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Capturing Community Stories: Tales from Lightning Ridge - Part 2

Portrait of Borko
Petar "Borko" Borkovic

After an unforgettable trip capturing the captivating characters of Lightning Ridge, it was clear this dusty opal mining town left its mark on us.

We spent quality time underground and in artesian baths with residents like local legend Petar "Borko" Borkovic over tea/coffee and through our cameras, embodying the original vision for our traveling storyteller portrait project.

Portrait of Franka Friedrichs-Borkovic
Franka Friedrichs-Borkovic - Propreitor of Outback Opal Tours

Some of the enduring themes and lessons were the way Lightning Ridge embraced individuality and diversity among its residents. As German migrant Franka Friedrichs-Borkovic observed, you could meet "people from all walks of life" here—even strangers bathing together at the local bore baths.

The only code, as one resident said, “was to not be a ‘ratter’ (mine thief)’ or an unpleasant person—past and origins mattered little to this eclectic community.

The town's allure lay in its ability to draw in wonderfully eccentric characters like Peter Driscoll or better known as Pete, a nudist miner, musician, antiques collector, leather-worker, and now a tour guide.

Then there is Borko, a fourth-generation opal miner, navigating the fault-lines for color and magic in the earth since childhood.

Mining, though now more mechanized, retained its intimate character—individuals or pairs delving into the depths to unearth hidden treasures in rock or the many community stories.

People like Franka herself, who came to Lightning Ridge by chance on holiday and never left, starting a new life, half a world from home. All were bound together by the indomitable spirit of the place and its storied mining history—this dusty outpost is one of few Australian regional towns that contributes to producing a staggering 95% of the world's opals from Australia.

Here, it's the realm of the one-person operation, where small-scale miners extract opal with little more than a jackhammer and a pickaxe. Opal, resistant to the commercial miner's conventional pursuits, weaves its unpredictable dance on fault-lines below the earth's surface.

Our journey extended from mine shafts 30-40 feet underground to the intricate craft of carving these mercurial stones, spending time with opal cutter Justine Buckley.

As she delicately shaped an eagle from the opalescent canvas, she said, "this stone, it's good for nothing else but being beautiful. And I've got the privilege of actually turning it into something beautiful."

Each creation, a labor of love that spanned weeks or months, breathed life into the earth's hidden wonders.

Portrait of Opal cutter Justine Buckley
Opal cutter Justine Buckley

Of course, we couldn’t reflect on Lightning Ridge without acknowledging the allure of discovery that still lures prospectors today hoping to strike it rich.

Though the glory days have passed, devoted miners like Borko persist—driven by the thrill of catching a glimmer of color where his pick strikes.

As he put it, "You can go to work poor today and be rich tomorrow." Even after years digging, fortune may lurk just a meter away.

Most special were the conversations over a beverage as we collaborated with residents to craft photographic portraits encapsulating their spirit and stories. They welcomed us into the community, sharing wisdom, humor, loss, pride in their town, and purpose in choosing this distinctive place to call home.

Portrait of Borko's nephew in a mine.
Borko's nephew in a mine.

Susie and Mel, Bush poets.

We visited evocative landmarks from mining lore like the Sheepyard Inn, where tales ran taller than the schnitzels. The seemingly endless opal fields, where one could disappear into the red earth to never return. The cemetery with its many unnamed graves for those who wished to remain anonymous even in death. All part of the stories of Lightning Ridge.

It perfectly embodied our vision to connect with outback communities through creativity and mutual storytelling.

We gained an insider's view of Lightning Ridge that tourist brochures could never conjure. New friendships forged across cups of coffee and through camera lenses.

Needless to say, the trip lit a fire in us to continue the journey as traveling storytellers. We left buzzing with ideas and motivations for future collaborations.

Above all, we drew inspiration from the authentic characters of this Australian outpost. Their spirit of openness, resilience, purpose, and embracing individuality will stay with us on the road ahead.

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