Whooomph! Camping gear was hurled unceremoniously into the 1959 FC Holden as dawn was cracking. Poles, canvas, bedding, rudimentary cooking gear and clothes were randomly tossed. Whooomph. There was no packing plan, the anxious passengers would sit on the roof if necessary. It was a frantic de-camp dictated by putting as many miles as possible between our vehicle and the lunatic living in a shack near our lonely campsite at the 3-Mile diggings. When the engine spluttered into life, there was a collective exhalation of breath. A crude spray of gravel and a pother of western NSW dust announced our hasty exit. Next stop would be the solitary fuel stop in Lightning Ridge, then an all-day return to the coast. The further from Rafferty and the parched lunar landscape of these opal diggings, the better!
Tri-mester break at the Teachers’ College commenced a week ago. Four 18 year old students, boy-men with zero fossicking knowledge but an inflated sense of invincibility, had set out from Lismore. The lure of colourful opal and fabulous riches masked any sense of reality. Hell, it was 1971, the Age of Aquarius, hippiedom, long hair, corn cob pipes. Armstrong had walked on the moon only two years ago. All things were possible, man. The 12 year old Holden was strategically packed to the gills, the triple Woodstock Festival album endlessly churned on the portable cassette player.
After a day’s driving inland from the verdant rainforest green of the big scrub, we were confronted with desolation of decades of opal mining. Lightning Ridge was scarred with thousands of mullock heaps, spoil extracted from a myriad of mine shafts, monuments to dreams and hopes, some achieved but most crushed.
In semi-darkness, we’d set up camp at the old 3-Mile diggings. There was no defined roadway, no amenities, no sign of other campers, just low scrubby bushes in a pock-marked world. Occasional distant human noise and the barking of a dog reassured us we weren’t alone on the dark side of the moon. Over the following few days we “specked” the surface of mullock heaps finding some fragments of colour, but mostly just worthless potch. If we found flecks of colour, we’d “noodle” down with small picks, re-digging piles that earlier miners had discarded. Each night, we drove the 3 miles towards the Ridge to shed accrued dust in the outdoor artesian hot pool.
One night Rafferty appeared. Scared us witless emerging from the darkness and entering our personal space at our campfire. Other than several day-trippers, we hadn’t seen any other campers out at 3-Mile. He accepted a beer, and was personable despite his rough exterior. Said he was a miner; lived in a shack on the old 3-Mile, but lately he’d been working a claim out at the 9-Mile diggings, a newer area. It must have been Rafferty we’d heard in the distance and loneliness of our first night. He accepted another beer and regaled us with life-stories. I judiciously listened and observed, summing him up, both fascinated and a little skeptical. He was lean, tallish, probably in his fifties. The remnant of a hand-rolled ciggy was glued to his bottom lip. It jiggled as he spoke through a hoarse smoker’s voice and lilting Irish accent. The western NSW sun had creased his face, browned his skin. I seemed to be staring at his turned right eye each time he looked towards me.
We gradually warmed to him while he quizzed our prospecting success. Before meandering off into the darkness he offered us some days down his mine-shaft at the 9-Mile if we were up for it. We’d have to share any colour we found, but he wouldn’t be there all week. He gave us the directions, and we agreed because noodling the old diggings had mostly been fruitless.
Following his crudely drawn map, we located Rafferty’s shaft the next morning. A small sun-bleached claim number was affixed to a hand-operated winch perched over an ominously narrow 4 feet diameter shaft. It dropped vertically a distance of 25 feet. At the base, two tunnels, roughly 4 feet high, diverged outwards about 30 feet. The winch had a rope and bucket, but access down the shaft was by rope ladder. Over two days we worked the mine on our knees with small picks and buckets, two of us at the top manning the winch, and two down in the stifling hot tunnels. We were fit young men, but lack of air circulation and digging in confined space took its toll. We were knackered and had only found two seams of worthless potch after two full days.
Late last night, after our second day in the tunnel, Rafferty emerged from the blackness again and seemingly slithered into our camp. Helping himself to our beer, he ingratiated himself on a folding stool and proceeded to hold court. Beer apparently loosened his tongue. Suspicions about him had arisen. Asked why the name on the claim we’d been working wasn’t “Rafferty,” he dismissed our query with a wave of a gnarly hand. When I inquired the whereabouts of the “missus” he’d mentioned previously, Rafferty had chillingly replied, “I know where she is. She won’t be coming back.”
Alarm bells silently rang. Sinister stuff, but how could we extricate ourselves from Rafferty? Seemingly he didn’t read our collective discomfort as he waxed on. Cracking another beer, he spoke of existential crises then segued into mindfulness and out-of-body experiences before regaling us, four wide-eyed and slack-jawed youths, of a time when he’d lain naked amongst mullock heaps under a full moon. Rising, he’d offered a guttural howl towards the stars, then commenced a loping run across the parched earth. Looking downward after perhaps 15 minutes, he noticed he’d been taking bounds of at least 20 to 30 feet and leaping at least as high before he became apprehensive and halted.
Rafferty had staggered off into the darkness around midnight then we’d had a group debrief. The consensus reached was that Rafferty was nuts, probably dangerous, and we should hightail it in the morning. Since just after 3am, I’d been lying on my camp stretcher scanning for shadows on the walls of the tent and straining to hear nocturnal sounds. I reassured myself of our invincibility… after all, we had superior numbers. Stepping outside for an urgent pee, something moved behind a mullock heap and in the moonlight there was a definite glimpse of a fleeing person. Curtailing my pee far too abruptly, I’d scrambled back inside the marquis in wet undies. With shortened breaths I hissed to my mates what I’d just seen. Genuine fear replaced mere anxiety and all four of us maintained a listening vigil until the first fingers of daylight seeped into the Western Plains darkness.
With agitated passengers seated on top of strewn camping gear, we skidded to a gravel-spraying halt at the petrol pump in Lightning Ridge. Shit! It was closed! Opened at 7am. We waited inside the car for an hour outside the local police station, four pairs of eyes scanning up the 3-Mile Road. At precisely 7am, we rolled back to the petrol pump relieved to be able to fuel up and exit this god-forsaken lunar landscape. Tentatively, I raised the name Rafferty with the attendant. Asked if he’d had any dealings with a Rafferty from the 3-Mile.
“Ahhhh… Yeahhh,” he drawled, eyes darting around, focusing anywhere but on me. “Rafferty lived out that way until about 4 or 5 years back… ‘e were an Irish bloke but e’s been dead fer years now… Got hisself shot… They reckon he’d ratted someone’s claim out near the 9-Mile… Ya just don’t do that out here. Want me ta check yer oil?”