In a previous post I summarised the part of Stephen Aracic's book "Determined" which covered his early life in Bosnia and his emigration to Australia. See the post, Stepen Aracic "Determined Opal Miner. This post is a continued summary of the book and starts with Stephen Aracic's first trip to Lightning Ridge.
At Christmas 1964, Stephen, along with his friend Kevin, left Sydney and headed off to Lightning Ridge. It was a long trip in those days and they camped on the side of the road near Coonamble for the first night.Next day they reached Walgett around noon and the temperature was already around 40 degrees. Leaving Walgett they soon encountered the unmade roads of the outback and suffered driving on extremely bad corrugated dirt roads. Arriving at Lightning Ridge, hot and covered in dust, they wondered if they were really suited for such a place.
Lightning Ridge was quite primitive at that time. There were mullock heaps all over the place and the only vegetation was short and straggly, offering no shade at all. They stopped at the first sign of habitation they saw and talked to the owners. They asked them where they should look to find opal and were were quickly told that if they (the owners) knew that then that's where they would be.
Moving on they came to the town of Lightning Ridge. In 1964 there were a few scattered house with rusted corrugated iron walls and roofs, one pub called "the Diggers Rest ( since burned down and not replaced), AF Dawson's General Store and Post Office, Police Station and Mining office, the Welcome Inn Cafe and General Store and the Golden Fleece Service Station. That was the extent of the town at that time. Nowadays it is much more of a thriving town with many shops and even an Olympic Pool.
They headed out to "Potch Point" one of the local fields and talked to a couple of the miners. They were told the best place to go to find out where to dig was the Pub. This was the hub of the town and " over a pint or two of beer the old timers were likely to tell you anything, if you wanted to believe them'. It is still pretty much the case today.
That night they went to the pub and met a few of the real "old timers" like Fred Bodel, George Graham and Ping. They also met Harold Hodges who is still famous for his set of opal false teeth. They also palled up with some of the local aborigines. Unfortunately none of them told them where to dig to get opal until they met one old timer who suggested they try the "shallow four mile" field as the miners were getting some good black nobby's out there. (nobby's are round lumps of opal which can contain lovely bars of precious opal in them)
The next day they purchased a Miner's Right and drove out to the Shallow Four Mile field and set up camp.They started work on an abandoned shaft using a borrowed windlass and buckets to pull up the excavated dirt. They worked for a while underground but found that their candles were flickering and they were feeling a bit dizzy. They knew this was not right and luckily got out of the shaft before they would have collapsed. A local miner told them they had to have circulating air in their mine or they would be in trouble so they set up a wind sack to ventilate the mine and went back to work.
They set up a wind sack that helped blow air into the shaft and went back to work. It wasn't long before they found a few traces of colour and then hit something solid. Stephen describes the occasion as follows:"Then my pick struck something solid and made a distinct sound. Chink- like glass cracking. The experience of hitting my first nobby was indescribable. A small chip had broken off revealing a tiny window into the nobby. Wow! What a beauty, I gasped to Kevin. The memory of it burned deep into my soul, for I could see what appeared to be pure gem colours red, orange green and blue pour from it just like a tear drop."
They carefully picked it out and took it to the surface and cleaned it up. It was a black nobby with a colour bar with brilliant colour about 1 cm thick running through the middle. They showed it to one of the miners who said it was worth about $1,500.
They then took it to a local cutter who agreed to clean it up and said he would need a bit of time . They left it with him and went back to their mine when down came the rain and flooded the diggings, forcing them to abandon the digging.
They later returned to the cutter to collect their opal, but were disappointed to be handed two pieces of potch with just a hint of colour attached. They asked what happened to the brilliant colour bar in the middle and were informed that when he put the diamond saw through it, it didn't cut as good as he thought it would. They disgustedly walked out knowing he had kept the gem opal but not being able to prove it.
They received $50 for the two pieces from a buyer which would at least cover their petrol money but had learned a good lesson.
After six weeks and no more luck their holiday was over and they headed off home.
This trip and the excitement of finding a beautiful gem, certainly made a mark on Stephen Aracic and in the next installment we cover his return to Lightning Ridge with him and his family.