Friday, September 24, 2010

Day 5 - The Ridge - Parrot Ponds, Chambers of the Black Hand, Hot Artesian Spa and sunset

Tuesday 21 September
It’s about 6:30 am. We’re at the parrot ponds. What a stunning spot. The sun is low in the east sending beams of warmth into the woodland. Curls of water snake their way through pale khaki grassland. There’s not a breath of wind. The ponds reflect a mirror reflection of the surrounding trees and cloudless blue sky. In patches a submerged tortoise sends up blubbles to ripple across the mirror. The whole entrancing scene is backlit with birdsong. Early morning chorus of the pied butcher bird. The occasional whistle of feather upon feather as a crested pigeon moves to another perch. I take a walk along crusted tracks which wend their way around the ponds. Fine spider webs thread across between grass stems like gossamer stands of light. As I set up my tripod to try to capture the scene, several kangaroos bound across the image in the distance. They stop and feed for a moment, disappearing among the grass heads before moving away again in graceful bounds. Utterly Australia.

Having given a good attempt at capturing images literally, I decide to sit in the car with the doors open and try to capture the scene figuratively. A bird flies into the tree in front of me. Just a noisy miner. A small group of colourful parrots fly low across the grass. Bright green. Red winged parrots. One perches briefly on a bare stick rising from the ground before dropping out of site among the grass to feed. Not much doing there apparently as it’s only a moment before they rise again and head for a clump of trees.
There are calls around, but realistically with the extent of standing water in the district at the moment the birds disperse and reliable birding spots like this one are less so. But oh how glad I am that we ventured out this morning to witness the stillness and beauty of this place. Only a couple of hundred metres from the Castlereagh Hwy at the junction with the turn into lightning ridge. You need to go around the far side of the pond close to the road and travel in along the track a couple of hundred metres.
As instructed in the bird sites guide, we drive up over a low mound following the track into a clump of woodland. We are looking for scar trees. These are trees where the traditional owners of this land cut bark from the tree for use as coolamons (bowls) and other implements. Nearby the track after a brief search we see a very old dead tree. A beautifully regular oval shaped scar is clearly visible. We play tourist and photograph each other at the tree. Round about piping calls draw our attention to brown treecreepers working the area. They fly to the base of a tree and work their way around collecting small insects from crevices in the bark. Occassionally they drop to the ground before heading back to the base of another tree. Calling in soft single pipe notes to eachother all the while.
In a tree nearby movement. Two kingfishers. White breasts, clear white ring around their necks. .Intermediate sized shrubs are smothered with flowers. I don’t know what they are but wonder if they might be quandongs.. can’t be surely as they are abundant and I think quandongs are not that common. Looking at the plant sites guide I think perhaps they are budda.. but with more flowers than shown in the illustrating photo. This I later confirm with Margie.
A chorus of alarm calls goes up as a raven in funerial black flies into one of the trees. . I spot a very mottled looking trunk about 20 metres off the track. I wander into see if maybe it’s a leopardwood tree, but no. The variation is just lichen on a black fissured bark of what I think is a budda tree. Looking around though there are two scar trees right nearby I take a photograph and almost the instant the shutter closes, mum sings out. Theres a couple of scar trees right here by the car. I look around and scar trees are everywhere. Almost every tree of any reasonable size has surrendered its bark for a bowl or shield.
Back in the car just about ready to move on and a couple of white plumed honeyeaters land in the branches right in front of us.
As we pass back by the parrot ponds the light is has change the palette. Tress lining the shore show amber and red leaves glowing in the sunlight like stained glass.. It’s now 8:30. Time has flown.
Heading back into town we make a stop at the attractively painted agitator that signals the turn into Lightning Ridge from the highway. 

Back at the Bluey, the bird feeding station is doing brisk business as usual. A stunning male red winged parrot looks up as I take his portrait.  He is sitting in the shade at the moment, but when the sun hits those feathers he shines like a jewel.

