“Mysterious Opals contain the wonders of the skies, and the earth writes its memoirs in each Opal – Urban Boulder”
The path to Opalton is not a straight forward well trodden track, it’s an outback cattle road. It contains corrugated corners and deep red bull dust holes in a sparsely maintained near desert landscape. If you survive the journey, you discover this little (one would be over stating it to call it a town) shanty village. Opalton is a frontier town like no other.
I was out that way as part of my motorcycle tour of Outback Queensland and just could not pass up the opportunity to find or buy a Boulder Opal. It had been a number two item on my bucket list and I was determined to ride out and find one.
The creation of a bucket list item
“When life gives you the opportunity to check off a thing on the bucket list, you have to check them.” – Ryan Tedder
The journey to Opalton in Central Western Queensland started over thirty four years ago in a rather expensive jewellery shop in Sydney. At the age of 23 I had gone to Sydney on a holiday. As I walked through Martin’s Place my eye caught the flicker of gold ring with an amazing multi coloured stone at its centre.
Venturing into the store, I quizzed the very knowledgable shop keepers on everything I could think of about this magnificent stone. I discovered for the first time what an opal was.
In the middle of the deep brown stone with black lines running through it was a deeply translucent and highly polished opal. The blackness of the stone highlighted the blue, green and red opal, which changed colour and intensity as I looked at it from different angles.
Only one place for bolder Opals
I discovered it was a boulder opal set in iron stone. When asked about its origin, the lady told me it was from Opalton in Central West Queensland. Was it just curiosity or “Opal Fever” my obsession grew by the minute. The thought of getting my hands on my own Boulder Opal was overwhelming. The next day I procured a map, but to my dismay Opalton was in the middle of nowhere, well the middle of the Queensland outback.
Over the years I had lamented on its location wondering if I would ever be able to get there, it was chalked up as one of those things that you want to do but didn’t really think you would ever get to, you know the “Bucket List”.
During this time I had read a lot about Opals and Opal Mining in Australia. There were mysterious disappearances and claims of murder. Stories of gun fights over claim jumping at Lightning Ridge. People I talked to said how Opal Mining wasn’t for the faint of heart.
It seemed there was a Wild West in Australia and it was Opalton and Lightning Ridge. I supposed that is why the price of Opals was so high, you had to be pretty tough to work those claims.
Today I find an Opal
Fast forward 34 years and today is the day, I’m going to make my way out to Opalton and get my self one of them there “Boulder Opals”, or die trying. I’m not sure what I will find or if I will be able to ride there. But I guess that’s why they call it adventure riding?
Many of the Opal shops in Winton are more than happy to share their knowledge of opals and Opalton. Having topped up my opal knowledge and researched the track conditions to Opalton, I felt ready for the journey. One of the shop keepers pointed me in the direction of the local pub, where rumour had it the opal miners hang out when in town. “If I wanted to know the current track condition I would be best to ask one or them” she said.
It was my intention to make a friends that would back me when the going got rough or who could at least handle a six shooter. I tried to learn as much as I could about the little town with the big reputation, in particular where I could expect to be ambushed by bushrangers or claim jumpers.
Waking up in the outback on a winter’s morning is a refreshing experience, just before sunrise there is the ever present chatter of those dam Gallah’s. The air is cool and the sky is clear, so this is an indication that the day would become hotter, a typical winter’s morning in the outback.
Droplets of dew drizzled down my tent fly and Emu’s camouflage cover. The chill was enough for me to put on my down jacket as I fired up the camp stove. The day doesn’t officially begin until the first cup of coffee. As the sun was just starting to change the dark blue sky, I could see the first rays of gold appearing over the road East to Longreach.
Having already spend an extra day in Winton, I was anxious to continue my journey south. The plan was to ride to Opalton, come back to Winton, to refuel, then head south to Longreach. Hoping I could find a with a suitable camp site on the road to Longreach.
Time to bight the bullet (so to speak)
As I finished my second cup of coffee, the though of riding 238 kilometres of lonely outback dirt track on a fully loaded (overloaded) adventure bike was a little bit intimidating. Anything can happen when you’re out here and there’s no immediate rescue.
