They came for the rocks and they stayed for…well, it’s best not to ask those questions. The locals of Lightning Ridge clearly had rocks in their heads, although to what degree scraping around in the dirt had made them rich was anyone’s guess.
An outback mining town in north-western NSW, way past the fertile crops of the Moree plains, where birds gorged themselves stupid on grain spilt from trucks. It was a bumping season and the silos were full as the birds. Too fat to fly, the birds beat their wings but hardly as the car roared past, gaining enough height only to become a pulverised smear on your windscreen and front grill. Hours of diligent attention to Red the Mungindi butcher’s directions (“Over the Moonie Bridge and chuck a right, go a t-intersection and chuck another right then go past a few houses and chuck a left”) had brought me to the black opal capital of Australia.
Lightning Ridge: Population? the sign at the edge of town drolly informs. You could take that question mark – which curls in a grand, serif circle like a treasure map, ending with an emphatic dot that marks the spot – and plaster it all over town. All over the faces of the coy shopkeepers who specialise in sterile small-talk. All over the aimless dirt tracks that roam over abandoned claims, past mounds of discarded boulders and oddball shacks built with such classic building material as whatever was lying around, mate. You could suspend the question mark above the conversations that rise like the steam just past midnight in the 40-degree concrete bore bath. Communal bathing has always been a sly, glancing exercise in assumption and supposition. You boil your brains and sweat out secrets, size up barely-clad strangers and wonder who they really are.
That question mark sign, which greets you at the door, sets the ground rules. It tells you you’re a stranger here, that you’ll never understand so don’t ask. It’s an unsettling sign designed to unsettle the outsider, under the pretence of mild humour. Or maybe I was just paranoid. It’s certainly an accurate sign. The population varied depending on who arrived, left, or was murdered and thrown down a mine shaft, never to be seen again.
“You start asking questions here and they’ll never find you,” said the helpful woman at the visitors’ centre when I started asking questions. “We have friends who have mines and I have no idea where they are. Don’t ask. Otherwise your life is not worth living. You could disappear.”
She needed no encouragement to outline such a scenario, and this she mused calmly, as if thinking aloud her plans for the evening: “Hit you on the head, throw you down a hole, chuck a couple of shovels of dirt over you, throw a dead kangaroo on top and no one’s gonna go pokin’ round looking for ya…”
She seemed to know all the tricks, and it was true that in the past couple of years at least two people had gone missing in Lightning Ridge and are still missing. It was how you dealt with ratters: people who tried to steal from your claim. But the best way to deter ratters was to appear poor. You couldn’t protect what was under the ground, and if it looked liked you’d struck it rich the game was up.
Money, money money, the town looked cooked, fried and broken but it gave away a few clues. For instance, what was up with the swimming pool? An enormous complex, Olympic-sized everything, waterslide, diving pool, a water fun-park that wouldn’t look out of place at Dreamworld or Disneyland. Where did the money come from? Answer: the town folk.
And under the stars in the hot bore baths cars pulled up and shone in headlights to see who was there, then drove away into the outback night, leaving only dust, steam and silence.