Lightning Ridge is the renowned home of the elusive Black Opal, which has put the small mining town on the map. Many believe that this rare gem is the perfect symbol of the town, as the exact nature of Lightning Ridge and its inhabitants remain as mysterious as the Black Opal itself.
Black Opal was first discovered in the 1870’s, however it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that word spread about the discovery of a new form of Opal in the area. Many miners from nearby Opal town White Cliffs, undertook the 700km trek on foot to Lightning Ridge, convinced that their fortunes lay there waiting. Charlie Nettleton, who has since been recognised as one of the key developers within the industry, also undertook the trek during the drought of 1902 and returned to White Cliffs one year later to develop a market for the Black Opal.
Mining proved to be incredibly hard work during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, as miners used simply hand picks and shovels to dig square-sided shafts, which the climbed in with their backs and legs precariously braced against the sides. Today miners use steel ladders and mechanical pulleys underground to hoist excess earth from the mine to the surface.
Figure 1: Lightning Ridge- home of the Black Opal
Lightning Ridge has had a tumultuous history, from syndicates forming and consequently breaking-up, miners being impounded, drinking water getting poisoned to a bitter fight against two large Sydney pastoral companies, who owned a lot of the land and wanted to prevent opal mining from succeeding in the area. However, it is from this turbulent history that Lightning Ridge developed into the successful mining town it is today.
Gone are the days when all a miner needed was a $20 claim and pick and shovel to mine the area. Today, a deposit of over $250,000 is required to operate a typical open cut mine and at least double that to operate an open cut Opal mine. Due to this, several claims are required to join together, which often proves difficult.
Furthermore, new regulations require miners to undertake a $2,000 Opal mining course, which teaches them about first aid, electrical problems and technical safety procedures. Miners must also apply for an Opal mining claim from the ‘Department of Minerals’ and must abide to strict environmental contentions, which include replanting vegetation on the site following the claim expiration date. Over the years, the price of this claim has staggered from $435 to an astounding $1230. In 2013, ABC News released an article that detailed the harsh reality and costs associated with living in Lightning Ridge as a miner, which you can read here.
It is not easy for ‘outsiders’ to purchase and establish an Opal mine in the area, as Opal mines for sale are rare and usually sold within the community. Many of the best Opal mines are purchased under a profit share, rather than being sold entirely. This means that the owner can still receive a percentage of profit from the Opals mined by local workers.
Even life in Lightning Ridge itself comes at a high price. Everyday luxuries are rarities and petrol is almost double the city price. Many miners have had to take up another job at local coal mines, to ensure a steady cash flow. Yet even though the life of a Lightning Ridge miner can be difficult, it can also prove to be rewarding, with many miners returning year after year.
Prospecting is the term used to describe opal mining. Potential miners need to apply for an “Opal Prospecting License” or Mineral Claim before they can begin prospecting. It is important that potential miners remember that prospecting is quite different from mining.
Prospecting licenses are allowed over larger areas and are quite easy to obtain in comparison to mineral claims, which often require bonds. Generally, there are 50 to 100 Opal Prospecting Licenses that are approved annually. There are four defined prospecting areas in the Narran-Warrambool reserve, which were set aside to help preserve the tradition of small prospectors rather than continuing to grant large mineral claims. It is important to note that prospecting cannot be undertaken in national parks or wildlife areas. Figure 2: Traditional Opal Prospecting
Opal prospecting can be a tiring job, with lots of drilling and picking in underground mines, which are held up by shafts. Today, there are a number of different ways prospectors can recover Opals:
Shaft Sinking: Prior to the establishment of the drill in 1987, shaft sinking was the most popular method for prospecting opal fields. Unfortunately, sinking shafts by hand was expensive and time consuming.
Auger Drilling: The introduction of the drill not only quickened the mining process but also offered a more cost-effective technique to sink shafts. The nine-inch diameter auger drill helped miners test for sandstone prior to sinking a shaft, rather than working blindly in an area.
Percussion Drilling: Percussion drilling is similar to Auger drilling, however it is much more precise because it creates smaller holes and is consequently a more efficient way of finding and testing samples.
Sirotem: This modern mining technique is by far the most efficient means of testing a large area of ground. By using electrical currents to measure the rock’s electric resistance, miners can find where faults or sandstone could exist in the area.
The population of Lightning Ridge floats in and out seasonally. It is estimated that there is a population of 1200, which is supplemented by over 80, 000 visitors each year. Because of this, the population sign on the main road has a question mark on it, which exemplifies the towns’ witty humour. Many people visit Lightning Ridge in the cooler months and leave in Summer due to the extreme heat. Even locals leave during this time. Winter is the best time for fossickers to go ‘specking’ on the Opal dumps, as the rainy season cleans the dirt away and uncovers Opal specks. However, fossickers must be quick, as the dusty winds the follow make it increasingly difficult to discover these forgotten treasures. Interestingly, fossickers do not require permission to go on miners’ camps or dump sites and can often have a lucky Opal find.
There are over 200 Opal mining fields in Lightning Ridge, however the most popular fields are listed below:
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