Looking for black opals in Lightning Ridge, New South Wales

Lightning Ridge, in north-western New South Wales, Australia, is famed for its opal mining, and in particular, for being the largest source of precious black opals in the world.

Sandstone opal mine cavern and timber support posts
10 metres underground in a Lightning Ridge opal mining cavern

During Lightning Ridge’s searing outback summers, the temperature underground is around 20C, making it a comfortable place to search for Australia’s national gemstone: the opal.

The protagonist in my current fantasy manuscript is from a fictional continent similar to outback Australia. His mother scratches out a living in the local mines, so I was particularly interested to learn about the history of opal mining. Opal Mine Adventure offer the fascinating experience of visiting an old opal mine, which gave me an insight into the motivation and practicalities of digging for these brilliant gemstones.

In years gone by, miners sank shafts using a pick and shovel, then chipped away at the sandstone deep underground armed with a pick and candle, looking for a valuable find.

Waste dirt was traditionally raised in buckets by hand windlass, often into a truck such as the one below. The dirt then underwent ‘puddling’ to remove the dirt from the sandstone and harder materials.  If colour is found in the stone, it is buffed to determine the quality of opal that lies within.

 

Writing inspiration – colours of Australia

Sandstone horse sculpture I’m currently working on a short story to submit to a speculative fiction anthology. My protagonist finds herself returning to her homeland, where the big skies fill her lungs and flows in her veins, and she is forced to face dark secrets she’d hoped to leave buried in the red dirt.

While looking for an outback photo to illustrate the image of my fantasy world, I came across this one I took of Horse by Jumber Jikiya, which sits in the sculpture symposium in the Living Desert at Broken Hill, New South Wales. Horse was apparently created as a tribute to rare Georgian horses slaughtered during Stalin’s rule. I realised this sobering history draws some parallels to aspects of my story.

The symposium consists of twelve sandstone sculptures, which change with the sun’s rise and fall in this amazing landscape. I’m always awestruck by the beauty and harshness of our natural world, and how it becomes its own character in my worldbuilding and writing.

Please leave a comment to let me know what you’re writing now – what inspires your writing and settings?

Summer sunset – Murrumbidgee River, Western Riverina

The serenity in this photo of the Murrumbidgee River at Balranald, outback New South Wales belies the harsh environment that would’ve faced 19th century explorers Burke and Wills on their ill-fated journey from Melbourne to the coast of Carpentaria, a distance of over 3200 kilometres.

The explorers camped in Balranald in 1860, a time when non-indigenous Australians hadn’t travelled or mapped the vast inland of the continent. The journey ultimately cost the lives of both explorers and five of their companions from malnutrition and exhaustion.

Sunset over the Murrumbidgee River