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!