My Tour of Duty to Lightning Ridge

Thursday, Apr 01, 2010 at 13:12

ExplorOz - David & Michelle

These days, I seem to be blending more work trips with family visits. With a 97 year old grandmother in a nursing home just walking distance from my parents home in North Turramurra (the place where I grew up) any trip to Sydney tends to include a few days quality time with my family. Last year, I needed to travel alone (leaving David and kids in Perth) to attend a conference in Wentworth NSW, which inspired my parents to accompany me and we made an enjoyable family camping/touring trip (see 2009 Tourism Symposium) blog. This year I found myself needing to reach Lightning Ridge and once again we agreed to make a family road trip out of it. Oh! The joys of being the kid in the back seat at 42 years old! This is my trip journal...

For most people leaving Sydney for Lightning Ridge the most direct route would probably be via the Great Western Highway over the Blue Mountains and into Bathurst, Dubbo, Gilgandra, and straight up the Castlereagh Hwy. A very scenic and perhaps lesser known route is used by those who live on Sydney's north shore, making the first hour out of Sydney much more enjoyable. My journey from Sydney to Lightning Ridge started here.

Saturday 20th March

Leading out from North Turramurra, a spectacular drive down to Bobbin Head through the Kuring-gai Chase National Park provides a quick and hassle free exit avoiding traffic and quickly exits onto the Pacific Highway at Mount Colah. From here, its just a matter of minutes until you are onto the Sydney-Newcastle Freeway (the F3) and pretty soon you turn off to Peats Ridge and continue all the way through lush semi-rural pastures along the George Downes Drive, which eventually joins the Great North Road at Bucketty. The Great North Road to Wollombi is a must-do drive and is worth experiencing even if just to quickly escape the bustle of Sydney for the day. Continuing on past Wollombi through Paynes Crossing you enter the spectacular lower Hunter Valley region through Broke. This region is teaming with gourmet food & wine on a quaint and intimate scale that is hard to resist. But drive on we did, as our destination for the day was to reach Gilgandra. Driving north from Broke, we reached the Golden Highway and our route finally started to swing to the west, taking us through to Jerry Plains, Denman, Gungal, Merriwa, and Dunedoo. Here the route joins onto the Castlereagh Hwy, which leads all the way to largest town for the day - Gilgandra.

Our stopover was the Silver Oaks Motel, with a pre-dinner jog along the walk path directly outside our accommodation fringing the banks of the Castlereagh River, and a surprisingly good quality meal in the dismal surrounds of the Bowling Club next door (oysters kilpatrick, salmon and steamed vegies, and a sip of wine).

Sunday 21st March

The friendly motel manager quickly produced an egg flip when I started to whip up an omelette on the outdoor barbecue for breakfast. We then took our time to brush up on the local history in the Coo-ee Heritage Centre across the road (excellent informative displays). We also fossicked around in the trash and treasure in the Shelly Mae Antique Collectables store and bought a few things for the kids. And marvelled at the height of the 1955 flood level marked above our head level on the wall in the main street! With news of flooded rivers along our route to Lightning Ridge this was a relevant topic.

Leaving Gilgandra the terrain flattens and it is apparent you are on the edge of the outback. The corrugated iron galahs mark the roadside as a quirky announcement on approach to Gulargambone and Coonamble was most notable to us for sensational Sunday service (but not in church) but in a great coffee shop called the Global Village Cafe & Restaurant. There was a distinct cosmopolitan atmosphere and quality artworks adorned the walls, sheves, restaurant, everywhere you looked. We soon discovered the store was operated by a local council member - someone who is clearly making an effort, and guess what, the sign outside emblazend the words "Winner of Coonamble's Best Small Business Awards"! Further along at Walgett however, we were offered a very different scene for our drive-thru with every store completely shut tight - some even encased in fencing! One can only wonder what makes this necessary?

