A Real Gem in the Outback
The place has been filmed and photographed, sung about, talked about, written about and bragged about … but nothing quite prepares most visitors for their first sight of this remote and quite unique opal mining centre way out in the northwest of New South Wales, near the Queensland border.
Lightning Ridge, with a population of around 5,000 (but who really knows?), is a real ‘people town’ – pretty much set up and operated by individuals each doing their own thing. Whilst there are a few out here providing services to the locals, most are simply working on their own mining plot (usually 50 m x 50 m) at their own pace in pretty harsh climatic conditions … and where the sight of ‘colour’, and in particular the famous black opal (a darker base colour than other opals) they are digging for, is their reward for many exhausting hours, weeks, months and years of sheer hard work, plenty of sweat and sometimes even tears. The black opal, only found here in Lightning Ridge, is the rarest and most valuable form of Australia’s national gemstones.
Despite all the hardships of living and working out here and their seemingly relaxed life style, locals will tell you there are more millionaires per head of population in ‘The Ridge’ (as they lovingly call it) than anywhere else in Australia … although no-one around the place will admit to being one of them! Another curious observation is that in the town cemetery, there are many graves with an ‘Unknown’ inscription and some with just a Christian name – all part of a common practice here in The Ridge, of people keeping their identities close to their chests – don’t tell and don’t ask!!
Going back into history, no-one knows how much value in these precious gems has ever been taken out of the place over the 100 plus years of mining, and with most new strikes being ‘kept very quiet’, no-one will ever know! Clearly though, many millions of dollars worth of opal have been won from these extensive deposits, including at nearby at the Grawin, Glengarry and Sheepyard opal fields. It is believed however, that there is still more opal to come out of the ground out here than has been already mined … and, if during your visit, you’re looking to meet some of these miners, many of whom are real Aussie characters ever ready to spin a yarn, or experience a real bush pub or two, call into the Glengarry Hilton, The Sheepyard Inn or the Club in the Scrub – all unique places you’ll long remember!
Clearly, over the years the Ridge has been a rough and tumble town where riches and greed have taught the locals to be wary of trusting just anyone. Rumours are always circulating of a new opal strike, stories of claim jumpers or unscrupulous individuals (ratters) coming into a mine at night to get what they can under the cover of darkness, of fights, muggings, even murder over a disputed claim, and a few people have just mysteriously disappeared.
But, for all that, there is much evidence of a strong social fabric in town. Many close and lasting friendships have been developed here and there is an obvious healthy community spirit and civic pride. Indeed, the town has a range of modern sporting facilities, including tennis, golf, archery, shooting, sports field, a fully equipped gym and (all built with local labour and funding) a world class water theme park including an Olympic size swimming pool, a lap pool with 9 diving platforms, water slides and a wave pool – a facility that many much larger towns around the country would love to have.
Probably the most popular and best loved of all however, is the Lightning Ridge Bore Baths, a really special feature of this quite unique place. Situated on the edge of town this free facility, open every day is a real bonus, particularly for the hard working opal miners, many of whom use the baths to relieve tired aching muscles after a hard day down in their mines. The hot artesian water here is also popular with visitors, some of whom come from all over the world seeking the therapeutic powers of the mineral rich water proven to relieve rheumatic and arthritic pains. Curiously, a sign here also tells that clothes are optional after midnight!!
Elsewhere around this vibrant outback centre there is a number of opal, art, craft and jewellery stores – some are even set up as underground galleries. The Australian Opal Centre, with a display of rare opalised dinosaur fossils, is another place that should not be missed. Also a real attraction are the places where you are allowed to fossick (noodling) in the mullock heaps where many a nice piece of opal has been found by visitors. Noodling in fact, is a really fun way to spend an hour or two (or more) which can still today produce a nice reward. In addition, there is a number of large murals around town worth checking out, a couple of medieval castles, a much acclaimed and truly fascinating cactus farm and a corrugated iron church never actually used as a church. There is also a strange beer can house, a bottle house, an unbelievable display of carvings in the underground Chambers of the Black Hand, and don’t miss a visit to John Murray’s Art Gallery for a whimsical, photo-realistic perspective of life in the outback! Also popular are a couple of opal field bus tours covering all the main sights around town.
For those visitors who prefer to check things out and find their own way around, there are four different self-drive ‘Car Door’ Tours to follow, all marked with colour-coded and numbered doors. There are no street names here, just car doors. On each of these tour trails you simply follow your chosen colour door (Blue, Red, Yellow and Green) trail with car doors strung up in trees or leaning against posts directing you down winding dirt roads past an unbelievable variety of interesting and sometimes strange, even quirky signs, ‘residences’, stalls, mines and structures along the way – all giving you a taste of the life and humour of the locals living and working on the opal fields here at The Ridge! A copy of the car door tour maps is available ($1) at the Visitor Centre.
Another of the many unusual sights out here is the huge 18 metre high metal sculpture (10 km from town on the Castlereagh Highway) of Stanley the Emu. Built by outback artist and sculptor John Murray, this intriguing creation is entirely made from scrap metal, including a couple of old Volkswagen bodies and a pair of satellite dishes – quite a unique welcome to the town.
And if you’re wondering how Lightning Ridge got its name – a plaque (opposite Stanley the Emu) solves the mystery. It tells the story that a shepherd, his dog and 600 sheep were killed by lightning here around 1870. The area was from then onwards known as Lightning Ridge.
Clearly, any visit to ‘The Ridge’ should not be rushed – in fact, it is a place that grows on you! Make sure however, you come prepared, as many people have arrived as visitors for a holiday and have never left – it’s just that sort of place!
- There is a wide variety of accommodation available in Lightning Ridge including caravan and camping facilities, on-site vans, chalets, log cabin units, bunkhouse/backpackers accommodation, as well as hotel and motel standard facilities. Full details from the Visitor Information Centre.
- Lightning Ridge Visitor Information Centre – phone (02) 6829 1670
- Lightning Ridge is located 74 km (via the all-sealed Castlereagh Highway) north of Walgett in north-western New South Wales.
- Australia produces over 90 per cent of the world’s opals.