Gayle is an accountant. Shh – don’t tell. She thinks she’s a writer.
Published August 2nd 2015
Catch opal fever, go noodling for precious gems
Few gems inspire the imagination more than opals and so it was that my husband and I found ourselves sitting in a heap of white opal clay in Lightning Ridge, scratching for a glint of colour.
Lightning Ridge is the home of black opals, which are not black but are formed on a dark quartz-like layer allowing a greater refraction of light to the opal. The reds are particularly beautiful and valuable. When turned in the light they twinkle likes coals in a fire. I confess though, it is the greens that are my favourite.
The fossicking heap beside the Visitor Information Centre is free to all. The heap is donated by local miners and is opal clay that has been tumbled inside an agitator, usually the mixer from an old cement truck; the folk of Lightning Ridge are great recyclers. The miner has sorted the tailings but smaller or non-commercial pieces can be missed and are a joy to the tourist who finds them in the heap. We are told a tourist last year found an opal worth thousands in this heap. You'll hear a lot of stories like this in Lightning Ridge, but then again, you never know your luck.
Some people come to the heap with small spades and buckets to collect their opal dirt, others bring shaker sieves but most of the tourists we met did what we did. We sat down in the clay, picked up a larger stone and started scratching a hole. It is best done in sunlight not shadow and wetting the clay will help to show up colour. Imagine your excitement at the first glimpse of radiant colour. Imagine holding it to the light and watching it glint in the sun.
Pieces of potch found in the Fossicking Heap by the Lightning Ridge Visitor Centre
We did not find our fortune and the only colour we came upon was the tiniest sliver of red and green. Beautiful but small. Mostly we found potch of a milky blue colour. Potch is common opal which does not have the 'play of colour', the moving iridescent pattern of rainbow colours, that are present in precious opals. The colours in opals work much like a prism. Potch is of no or very little value but can be used as a backing for black opals or is sometimes carved into ornaments. It was nonetheless exciting to find and we have kept our little pieces of potch as souvenirs.
Should you be lucky enough to come upon colour or even a larger piece of potch the friendly folk at the Visitor Information Centre will be able to refer you to somebody who can cut, set or polish it. Even a piece of milky blue potch can make a pretty keepsake.
Nobbies (small stones) with potch and opal colour on display at the Opal Society in Lightning Ridge
We visited the fossicking heap twice, spending a couple of hours each time. It is easy to get lost in fossicking, easy to catch the bug. Other folk came, grey nomads like ourselves, families and children. We chatted as we scratched, exchanged travel stories and tips, and in all had a jolly good time.
Fossicking at the heap is free and always accessible. It is next to the Visitor Information Centre on Morilla Street, Lightning Ridge. Contact the centre on 02 6829 1670 or on their website. There is free parking and public toilets at the centre.