Just out of Lightning Ridge I heard word from member Sir Kev, who was to meet up with us, that they had car trouble and were stranded in Moree. Most ironic when the only reason they were in Moree was to avoid road closures due to flooding en route between St George to Lightning Ridge! Disappointed that the chance to finally meet face-to-face with one of our most committed ExplorOz volunteers was possibly on the rocks, we took our time to find out what Lightning Ridge had to offer and to plan what my parents would do whilst I was engaged in the two day conference. We visited the artesian hot baths - with water too hot for me to enter (over 42 degrees celsius) and fell in love with some good priced opal jewellery at the first store we visited and bought a few nice pieces. Feeling very pleased with our purchases, we had dinner at the Bistro attached to the motel/caravan park in which we were staying, choosing a salt & pepper squid entree, followed by thai chicken and prawn salad (not very thai, and totally against my normal rule of not buying seafood from country towns!) but good food just the same.

Monday 22nd March

The morning of the conference arrived and my official duty was to setup and operate a simple ExplorOz display stand and to talk about the site during the registration session to potential business members, potential industry partners, and NSW Tourism representatives. Some of these people I had met the previous year, so it was pleasant to rekindle some acquaintances from Bedourie and beyond! More information about the nature of this conference and my involvement is contained in my Tourism Symposium 2010 blog.

Following the registration session, we all moved into a large semi-outdoor, but roofed area for the opening of the conference. Since the start of this year, I have modified my eating on advice from a sports nutritionist who is helping me with my triathlon training so I was concerned about what would be offered for lunch! However, the food laid out was exactly to my liking and I had no trouble filling my plate with all the right things to keep on track with my nutrition plan. (Food is very important to me, can't you tell LOL?)

With vivacious MC duties performed by Frankie J Holden, and a formal address by Hon Jodi McKay - NSW Minister for Tourism we settled into the formalities. The first keynote speaker was Catherine De Vrye, whom I'd previously never heard of. By the end of her hour long motivational session I was a fan (and later bought two of her books and spent a little time in her company during the conference social activities). I'm currently reading her book "Who Says I Can't" - a memoir. She has led an amazing life and I feel honoured that she shares such private trials and tribulations in such a public way. But most of all, her message is that we mustn't expect failure from ourselves in the face of adversary (and when you read her sorry tale, you can't posssibly think life could be so cruel to anyone), yet she has succeeded, and continues to succeed. The next speaker was Olga Collis-McAnespie, whose topic was Indigenous Tourism and at the conclusion, we broke for afternoon tea. This is a key time for people to mill around the display stands again so I slotted back into my booth to be ready to field queries. You can imagine my surprise when a Bowling Glub staff member introduced himself as ExplorOz Member Wolfgang J (NSW) ! He told me his story and we took a moment to browse his USB flash drive (that just happened to be in his pocket) of his wonderful Canning Stock Route photos from his trip last year. Thanks Wolfgang - it was great meeting you.

Moments later, I was in for another surprise, when someone vaguely familiar approached my display wearing an ExplorOz polo-shirt. It quickly registered that this was the illustrious "Sir Kev". He has adequately described our meeting in his own blogfor this trip, but I have to say that meeting someone face-to-face when you've only even spoken by remote means (email, phone, forum etc) is a bizzare and confusing experience if you've never done it before. With the many gatherings that Kev has coordinated, especially the 2009 National Gathering in St George, where so much work behind the scenes was done, and not withstanding the huge effort involved in coordination of the photo comp/memorabillia photo canvas print, auction etc., we have worked for many hours together and developed a great working comaraderie. So I was surprised at my sudden shy reaction to this face-to-face meeting and had to quickly rely on what I knew instinctively about this "stranger" before me! I blame this sudden rush of girlish shyness for my dietry deviation as I hastily accepted the hand-made choc-top waffle cone icecream on offer for afternoon tea!!

