About Lightning Ridge
Opal is found in many parts of Australia but it is the elusive Black Opal that has made Lightning Ridge famous. This rare gem is an appropriate symbol of the town as the exact nature of Lightning Ridge and its people is as mysterious as the stone itself.
So what is Black Opal? Opal is non-crystalline silica, similar to quartz, but is not a mineral. Its internal structure enables unique diffraction of light to produce white, gray, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, magenta, rose, pink, slate, olive, brown, and black. Opal is formed from a solution of silica (very fine sand-like particles) and water. In some sandstone outback regions, water passes though the sandstone to form a silica-rich solution that flows to voids formed from decomposed fossils and as the water evaporates, a silica deposit is left. This is repeated over vast periods and from it, an Opal is formed.
Black Opal was first discovered in the area in the 1870's but the indiscriminate finds were little more than curiosities when presented to gem buyers in Sydney. But, word spread to another Opal town, White Cliffs near Wilcannia that a new form of Opal was discovered and many thought their fortunes lay there and undertook the 700km trip by foot. One such person was Charlie Nettleton, who in the drought of 1902, walked the 700km to the Ridge to see the Black Opal first hand and a year later walked back to White Cliffs to develop a market for this new type of Opal. Charles Nettleton has been attributed with being a major factor in developing the industry.
Mining in the late 1800's and early 1900's was incredibly hard work, as miners used hand picks and shovels. Miners dug square-sided shafts, which they climbed with their backs and legs braced against the walls. Today, miners use steel ladders to descend to their work and return to the surface, and mechanical pulleys are able to take the excess earth from the mine to the surface. As you drive around town, these are visible appearing from the tops of mine shafts all around town.
The early years of Black Opal mining saw syndicates form and breakup, miners being impounded by the syndicates, drinking water poisoned, and even the two large Sydney pastoral companies who owned much of the land of the area engaging in a bitter battle to prevent opal mining succeeding in the area. It is from this backdrop that the town and its people developed and, similar to the process of the silica being laid down over many years to form the Black Opal, the rich character of the town developed from what was left over after its tumultuous past to produce the gem that it is today.
Travelling through this vast land, one often discovers places that can envelope the soul with tangible elements; a beautiful river, majestic native forests, indigenous cultural regions, or unspoilt pristine beaches.
Every now and again, one can come across a place where the same feeling is experienced without any tangible elements to account for that feeling. Lightning Ridge, home of the elusive Black Opal, is one of those places.
Such is the allure of 'The Ridge' that many who initially planned to only stay a day or so as part of a larger travel experience, end up staying a lifetime without being able to pinpoint the exact reason.
One thing Lighting Ridge does have is plenty of eccentricity, not the type that one needs to be wary of but the kind that truly envelopes any visitor and is delivered via characters that could be included in any folkloric Australian novel or film; truly warming and welcoming.
Lightning Ridge is a town full of vibrancy with plenty of experiences on offer for the visitor.
Like many places, there are self-guided tours, but in a unique Ridge style, these are not sign-posted with touring-type signs but marked with car doors, a different coloured car-door for each one. Someone years ago had the bright idea that with so many abandoned cars in the area, why not recycle parts of them and use the doors to mark the various areas of the town.
Along these touring routes are some great highlights. Out at Sim's Hill (Red Car-door) is the award winning 'The Black Queen', a unique and enthralling three act play covering not only the amazing story of the creation of the Black Queen and how owners Gale & Roger Collins came to own it and become custodians of its story, but one of the most amazing collection of lamps that you will find anywhere. Also on this route is the Astronomer's Monument (only accessible with a tour) that has its own amazing story.
The Yellow Car-Door tour takes in the 3 Mile Opal field, the largest of the town opal fields, and places like the Bird Of Paradise Art Gallery (local artist Paul Bird), '3-Mile open-cut mine, Lunatic Hill, 4 Mile Opal Field, and past Nudey's Paradise. (It's all in the name). Two highlights here are The Chamber of the Black Hand, a massive underground sculpture gallery with an interpretive opal mining tour, and the "Goddess of 1967" church, the movie set for a 2000 film starring Rose Byrne.
To the north of town is the Green Car-Door tour that covers the Walk-in-Mine (self-guided opal mine tours) and Bevan's Black Opal & Cactus Nursery, a phenomenal collection of cacti.
Sit Back & Relax:
A favourite of many who visit Lightning Ridge, especially those who may be a bit 'saddle sore' from travel, is the bore baths. Fed from the Great Artesian Basin, water flows naturally to the surface at 41.5 Celsius and then mixed with cooler water of the bath to create the perfect temperature for a soothing experience which many claim therapeutic benefits from bathing in the water.
Originally, the water flow was over 20 litres/second; constant and transported via 100km of open drains supplying many farms in the area. With over 4 million litres of water being wasted though evaporation and seepage, not to mention 600+ tonnes of salt entering the landscape, measures of conservation were recently implemented and the water flow is now regulated and transported underground.
In The Area:
No visit to Lightning Ridge would be complete without a trip to The Grawin. About 1 hour via Cumborah, The Grawin is the site of the original Opal Fields of the area. If you think the Ridge is unique, this area is even more so as you drive through a massive array of diggings. Touring can be thirsty and hungry work and there are some great options along this tour to replenish the energy levels. The Glengarry Hilton (no connection), Sheepyard Inn, and the Club in the Scrub are worthy contenders of 'have you been there', with the later even offering the opportunity for a round of golf.