12 Jul Stephen Aracic – His return to Lightning Ridge
Stephen and Family Head for Lightning Ridge
In February 1965 , after returning to Sydney, Stephen Aracic quit his job at Dunlop Rubber. Feeling restless he set up his own business called Rozelle Radiator Repairs which operated satisfactorily for a while but then became quite a struggle. At the same time their first son named Paul arrived. It all became a bit too much and so they decided to close the business, pack the Kombi van and head back to Lightning Ridge.
Back at “the Ridge”, they set up camp at the Deep Four Mile field and camped out under the stars. Stephen describes how they lived better than I could so I will quote him. ” We slept comfortably in our Kombi van with Paul snuggled up beside us in his crib. I built a bower shelter to protect us from the fierce sun. It was made out of bits and pieces of corrugated sheet iron, cardboard and and branches of trees. A big tree shaded us on the other side. We suspended our groceries in a nearby shaft to keep them cool. We cooked our meals on a campfire I’d built out of rocks and backed with bits of tin.” I am sure some of us have done similar things for a short time on holiday but would not even consider living permanently like this in a place where the temperature can reach in the mid forties in summer, but the Aracic’s just accepted it, as did many other opal miners.
Their nearest neighbours were Ian and Joan Simmonds with whom they shared many visits. Ian had found some nice opal and had converted an old Singer sewing machine into an opal cutting machine which shows how ingenious some people can be.
Around this time there was a big new opal find at the Deep Four Mile field. Dozens of miners appeared and set up claims.They frantically dug by pick and shovel and others, in more of a hurry used explosives to blast through the sandstone. It was quite a dangerous place to be at times. This lasted for six weeks but no-one found anything and they all departed to other fields, no doubt to resume the same frenetic activity in the hope of striking it rich.
Stephen was learning fast about the search for opal and how much it depended on luck. He asked his neighbour Ian if could inspect his mine and see why Ian was getting opal, while he (Stephen), in an adjoining mine was not. Ian agreed and showed Stephen that where he getting opal, there was a large fault or slip, where the opal layer had slipped down about two metres. In Stephen’s mine he was digging about two metres deeper than Ian. Maybe this had something to do with it. Possibly the slip had affected where the opal had formed and this was why Stephen did not find any opal.
Back to Sydney Again
By now they were running out of money and had to give up mining for a while. They packed up, said goodbye to their new friends and headed back to Sydney just prior to Christmas 1965.
Back in Sydney Stephen Aracic quickly obtained a waiting job at Terrigal and soon after, in 1966, their daughter Fiona was born. Stephen tried opening up a small cafe but this soon folded. The opal bug had well and truly bitten and they again decided to pack everything up and head back to Lightning Ridge for one more try for opal.
Back to Lightning Ridge Again
When the returned, they set up camp at the Deep Four Mile and over the first year tried many claims. Stephen found some opal but just enough to make ends meet. In May 1967 Stephen became an Aussie officially, becoming naturalised at Walgett. This was an important day in his life as he had come to love Australia.
Life was pretty tough for the family. They often had almost no money and Mary had to push a pram full of washing to the Artesian baths with two young children in tow, which is a long way. But they managed. Time moved on and gradually things improved. The Kombi was replaced with a Dodge and Stephen could now cart water for Mary to do the washing and the kids could now take a bath in the forty gallon drums he used for carting water. There were all sorts of dangers for children living in an opal field. thorns on the ground, caterpillars being put in the mouth and the ever present danger of falling into an opal shaft. Not the things our kids have to face. Fiona actually fell down a shaft which was partly filled with water and her frantic mother had to rescue her. There were no ladders and Mary had rest her back on one side of the shaft and with legs on the other gradually crab walk down the shaft. She grabbed Fiona, who had been knocked out in the fall and somehow made it back to the surface. How many of us could have carried out such a rescue. Fiona survived and was out playing with the other kids in a couple of days. They were all very resilient in those days.
Huck the Opal Cutter
In 1969 they decided to move closer to town and set up camp beside the old Walgett Road at the top of the Ridge where there were several trees that would provide shade. His nearest neighbour was an opal miner and cutter called Huck who lived with his daughter Sheryl, who attended the local primary school. Huck’s camp had to be seen to be believed. Strewn with all sorts of rubbish, there was only one sort of structure and that was a room for Sheryl. Huck himself bedded down on a log frame covered with mosquito netting and covered with a bit of canvas.He had a few chooks (chickens) which he used for food. He also had a cat and a dog for company.
Stephen Aracic learned how to cut and polish opals from Huck. The cutting plant was operated by the petrol motor of an old lawn mower, which was notoriously hard to start, causing much mirth from other miners at times.. He charged 50 cents a nobby to rub back the edges to see if there was a colour bar. The bearings on the cutting apparatus were well worn and made a terrble noise and the wheel wobbled dangerously and often caused the opal to fly out of his hands.
He was, however, despite his poor equipment, quite a good cutter and shaped many a gem opal for the miners and Stephen’s family and Huck became good friends.
In 1968 Stephen met Chris, a Victorian who had ridden up to Lightning Ridge to look for opal.. He had previously met Huck and had set up a camp nearby. Both Stephen and Huck were impressed with Chris and so Chris became Stephen’s partner. They sunk a couple of shafts in the Deep Four Mile and actually bottomed onto a couple of nice nobbies but, after facing on the grindstone they turned out to be worth very little. They worked together for a while but didn’t find anything and Chris decided to return to Melbourne.
Time went on and after finding a few small opals Stephen had enough to buy some second hand materials and construct a small shack for the family to live in.It had three rooms and the luxury of insect screens on all windows. While not too flash it was a great improvement on where they had been living. Mosquitoes were a real problem especially after heavy rain and Huck’s dog actually died from blood loss due to excessive mosquito bites.
In the early 1970’s opal was becoming more popular around the world and many more miners were being attracted to Lightning Ridge. The town began to expand, and with that expansion came regulations. Stephen was presented with the option of leasing the land that he occupied as long as he built a suitable house on it. The other option was to move his camp further out. He managed to convince the Authorities that he had the intention of building a better house and was awarded a 99 year lease.
Huck was not so successful as he refused to bow to the regulators and so his camp was stripped and demolished and Huck decided to leave the Ridge and ended up in Forbes.
I will leave the story for now and the next post will Continue the life of Stephen Aracic and his family, at Lightning Ridge.
You can read Stephen’s story in much more detail in his book “Determined”. I again thank Stephen for letting me summarise his story. I think it is important as it gives us an insight into how hard it was to mine for opal in these early days. There are a lot of books which describe this, but nowadays these books are hard to find and people seem to prefer using the internet.