One of the things I love about this writing caper is the interesting people you meet and places you find, which in turn tends to shunt your life in the most amazing directions.
Three years ago I was asked to write a story on the Australian Opal Centre in Lightning Ridge for R.M Williams Outback. Last month I found myself 18m underground shovelling dirt into a wheel barrow. Seems B and I have become opal miners and I have the role of pit pony.
How the hell did that happen?
Well after the initial story I headed back to the Ridge a couple more times to report on million dollar opals and ugly men, and along the way we had the opportunity to purchase a Lightning Ridge camp and two old opal claims (mines). So now we are the proud owners of two vintage caravans, three dodgy garden sheds and the epitome of outback luxury in a longdrop .
But what did B and I know about opal mining? About as much as we knew about camels . Zip.
Our saving grace has been a crew of fair dinkum opal miners who DO know what they are doing and, for reasons unknown, have adopted us and are preventing us from doing anything too stupid.
They deemed our original claims unsafe, have installed us in another mine (with big L plates attached) and are patient and knowledgeable when we are neither.
However they are not going to mine for us. That is something we have to learn on our own, which is how I found myself 18m underground shovelling dirt into a wheel barrow. But let’s go back a few steps …
To get 18m underground requires climbing down a ladder via a shaft about a metre in diameter.
That wouldn’t be so bad if our ladders were pinned to the wall. They are not. They swing.
I hate the ladders. Every time I have to go into the mine my stomach knots, my bladder loosens and a kind of terror overtakes. Yet, knowing I will get no sympathy from my mining partner, down I go and morph into a pit pony.
Pit ponies don’t need boot camp or a gym. Pit ponies should develop killer abs and biceps from climbing down four stories of hanging ladders, swinging on a shovel, hauling dirt and then climbing back up again. Pit ponies then need a rum.
When I have conquered the climb out of the mine I am full of confidence. I fair swagger into the pub, covered in white opal dirt – a real miner.
But then I realise I have to go down the ladders again tomorrow. Confidence decreases. Anxiety increases.
Yet on the morrow I find myself climbing down the ladders, with a death grip mind you, and morphing back into a pit pony.
On reflection the novelty of being a pit pony took about five minutes to wear off.
We have since found out there are mechanical pit ponies called boggers. Combine a bogger with a hydraulic digger, a hoist to take dirt to the surface and a truck to take it away and you have something called a mining plant. Something we plan to get. As soon as possible.
And then, when we are a bit more professional, I might be able to get ladders pinned to the wall.
I bloody well hope so.