And so, before I knew it, Kev was fussing around helping me take down the display as it was time to relocate to another room in preparation for tomorrow's session and we were working like a pit-crew team. As Kev has already explained in his blog, I had already made plans for Kev to be included in the conference dinner as I felt this gave us the best opportunity to make the most of the short time together in Lightning Ridge but I had yet to meet his wife Sam and his two young daughters, whom I had no doubt would have found the pool more to their liking than the Bowling Club for the afternoon. So within the hour, I found myself in the car with this "stranger" and it feels more like a reunion with an old school friend and we're making our way back to the Lightning Ridge Hotel, Motel and Caravan Park.

Although I needed to freshen up before the dinner event, I really wanted to spend some time getting to know Sam as I could only imagine how she might be feeling about her husband finally meeting a woman he's been calling and emailing for the last year or more! What a strange situation. But I should not have worried - Sam is a wonderful down to earth person and speaking from my perspective we clicked easily. Seeing her little munchins made me instantly home sick for my own girls. Sam's eldest is the same age as my youngest but I know both my girls would really love to get up to some mischief with red-haired 3 yr old Peta. We introduced my parents to Kev and family and expected they might go out for dinner together, whilst Kev and I were out at the conference dinner function.

I had warned Kev that the conference organisers know how to put on a good event, and I was not disproven. At 6.30pm we were bussed to the outskirts of Lightning Ridge with no idea where we were going. In a floor-length dress, I disembarked onto the rubble of the Golf Club alfresco zone! It was outback at its best - rubble dressed up with glitz. A full outdoor bar, with waitresses serving canapes and entertainment by roaming afrian drummers who set the atmosphere of the night being one of full-blown hi-energy. The performers were from Drum Beats, who work to bring people together for corporate team building activities in Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth, Canberra, Brisbane & the Gold Coast doing road shows, Christmas parties, weddings, etc. For Kev and I who were feeling a little shell-shocked being out on a "date" without our partners, it was the perfect solution, as it was for the majority of the other conference guests who also left their families behind and were socialising with strangers and work colleagues from remote office locations (this is an Outback business event afterall). Oh, and the food was excellent... and I ate the desert! Yumm! I am waiting on some official photos (coming Tuesday) but have this off the mobile phone showing the results of the hilarity! That Kev, seems you can't take him anywhere and he tells me that was behaving! The look on my face in this picture is actually because I'd just received a photo on my phone of the Great Perth Flood that was happening at that exact moment and my house was rapidly going underwater and our brand new car had just been put safely in the garage before the hail destroyed everything that was left out!

The buses brought us back to our accommodation a little later than we had advised our families and spirits were high due to the drumming so on mass we converged on the bar as last drinks were being called. We bought various "takeaways" and sat down in the beergarden. I was very conscious that the morning would bring the day I had put so much effort into preparing - as I had a 45minute presentation to deliver at the conference so a late night was just avoided.

Tuesday 23rd March

I opened one eye to check my recovery and was pleased to find all was good. I didn't exactly spring out of bed to run 10km however I did get up early enough to be fully prepared for the 8.30am start of day.

Some wonderful guest speakers started the day with tourism research presented by Carolyn Childs from TNS Research, and Tony Dingle from Opticlicks. Morning tea was a theme of "strawberries" with everything made with fresh strawberries! I eat limited carbohydrates so had to skip the strawberry pancakes, strawberry shortcake, but I had one chocolate dipped fresh strawberry and drank a cup of strawberry thickshake! The next 2 sessions were concurrent, with delegates given the option of attending a presentation either on Book Easy, or the Darling River Run Conversion Results. The next concurrent session was the option of either myself presenting ExplorOz - Online Tourism, or Peter Valerio - Tourism Solutions followed by a very informative session on the Burke and Wills 2010 celebration. My presentation is contained in my Business Blog as a PowerPoint attachment for anyone that is interested to see what was presented.

Kev, Sam and kids arrived midway through my presentation and my parents arrived at the conclusion of the formal proceedings in time for the pre-arranged "tour" of Lightning Ridge, which was an optional part of the conference. As this is a regular feature of this annual conference and last year I'd found the Mungo tour to be a major highlight, I had encouraged my 6 guests to join me and we were all looking forward to being shown around by the local guides.