My personal location beacon (PLB) is alway tied to my back pack. That way, if I get speared off the bike and in a bad way, I might be able to set it off and hope the boys from International Rescue come and find my remains.
After brushing my teeth in the sulfur smelling water which come directly from hundreds of metres underground in the great artesian basin. I flick some more of the foul smelling liquid over my face, pack the bike and head through town to the dirt road out to Opalton.
Time to explore
The sun was now over the horizon, and it lit up the sign like a spot light highlighting that Opalton is 119 kilometres, Larks Quarry 110 kilometres.
There’s a beautiful crispness which engenders a shear joy of riding at this time in the morning, especially when you’re riding through a near desert landscape of low lying hills and sand stone flats. The sun is on my back and the morning air is crisp.
Unfortunately, it’s also a time for kangaroos to wander around after their nightly activities, hitting one of those would certainly bring an end to my motorcycle adventure of Outback Queensland. The roos are big out this way so I was not keen to get on the road until the sun had come up. I had to be fairly certain that any self respecting Kangaroo had hopped away from the road.
I decided to take a look at a free camping ground just out of Winton called Long Waterhole. Long Waterhole is really just a big dam, it has steep sides that go down about eight metres to the water. There are a number of trees around it and some flat areas for parking, there was a lot of evidence of cattle having watered there as the place was pot holed with hoof prints, clearly at a time when the banks were softer.
The horse shoe defensive pattern
As I approached, I could see as many as twenty large “Off road” caravans and expensive four wheel drives. They were set up in a “Horse Shoe” configuration with the open part of the shoe facing the dam. A classic defensive pattern I thought to myself, clearly there have been problems with bush rangers or even some of those giant kangaroos I had heard about and this was how they fought them off.
I left the waterhole and decide to ride slowly to enjoy the morning light while I could, if the past four days have been anything to go by I knew the temperature would soon increase as the dew was burnt off and the full force of the sun fell over the track.
Bladenburg National Park
Just out of Winton is the Bladenburg National Park. It is a dry seemingly barren landscape, with clay pans, sun burnt Mitchel Grass land and Gidgee Trees. In places you can easily see the worn down sand stone plateaus, deep trenches and the occasional sand stone monolithic statue like some thing from stone henge, which are typical of the channel country. When it does rain out this way, long flat clay pans like this form rivers that feed inland to Lake Ayr.
I am surprised by the number of Kangaroos out here. They are the big reds that can grow over six foot tall. As I’m riding out I see two very large roos standing on the road/track. In a way I’m a little bit intimidated by them and as I ride closer they are in no hurry to leave the road. Its almost like they are border guards or stand overmen, I briefly think to myself I’m going to be fleeced of all my possessions by these two outback highway men.
Ambushed by Kangaroos
Another thought crosses my mind, if I could just get close enough I could get a photo, but alas as I get closer they put their heads down and quietly shuffle off the road to munch on some interesting bit of grass that has taken their eye, or is this just part of their ambush plan. I look around but can’t see any compatriots in the wings. My mind wondered back to the settlers with their wagons drawn around at the Long Waterhole and their defensive strategy, then it all became very clear to me.
As I ride on further into the park, there are gullies that indicate river courses and I head down one of the tracks that promise to open up into a water course. On the left side of the track is a small sign that says “Historic Shearers Camp”, I’m tempted to go down this road and have a look but I am also conscious that I have 224 kilometres of dirt to ride and I continue on.
An ancient land
It seems I’m riding deeper and deeper into the National Park, while the environment is breath taking, it’s not getting me closer to my goal for the day, so I turn around and retrace my tire tracks.
Had I not put this tight schedule on myself I would have explored the region more and I make a note to return sometime to do so. I find a couple of sand stone monoliths and use one to rest my camera while I stand next to the other for a selfie. This is truely and ancient land.
Within no time I arrive back at the Opalton Road turn off to see a couple of the settlers and their mobile retirement homes depart back to Winton, I turn left and continue up the main road. Shortly after this the road turns to dirt and I begin the first dirt section of my adventure.
