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Hittin' the road - Episode 10: Lightning Ridge/Walgett

Education is one sure way to break this cycle, something that fuels the passion and tenacity of the TAFE teachers I spoke to

After another two hours on the road (catch up with my Coonamble visit here), I arrived at the outback opal town of Lightning Ridge.

A town with a name this cool also requires its own local mythology explaining the name's origin to curious visitors like me. Apparently in the 1870s some passersby discovered the charred remains of a farmer, his dog and about 600 sheep (count ‘em), who'd all been struck by lightning. The truth of this claim is slippery, but at least it makes for a good story. And it was better than calling the town Lamb's Fry.

Most of Lightning Ridge's coolness, however, is because it sits on the world's largest known black opal deposits, giving rise to the title - Black Opal Capital of the World. Not surprisingly, the most popular course at the local TAFE Campus is the four-week Certificate II in Opal Cutting & Polishing course (now would be a good time to mention the toilet cistern on the wall)!

Opal enthusiasts come from all over Australia to study this particular course, which isn't available anywhere else in the country. This is closely linked to the town's other principal industry – tourism. And while the TAFE opal-cutting course is currently only available commercially (it didn't make the NSW Skills List) the opal trade and tourism will continue to be a major part of Lightning Ridge's very identity. Especially now that the Opal cutting TVET course is making a return after a two year hiatus. And no visit to "the Ridge" is complete without a good long soak in the artesian springs, something that Donna at Lightning Ridge TAFE recommended I try. I stayed in the cleansing, 46-degree waters long after my fingers had started to prune, but it was definitely worth it. I felt a million bucks after my soak. In fact, I felt so energised, I couldn't resist the urge to make the half hour drive further north to the NSW/Queensland border and blow some friendly raspberries at our northern cousins.

I then jumped back onto the highway and retraced my tracks past Lightning Ridge and back down the Castlereagh Highway to the town of Walgett.

One of the first things I noticed as I drove down the main street was the number of metal shutters covering the doors and windows of local businesses. This is silent testament to the dispirited economy and crippling social issues of unemployment, poverty and street crime that have plagued the town for decades. Sadly, these issues seem to run largely along racial and cultural lines.

I visited the local TAFE College and chatted to some of the teachers. I even sat in for a couple of the T-VET classes; Automotive and Horticulture. Unfortunately, most of the high school students were very disengaged with the lessons, despite the passion and enthusiasm of their teachers. The level of student disengagement seemed reflective of the social environment of the town, something that has become deeply embedded over many years.

Ironically, education is one sure way to break this cycle, something that fuels the passion and tenacity of the TAFE teachers I spoke to. It almost seems as if Walgett TAFE is carrying the weight of the entire town's future and potential on its shoulders, the single remaining strand that's holding a threadbare garment together. These teachers fully realise the importance of their mission as educators. You have to tip your hat to the effort that Walgett Campus and TAFE Western put in daily, to make a difference to the people of this community.