As Kev has already mentioned in his own blog, the tour didn't start off quite as we had expected. As we had paid, we didn't expect to be ushered into retail stores and given the hard-sell for opals. We really wanted to hear stories of the town, meet the locals, see how opals were mined and enjoy the unique parts of the tour that were itemised, such as a visit to the Chamber of the Black Hand, and Black Queen.

We did get to experience those last two attractions however we had to endure "shopping" before we could enjoy those. I was embarrassed but probably not as much as the conference organisers who clearly did not intend for the tour to be done this way. Despite this, the opals are indeed very special in Lightning Ridge and the retail outlets are the only place to view them. Only 1 store used the hard-sell approach but because the owner was also our bus driver/tour guide for the day it gave some of us a rather cynical attitude to the start of the journey. Looking back, each opal shop is very different to the next and it is definately worth visiting them all. Some have the resident jeweller in store, others send their stones away to overseas designers who send back highly creative and beautiful settings.

My mother had already chosen her "special" opal purchase earlier in the day so they had brushed up on basic opal know-how and were able to show us with some degree of knowledge what was what in the showcases. Well beyond my budget, I didn't buy anymore opals but they sure have changed from 10 years ago when the last opal area I visited was Coober Pedy. I came away feeling that the opal is definately an underated gemstone amongst the Australian population and was felt reunited with something we should feel very proud of. The opal is beautiful and when you understand the freak of nature that causes its formation you start to appreciate how unique is each piece and this leads to a better appreciation of the value of what we have here in our own land and why the overseas market is enthralled with its beauty.

We were all very impressed with the Black Queen, which includes an impressive antique lamp collection which has to be seen to be appreciated.

Our night ended with dinner in Nobbies Restaurant with my parents Colin and Sandy, Kev, Sam, Ashlee, and Peta and other conference delegates at surrounding tables (and more seafood on the menu!). The kids were put to bed, and Kev, Sam and I sat up to talk in their cabin as they were leaving at daybreak and it was the last chance to spend time together. I'm sure we all would have preferred to sit over a campfire but Lightning Ridge was hot and the airconditioning was more suitable. Unfortunately, Kev & Sam tell me they cannot make the 2010 National Gathering in Wiluna hence why they made the effort to meet up with me since I had come so close to their home. It was a shame that David and our kids could not join me, and I felt terrible that they had endured so much stress with the vehicle breakdown and additional cost of hire car etc. I hope they feel as I do that it was a unique few days and just the start of new friendships.

Wednesday 24th March

I opened the door of my motel room at 7am to head out for a run just as Sam and Kev were knocking to say goodbye. Most of the conference delegates were hitting the road early, with most people trying to put 7-800 km on the tar in the same day. Travelling with my retired folks however means we don't put such pressures on our itineraries and so I took my time to enjoy a 7km run to the outskirts of town and a tour back up the north road to the road closure due to the flooding before we headed off.

Our return route for the day was to reach Mudgee. We did make it by nightfall but spent our time exploring each town along the way, mostly sampling coffee at any opportunity. We had another go at Walgett, and being a weekday, was able to enjoy open stores. The tourist information office was managed by Maddi who was at the conference, a meeting was running in the sports club with people around the table from the conference too. From Walgett, we took the Kamilaroi Highway through Burren Junction, Wee Waa, Narrabri, and Boggabri.


At Wee Waa, we discovered a great coffee shop that dealt with my fussy eating requirements and still provided great service with a smile. In fact, the coffee barissta turns out to be familiar with ExplorOz, is a camper-trailer traveller and uses the MySwag site and is a moderator on a Coffee forum. Obviously we swapped business cards, and she gave me a parting gift - a 500g bag of coffee beans called "Wee Waa Wow!". Very cool indeed. Next door I found a quanit gift shop called "The Little House on Rose". Aside from purchasing a few gifts, the owner expressed interest in becoming involved in next year's Outback NSW Toursim Symposium - which will be held in Bourke in March 2011. So, I found myself networking for the RTO - but that's all part of it I guess.