Back on the dirt
It feels good to be on the dirt, although my senses have become more alert, not only for the Kangaroos making their way home but when riding on dirt you can’t afford to let your mind wonder, lest you come into a corner to hot or you hit a patch of bull dust, which in both cases can signal disaster.
The road in this early part of the journey is quite good and I don’t encounter too much in the way of pot holes or bull dust. The road to Opalton is spectacular going from long dirt track to winding through small low lying sand stone bluffs, it’s an adventure riders dream road with lots of sweeping corners, jump ups and corrugations.
My estimates are that it will take approximately two hours to travel the 112 kilometres to Opalton, as at this stage of my riding career I am less confident on this type of terrain. I’m also conscious that I have 50/50 tyres and excess luggage, all of which conspires to slow me down and make riding more difficult.
Tyres are everything
In my Facebook group I remember someone saying that “tyres are everything”, I’m starting to understand what he meant. Kilometre after kilometre I fight with the front wheel, as it wants to drift up out of the line I have directed it go into, while the back wheel spins as I apply the power coming out of each turn. On more than one occasion, I have felt it twist under me, threatening to corkscrew me off onto the road.
It is at this point I come across some of the worst road so far, it is on the top of the ridges, long straight sections of corrugations that continue around each corner. On the sides of the track and in the worn areas are deep sections of red bull dust. It seems never ending, each section lasts for about two kilometres and then open track which leads you into a false sense of security before the next two or three kilometres of terrifying torture.
After about 20 kilometres of this I drop down off the ridges into the plains area and the road improves. It’s only a temporary respite as I will have to ride this road later today on my return journey. If I’m honest with myself, I have no idea how to ride this type of terrain.
I do know that keeping a good line, not crossing over and bringing my weight back as far as I can seems to help. I also notice that if I drop down a gear and rev the bike slightly higher in the corners I have more control as the bike exits, allowing me to select a better line. So I do this at each section and I find I start to ride more confidently. Once out of the ridge country I pull over and take a short break, I’ve been riding now for 1.5 hours.
It took two hours and twenty minutes to ride the 119 kilometres from Winton to Opalton. I stopped at the town sign expecting it to say leave your guns behind, but it didn’t. In fact the sign was a surprise, I have travelled throughout Queensland and much of Australia and with few exceptions (see my blog on Einasleigh https://digitalswaggie.com.au/?p=1) most signs are simple black and white marker posts. Not so in Opalton.
A sense of relief
There was a great sense of relief when I finally rounded a corner and saw the small sign indicating I had arrived. The township would be a short distance away, so I rode down the flat gravel road expecting at any minute to find the Main Street.
To call Opalton a town is a little bit misleading, it is a collection of huts sparsely assembled with no central hub. I continued riding past a shanty shed and caravan, which was in fact the Opalton General Store. Ever aware that at any moment I might become involved in a gun fight.
After about five minutes I came across a few more caravans and a small sign saying “Opalton Caravan Park”, a couple of containers and an old building with a small veranda and a vending machine.
There was an old guy sitting back in a weather worn plastic BBQ chair. The little veranda area had about five small tables and an assortment of mismatched furniture. A rather flash sign just in front of the veranda of the old building indicated it was a visitor centre.
A hand written squarl on an old black board out front read “Back 4 pm” the author of which was probably sorting out a feud between two rival opal gangs.
The hitching post
Emu and I pulled up to the tin fence on the side of the hut, I reversed back to ensure Emu was out of the way should any stray bullets come his way. It felt like I should have tied him to the hitching post. Following my now well used ritual, I took off my glasses, then my helmet, followed by my riding gloves. As I turned around I saw the old bloke move slightly, this is it I thought, no sooner had I arrived and I was going to be gunned down.
Not a gunslinger in sight
“Gidday Mate, where have you come from” he said, with a youthful grin that belayed his 75 years of age. Now I can’t use his real name in this story, I’m going to call him Jim (to protect Jame’s identify). Well Jim was the most welcoming guy I had met in ages and we got to talking about all sorts of things, but mostly about Mount Isa. Jim was in town to visit his long time mate and fellow ex Mount Isa Miner “Bob” not Robert’s real name.
