July, mid winter, my son took me for a birthday present roller-coaster trip to four artesian spas in the far north of New South Wales. It may not have had the historical resonances or elegance of “taking the waters” at Wiesbaden or Taormina, but the hot ancient artesian water from the depths of the far Australian outback had an ambience all its own.
We flew to Moree (pop. around 10,000) 626 ks from Sydney; collected a car and headed to Lightening Ridge via great old fashioned hamburgers at the roadside Bullarah Café.
We were in cotton growing country here and the café lady told us tells us that although the artesian bores are all being capped now there are a few private ones which are often the hub of social gatherings. She also tells us that the biggest local cotton dam covers 45,000 acres – imagine! This is truly Big Farming country.
We started noticing 2 things; first the roadsides were littered with cotton droppings, a sight that didn’t go away for the whole 600ks of our trip; and road kill roos were constant, often sometimes only 20 metres apart.
Next short stop – Collarenebri on the Barwon River. Some claim this is the best inland fishing location in Australia and perhaps because of this, Colli was a major aboriginal place and continues to be a centre for the first Australians.
Along the road we find a comfort stop that is probably uniquely Australian, the drop toilet and the idiosyncratic spelling,
The traditional owners of the land around Lightning Ridge are the Yuwaalaraay people. Although colonial pastoral development displaced these people, in recent years, the local Indigenous population has increased because Indigenous people from other regions have come seeking work in opal mining or agriculture.
Lightning Ridge produces over 95% of Australian opals opal town on and is the world’s main source of the black opals,
While the official population is fewer than 5,000, this is a fairly elastic figure since transient miners come and go over time. The simple white crosses in the local cemetery stand testimony to those who came here to “be lost” and unknown.
My son makes the point the Lightning Ridge is probably the only place in the world where the economy relies on older men, many of whom are Europeans, scrabbling through the clay in search of their fortunes. Some say 40-50 nationalities are represented in this small town. Indeed the Pakistani gentleman who ran the servo and NRMA depot seems to herald the latest wave of immigrants. He has been here 5 years and came to get away from Sydney’s traffic.
There are many attractions, like the cactus garden, the house built from bottles and the faux castle, that we did not visit. We did though do 2 of the “car door tours” where you stay in your car and follow old car door signposted tours; we followed the red and then the blue doors.
Tours on dirt roads go through the diggings. While some lucky miners have found opals worth millions, others continue to chase their fortune year after year; some are now too old to mine but still live on their lease with no mains electricity or water supply.
Claims of as small as two hectares have homes on them often made of tin (and remember the summer heat can reach 50 degrees). Other dwellings might be old caravans or fibro sheds, whatever handy cheap material could be found to create shelter from the ramshackle to the more established.
But our main business here was the mineral baths. A little out of town, artesian bore baths on McDonald’s Six Mile Opal Field have been placed on the Register of the National Estate. They are free and open 24×7 although at 40+ degrees I cannot think anyone would patronise them in the hot hot summers.
The water found in the Baths comes from the Great Artesian Basin and is approximately two million years old! (In this town on the edge of the outback fossils have been found that date back 110 million years.)
That night we joined others in ‘taking the waters’ under a big sky or stars.
Next morning we visited the monthly market outside the Information Centre – itself one of the tourist attractions in town.
The market had some great blood oranges for sale, proceeds to the flying Doctor Service; some small amount of pickles, jams and other craft but the main attraction was the jars of un cut stones,
Like a lucky dip you could pay up to $1000 on the chance that in that jar was something very special.
The local servo/NRMA was out of maps and the large Mr Cheap shop over the road held no attractions so we headed back to Moree doing the loop road through Wee Waa and Narrabri.
It’s a Sunday so it’s hard to tell what these country town are like on a business day but the first small town, Walgett , is firmly shuttered up, Near the junction of the Barwon and Namoi rivers. it had (2011) a population of 2,267 including 1,004 Indigenous people and 1,073 non-Indigenous Australian-born.
There have been problems in this small town of wide streets; the governments has responded by building a huge, architectural police station, bigger than almost any I have seen in Sydney.
We continue along the highway where cotton gins and wheat silos vie for built dominance.
Between Walgett and Wee Waa is Burren Junction. This was once significant transport junction and site for wheat silos but now it’s more desolate.
The Bore Baths and Camp Ground are located in a rural setting, 100 metres off the Kamilaroi Highway on a sealed road. These baths are also free and open 24×7. Signs tell us they have been upgraded as a tourist expenditure with Federal funds.
My son said that when he was here a year ago, there was not a soul in sight; now some 100 caravans and campers form 2 circles nearby.
Wee Waa (pop.7,500), although in Sunday somnolence, seems to be a charming town with a 20% aboriginal population. The Aboriginal meaning of Wee Waa is “Fire for Roasting” from the language of the Kamilaroi people. Huge tractors and other agricultural hardware are prominently for sale.
Near the Namoi River, this is a service centre for the Pilliga and surrounding towns. Cotton gins, silos and research stations dominate the rural landscape. Everything’s big out here from the sky to the two Narrabri supermarkets.
Cotton, grain and cattle are the primary industries.
I see one Stop Coal Seam Gas sign and am reminded the farmers here are fighting coal seam gas applications in the Pilliga National Park.
In country town, luckily some of the old architecture survives often in the remaining pubs.
Also along the roadside are mobs of wild emu, a reminder that we are in bush as well as in farming country.
Back to Moree
James has chosen a cabin at the caravan park because there are baths in the park. Before dinner at the local club we have a dip. The baths are busy, hot and OK but they seem to lack the big night sky of Lightning Ridge and the mossy eccentricity of Burren Junction.
The next morning we explore the town’s few passable art deco buildings; find a passable coffee shop and visit the Art Gallery with a new exhibition by local indigenous artists including a fabulous and funny video by Richard Bell.
Moree became famous in the 60s for the student Freedom Ride which took a bus of Sydney Uni students to draw attention to the apartheid rules of the town particularly as manifest at the segregated local pool.
Now there is a $7 million state of the art modern pool complex with 2 artesian pools as well as a monster slide and cold water traditional pool. The hot pools were fine and well patronised but at 2 o’clock it was time for the new form of discrimination- this time purely economic, not race based.
For $20 a head we enjoyed the private spa where numbers are strictly limited and the comfortable incidentals, absent from the public pool, are provided.
Thank you J for three great days and 4 artesian baths!