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Memorable sunsets at Lightning Ridge

The first time I experienced Lightning Ridge was in March 2019. We had been travelling long, flat, grey and dusty roads with heat mirages shimmering in the distance and no sign of water anywhere. We turned right off the Castlereagh Highway to see the town’s name painted colourfully (in opalescent colours) either side of the cattle grid across the road leading into Lightning Ridge. This was the first hint that we were about to enter a town with a unique character. I just had to stop the car and brave the 37 degree heat to capture the view. [1]

We met up with Lightning Ridge resident Rhonda Ashby (Yuwaalaraay/Gamilaraay) who told us moving stories about her strong connections to Country and the challenges with teaching language on Country. Later that day, Rhonda accompanied us as navigator when we went on the Green Car Door Explorer road to the top of Pig Hill (formerly Ironbark Ridge) to experience the sun setting across the flat dry land. [2] I witnessed one of my most memorable sunsets that warm evening – the rocky white alien landscape under our feet, including mysterious stone circles, the blood red sun and whisps of pink and orange clouds that brushed along the sky. [3] All accompanied by the hum of generators behind us as the opal miners continued their quests. [4]

We arranged to meet Rhonda at the Artesian Bore Baths at dawn the next morning, reasoning that it wouldn’t be too hot at dawn to visit the baths. [5] The 41.5 degrees celcius mineralised water bubbles up from 900 metres below and flows at 9 litres per second – constantly refreshing the water in the baths and relaxing all who slowly enter the water. It was a lovely send off for our road trip back to Dubbo.

Lightning Ridge

1. Right turn off the Castlereagh Highway to Lightning Ridge (Bill Obrien Way)
2. Top of the ridge at Pig Hill
3. On top of Pig Hill – looking west
4. On top of the ridge Pig Hill – looking north east
5. Artesian Bore Baths at dawn
6. Avryl's footprint in the red sand at Cumborah
Emu footprint at Narran Lake Nature Reserve
8. Rhonda Ashby (pictured at right) telling Marika (pictured at left) and Bill Code and his video camera (pictured as shadow) the Narran Lake Creation Story at Narran Lake Nature Reserve for the Living Language exhibition.
9. Looking east at sunrise from Kangaroo Hill
10. Kangaroo Hill, Lightning Ridge – looking south along Lorne Road just after sunrise

The second time I visited Lightning Ridge was in May 2019, this time to film and photograph Rhonda, her stories and her Country for the Living Language exhibition. We arrived in the dark (10.30 at night) after a very slow and cautious 5 ½ hour  drive from Coonabarabran via Walgett. From dusk onwards we were very aware of the mobs of kangaroos lining the road, the red reflections from their eyes keeping me mindful to keep the speed slow enough if I had to suddenly break.

The next day we set out with Rhonda to film out at Narran Lake Nature Reserve. On the way we stopped at Cumborah to visit one of Rhonda’s plant totems – a giant black orchid – where I captured my footprint in the red sand [6]. We then headed out to Narran Lake – the vast dry, flat, scrubby area and its surrounds was listed as a Ramsar site in 1999, being a wetland of international importance. Sadly the numerous migratory bird species, native bird species and diverse habitats that are supported by this wetland when the Murray-Darling Basin has a healthy water flow, were nowhere to be seen. [8]

There had obviously been a little bit of recent rainfall in the area, because as we walked out to the site where we filmed that day I came across many animal tracks in the red sand or impressed into the clay earth. Kangaroos, lizards, snakes, emus and unfortunately cows had left evidence of their presence in the area. [7] The next day at dawn we couldn’t resist heading out to capture the sun rising from Kangaroo Hill [9 & 10] and head back to the Artesian Bore Baths for our last relax, chat and laugh with Rhonda and other members of her ecclectic and interesting community before hitting the road to Nambucca Heads and Gumgaynggirr country.

Avryl Whitnall
Creative Producer, Living Language Exhibition

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