As I had worked for three years in Mount Isa at the beginning of the Millennium, I knew a lot of the town and people in it. Unlike other towns where you have to be born there to be a local, Mount Isa is the type of town that has so many different cultures that if you have a full time job and have been there for at least six months, then you’re a local.
Just “Good Old” local boys
So here we were, two local Mount Isa boys sharing a cold glass of water. That was until an Opalton local appeared by the name of Dave who drove up in his dusty Navarra Ute. Dave had been in Opalton for five weeks working a claim and was now considered an expert local miner. Dave was probably 30 years younger than Jim and had come to Opalton after his divorce and the loss subsequently of his fishing fleet in Normanton.
Super friendly miners
To my surprise there was not a gun slinging opal miner anywhere to be found. I learn a lot just casually talking to these two awesome men. When asked why I came all the way out here, I relayed the story about the Martin’s Place jewellery shop and my bucket list item. At which point Jim pointed to the tap and said that if I wanted to find some opal without having to blow up one of the hill sides I might try my luck over by the tap. Apparently, miners use the water in the tap (which is supplied by a local dam) to help chip away at rock that is likely to have opal through it and if I’m lucky I could pick up a bit of opal for myself.
The trick is to water the rock fragments and turn them over looking for shiny bits that might be opal. I washed the dust from my face and began shifting rocks looking for that elusive opal. I must say it was exciting work, the prospect of finding that million dollar stone, in fact I can see why Opal mining is so addictive.
I managed to find a number of stones that while not a million dollars were good enough to take home with me. It must have just turned four pm because a big 200 series land cruiser rocked up and Bob jumped out. G’day mate how are you he said. Then another husband and wife team rocked up and showed us a piece of opal they had just found.
Bob was the custodian of the information centre and ran a small opal sales business for the local miners. I mentioned that I wanted to buy a piece of bolder opal so he opened the shop and showed me some amazing bits of stone. I eventually settled a a piece and a price. Tick off one item on my bucket list.
Opals for sale
This really nice German lady by the name of Cheryl (not her actual name) arrived just as I was about to leave and showed me her selection of opals. She had an amazing assortment of all types of opals including some black opals from Lightning Ridge. She gave me a piece of iron stone that was embedded with different colour opal fragments and told me how to polish the stone to bring out the opal.
Unfortunately, my time in Opalton was limited as I had decided to ride to Longreach which is three and a half hours. It would have been great to camp for a night and learn more about the town, Bob offered to take me out to a working mine. Opalton is definitely a place I would like to visit again. I said good by to my new friends, Jim came up to me and gave me four different rocks, each laced with opal. I shock their hands and thanked them, what an amazing group of people.
Back on the road
The ride back didn’t seem to take as long or seem so difficult, I had started to perfect my bull dust riding technique and I knew what was coming up. It became my moto when riding sand or bull dust, heavy rear brake once I see it, wash off some speed and set the back shock, set my line, release the brake and accelerate.
My mind wondered to my own life, my father had passed away aged 92, six months earlier. He wasn’t a great father, he was never there for us kids and exhibited a very narcissistic attitude towards us and our mother. But I felt sad for him. He loved gem stones, the Australian Outback, Waltzing Matilda and was still riding his R1150 GS at the age of 74. He would have loved this trip and had he been a different person could have spent 30 days just riding and camping with one of his sons. It would have been one of those rides that build memories. I made a mental note to encourage my son and/or daughter to one day take a ride with me.
Longreach for the night
Arriving back in Winton, I refuelled both Emu and myself and headed South. At the petrol station I caught up with another ADV rider and his wife on a R1250 GS. They were heading to Atherton via Hughenden. As I had driven that road about six months ago, I was able to give him some track information.
My intention now is to find a camp somewhere along the road for the night. It’s 170 kilometres to Longreach from Winton and it was starting to get late. Not to mention I was getting tired. I turned my bike south and gunned the engine. To read the rest of my adventure go to my blog post https://digitalswaggie.com.au/?p=651