great guidebook moment, world nomads

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