From Boggabri, we deviated from the main road via a scenic rural backtrack that meets the Oxley Highway at Mullaley. The short 50km deviation included scenes of massive sunflower farming, a horseback cattle drive, and a cow milking her calf in the middle of the road! We crossed the Oxley Highway and continued south through Tambar Springs, Coolah, Gulgong and finally arrived in Mudgee. Mudgee is a beautiful, prosperous town and we thought a night in a B&B might be in order but when we inquired the nightly charge of $265 seemed excessive so we took a 4 star motel suite for $125 and made up dinner from bits and pieces floating around the bottom of our Waeco CF35 and a bottle of red wine.

Thursday 25th March

Leaving Mudgee we were on the homeward stretch to Sydney but I was trying to tee up a meeting with Pat Callinan on the Blue Mountains somewhere enroute. Between his meetings and my travelling we managed to tee up within moments of one another in Richmond, where we discussed the success of Series 2 of the Pat Callinan 4x4 Show, and our potential for involvement in the next series, which they will start filming in July for a September airing.
After a great macchiato in Richmond with Pat and Mark, I met back up with my folks and we continued our drive back to Sydney's northshore. By 3pm we were unpacked, and Dad and I took off in his other car with our bikes on the roof racks to do a lap of West Head from the gates to Akuna Bay.

Friday 26th March

I left the house before 7am to catch a train into Sydney's CBD for a breakfast meeting with the Network Manager and Travel Category Manager of Sensis MediaSmart our media agency. After an hour's meeting I hopped back on a return train to Turramurra and then was off with my parents for a day's sailing on their yacht on Pittwater, staying overnight in Smith's Creek.

Saturday 27th March

I think this retiree life is pretty good but I can't quite afford this lifestyle yet! We awoke to the calls of birds over a perfectly calm water on an outgoing tide. A quick swim before breakfast, then a row on the tender to explore the rock formations, a snorkel to explore the fantastic fish life teaming below (huge mullet, tons of bream, interesting little blennies and even pygmy cuttlefish) and then off at midday to return to the marina. We sailed through the middle of a pack of racing yachts in Broken Bay, who we followed all the way back up Pittwater to the RPAYC. Back at the marina, we did a wash-down on deck then rushed back to Turramurra just in time to greet David's parents who we'd invited over for dinner.

Sunday 28th March

Dad and I drove to Illawong Bay early so we could get our last ride in before I left. This was a slightly longer ride with more hills to climb from Akuna Bay up to West Head and back. It is a totally different terrain to Perth with more hills and almost no fast flat section so was great strength training. On getting the bikes off the roof racks and into the garage, we had a visitor walk up the driveway that greeted me by name but I didn't recognise her! She explained she was friends of my parents but had first met us (David and I and our kids, plus my parents) on the ABT train tour in Tasmania we did back in Jan 2005! Apparently, there was a six degrees of separation thing between my parents and they've stayed in contact ever since. After lunch, Dad and I went to visit my 97 year old grandmother again and we took her out for a walk - wheeling her past the property she grew up on back in the early 1900s that is no longer recognisable to her. I feel very saddened that we treat our elderly with false respect. By this I mean that I am frustrated about our euthanasia laws - when I watch her go about her life, I know that if she were a pet animal, it would be considered "cruel" to let her live. Why do we do this to ourselves? I feel strongly that this isn't how life is meant to be and that my wonderful grandmother deserves dignity at the end of her wonderful life. I simply don't get it.

And so, with these thoughts on my mind and a whirlwind of experiences from my rapid tour of NSW I boarded a plane back to Perth at 7.30pm - arriving home at almost 11pm, Perth time totally homesick and despertate to be reunited with my gorgeous husband and children.
David (DM) & Michelle (MM)
Always working not enough travelling!
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