TheVine story: ‘Miners, nudists and LSD in Lightning Ridge’, June 2012

Last winter I travelled out to Lightning Ridge in Northwestern New South Wales in search of a story. Lighting Ridge is the “black opal capital of the world”, and my interest had been piqued by frontier town tales of instant fortunes and near lawlessness. “The Ridge” in 2012 turned out to be a little more sedate than that, but my trip was still an eye-opening experience. Reams of notes were furiously scribbled and I conducted numerous interviews during my stay. The final result is this feature story and Q&A for TheVine — definitely one of the favourites of my career so far. Excerpt below.

How did I end up here? I catch myself wondering this even though I know full well the answer, and yet I ask it anyway. It’s a question that, right now, could just as easily be asked about my life as it could this particular night or the preceding week.

I pull out my phone and stare momentarily at the screen. No reception. This doesn’t surprise me: I’m in the Grawin, an opal field an hour outside of Lightning Ridge, which is itself in the middle of fucking nowhere.

I’ve just spent four days pinballing around the town: descending down 40-foot mineshafts, talking to any local who’ll listen to me, drinking roughly a pallet’s worth of XXXX Gold (anybody who’s been to the cricket knows what it’s like getting drunk on mid-strength beer – shit is hard), and being plied with more weed than this desert-like landscape could possibly produce. Tonight is my last before heading back to Brisbane and fatigue is setting in. It’s a good thing I’ve stayed sober; any more self-abuse and I may not be able to negotiate the ten hours worth of road kill back home.

Ostensibly I’m here in the company of Josh, a writer friend from Sydney who’s come to Lightning Ridge to research a screenplay. But really I’m here to dig up my own story. Throughout the week, in-between the cans of beer and scoobs of the finest hydro, Josh and I have interviewed locals and worked up reams of notes. Where Josh is right now, I can’t be sure. Earlier, he was talking up sobriety and driving us back to town, but a few Golds later somebody offered him a tab of acid and the crazy horse has since bolted.

There was a time when people travelled to Lightning Ridge for a different reason: black opal. In the late eighties and early nineties the Japanese economy was soaring, and the country’s obsession with everything Australian stretched to include our national gemstone. Lightning Ridge, the ‘black opal capital of the world’, became a boomtown. Out in the opal fields what was once a cottage industry exploded, two and three man mining operations established to pull the money out of the ground.

For the full story, visit TheVine.

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