Washing some muddy boots and a spot of brekkie and we’re off to explore the local shops and galleries before heading over to Chambers of the Black Hand.
The John Murray Gallery is just around the corner from the Bluey. Even closer if you go via the laneway at the back of the motel. The gallery has a number of large original paintings on the walls and numerous smaller and more affordable prints and greeting cards. Many of the paintings include some quirky humour, such as one long effort of an emu with six chicks following titled “one long neck and six stubbies”. There are excellent caricatures of Tony Abbot and Julia Gillard. Only two fairly large rooms. We select some small mounted prints and we are on our way. In the gallery we again bump into a group of daughters’ fellow medical students who are, coincidentally, spending several days in Lightning Ridge on a program put together by the rural health union. We’re heading on into the Chambers of the Black Hand with them, daughter being a member of the rural health union.
It’s only a fairly short drive down the three mile road and onto the dirt into the opal field to the Chambers of the Black Hand. The surrounding vistas are typical Lightning Ridge. Mullock heaps, and scrubby trees, and today for the first time we have blue skies. It’s looking more like the paintings.
 The obligatory safety briefing and it is pointed out that for people with mobility limitations there is an option of a lift down into the mine. Mum enthusiastically volunteers for this assistance. As we don our hard hats we are relieved she has a choice. There is a huge flight of stairs to get down to the higher of the two levels. We are assembled into groups, we’re not the only group being accommodated today. The local TAFE is also on a visit here. Don is our guide for the first part of our tour and he leads us down a fairly steep ramp to the opal level, the chambers of the black hand are higher in the rock strata. Don, like many of the people we have met, quite a character. Daughter points out to us that he looks quite a bit like Paul Newman. Don jokes periodically that when you hit on opal you’re married within the week. Perhaps so we thing, but looking a fair bit like Paul Newman can’t hurt either!
Don explains about mining and the lifestyle and how he came to be a miner. Some amazing finds that have occurred to people. He’s highlight of the tour that’s for sure. When we’re finished down on the mining level we are free to self guide ourselves around the chambers and the many wonderful carvings and paintings. Our favourite was of a huge octopus wrapping itself around a shark, with seals and other sea life woven into the sculpture in a very natural and appropriate way.
We finish our time at the Chambers of the Black hand with a look over the jewellery and gems in their underground store. They have some lovely pieces. Most are more to my taste than much of the stuff we’ve seen elsewhere. There is apparently 30% off the prices of everything today. Not sure I believe this isn’t the case every day, but call me a cynic. They have one solid black opal in the case which is exactly to my taste. If only it wasn’t already set in a necklace that’s not so much to my taste.. if only it wasn’t the best part of $9000, but it was a magnificent opal. The man serving says that in 15 years when the opal mining at the Ridge is finished pieces like this will be worth a lot of money.
We’re done here for today. We’ve enjoyed this attraction, it’s a real achievement. Our tix were paid for by the rural health union, we were able to piggy back on that as some of the people who said they were coming pulled out and the spaces were there paid for whether we used them or not. Or so we understand. Although we have enjoyed our time, we’re glad we didn’t pay $25 for the privilege.
It’s not coming on for 11:45 and we’re getting pretty hungry. We stop by a café next door to Under sea opals. Daughter and I decide we’ll order a milkshake and we’ll lunch on supplies at home. My milkshake tasted oddly like it was tainted with onion or garlic. Very odd. I cannot imagine how one manages to contaminate a milkshake with onion or garlic but I had my milkshake to daughter and she samples and agrees. Glad we didn’t opt for lunch there then, though the place looked OK.
A browse in the opal gallery here and another across the road. We admire some nice pieces but resist the temptation to buy anything. I’m feeling a bit over it by now. Time for a nap, so we adjourn to the Bluey for an afternoon kip. We need energy for the bore baths thisafternoon. We plan to take Chuck’s advice and head over to the bore when Deal or no Deal is on. Apparently everyone local watches Deal or no deal.. so that’s a good time to head to the bore baths. After the news, the place gets busy! We shall be testing this theory tonight.
We lob up at the baths at about 5 oclock and there is no shortage of people here but it is by no means overcrowded. We head in to the showers and wait a brief while in the queue for the two shower cubicles. Friends are showering together to save time and water and heading on out to the pool. Showering completed we are now wet and cold so we make our way out and clamber down the stairs into the hot water. The pools maintain a constant temperature of 41.5 C. At the beginning it is hot but pleasantly hot and you can stay immersed for quite some time. I clamber back out and head back to the car to get the camera so we can record the experience for posterity. Still cooling off I wander over to some large signs which explain the baths, the great artesian basin and the bore capping program being undertaken to stop the wastage of both water and water pressure. The signs also advise that the best therapeutic effect is achieved by short periods of immersion interspersed with periods of cooling off.
We hang about dipping in and out. Soaking aching ankles, neck and knee. Chuck said that the warmth from the pool will keep you warm for a couple of hours and we can readily believe it. We’re wandering around wet without any chill effect at all. We are warm to the core and it’s a lovely relaxing sensation.
The sun is getting low in the sky and the clouds are rimmed with gold. Violets and increasing tones of red are beginning to appear. This is the first clear night since we’ve been here. The silhouettes towards the west aren’t the most inspiring here at the hot artesian spa and we decide to make tracks out to somewhere with a better view of the horizon. Lunatic Lookout is settled on as mum failed to get out and have a look at Lunatic Lookout yesterday. It’s about 5 mins or so drive out there and when we get there we find it’s a bit down on the eastern side of the hill and not much good for sunset. I recall that we had some good views behind us when we went up the four mile road yesterday morning and that is nearby so I direct daughter to make the turn to that end. We find ourselves quite a good pozzie right by an old mine hoist and settle down to wait. I walk across to get some photos when the sky is looking rather pretty. Mozzies galore and so I have no incentive to linger when I have a shot I’m happy with.

Time for dinner and for the third night we are back to the Lightning Ridge Bowling Club.. pretty much the only option available and as a result it seems to do a roaring trade. Food is acceptable. Tonight mum and I go for chicken schnitzel with veges and a wedge of lemon. $12.50. Daughter goes for a rump steak $19. Daughter said her steak was lovely. Mum and I enjoyed our meals too, but as they had the chicken already cooked in the bistro area tonight it was a little dry. Nothing tragic though.
Home and dressed for bed catch up on the day’s journalling and it’s off to the land of nod.

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