An opal-hearted country – St. George to Lightning Ridge

In St. George, Queensland, there is a shop and museum which houses the collection of Steve Margaritis, who carved emu eggs for 60 years. The first egg I came across in the museum was the one he carved to commemorate the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, and I was surprised and proud to see the name of my distant relative Lorraine Crapp, who won 2 gold medals for swimming, and was the first woman to break 5 minutes for 400m, among other world record breaking times.

Carved emu egg, with mirrors showing the other sides.

Johnny at the Mani Tribes Gallery assured us that the emu eggs at the museum are from infertile eggs that the mother emu has discarded. He also told us the Creation story about the turtles in the painting he had made.

In Dirranbandi, there is a bakery run by a Russian lady with shelves full of Russian gingerbread called pryaniki and other beautiful cakes. People come from a long way to buy cakes here. The pizza at the Tucka Shack is also really good with piles more topping on it than crust, just the way I like it.

The nearly dried up river near Dirranbandi

We stayed one night at a free camp near the river, which still had some water in it, unlike most of the creeks we’ve seen, but it was very depleted.

Although we had a good night around a campfire with two other couples also staying by the river, we decided to get moving on to Lightning Ridge, where I was looking forward to seeing some black opals. We were not disappointed. There are quite a few opal merchants selling rough, rubbed, polished and set opals. I was very happily made the owner of 2 new rings, and we also bought a lovely big stone for Mark’s cousin who is coming out from New York in November.

On Saturday we went to the Grawin Show which happened to be on, at the Club in the Scrub. It was mostly locals getting together, starting early and going pretty late apparently. We stayed long enough to walk through the market, to watch the kids race off chasing the pig in the greasy pig race and to see the contestants in the ugly man competition.

The Grawin kids lined up for the greasy pig race.

There is a lot to do in Lightning Ridge besides fossick or buy opals. We visited the famous ‘Chamber of the Black Hand’ where one man has carved the sandstone tunnels in an old mine into amazing sculptures of super heroes, animals, Australian themes, copies of famous artworks and so much more. He now lives near Tumut, a lot cooler, and comes back to maintain the carvings occasionally.

There are many different styles of house in Lightning Ridge, and it seems that self-building is common and encouraged with people creating very individual abodes made from materials readily available such as bottles, cans, and rocks. Some of them welcome visitors and others not so much. One household even put their cars on their veranda! These houses are scattered amongst the mining claims and camps.

Each afternoon we were at Lightning Ridge we walked to the Artesian hot pools. While not as famous as the ones at Moree, these are better in that they are free, hotter, more relaxing because you can stay as late as you like, and are not as highly chlorinated and commercial. A number of eastern European locals and travellers congregate there at night, and Mark got into some healthy debates with many of them.

Artesian baths at Lightning Ridge

At the Opal Caravan park where we stayed they have invited two bush poets named Mel and Susie to entertain people each night. They are very funny telling stories of their adventures around Australia and overseas, reciting poems and making it very interactive with the audience. They reminded everyone that we know some poetry as we all recited the 2nd stanza of My Country. The last stanza of Dorothea Mackellars poem, brings clarity to the past week or so of our trip:

An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land –
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand –
Though earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly.

The artist John Murray has a gallery in Lightning Ridge and has been a major supporter of the town helping to bring in more tourists with his ideas and public artworks. We got fuel at probably one of the most colourful petrol stations in the country as we were leaving, where he has reproduced his ‘2 Cool 4 Skool’ painting as a mural. He also created the Stanley the emu sculpture just outside of the Ridge.

There was more to see but we’ll leave that for next time, as we had stayed for 4 nights already, and I need an excuse to go back to buy more opals!

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