© Simon Bayliss
Discover the soul and heartland of the Aussie pioneering spirit! The Ridge will welcome you with classic country hospitality, but it will certainly not be 'more of the same. 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.
Lightning Ridge Introduction
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 valuable and 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.
Nearby, Bourke has the mighty Darling River and the magnificent Gundabooka National Park, while Lighting Ridge has neither a river nor national park. Yet its intangible nature has the town on the top of many a to-do list.
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.
A local of the area, Laurie Hudson (Cumborah Postmaster), once wrote, "Though you've roamed the whole world over, seen most all there is to see, there are scenes you've never dreamed of, in the stone of mystery". Like the stone of mystery, Lightning Ridge also shows its various facets of colour in many different ways depending on how one looks at it.
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 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.
The black opal differs from other opal as it is formed on a darker (black) quartz like layer that enables greater refraction/ reflection of the light to the top of the opal, especially the reds and pinks. It is the 'reds' that are more valuable.
Interestingly, the actually process of how an opal forms is still somewhat a mystery and there are many theories. Consequently, determining where it can be found is also a mystery as it is very hit and miss. Some have described mining for black opal as playing the lottery, but with most of the time spent digging underground.
Black Opal at the Ridge
Black opal was first discovered in the area in the 1870s, but the indiscriminate finds were little more than curiosities when presented to gem buyers in Sydney. However, 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.
The early years of black opal mining saw syndicates form and break up, 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.
Experiencing Lightning Ridge
It is from this backdrop that the town and its people developed. 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.
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 differently 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 Sims 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 and 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 Nudeys 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.
Lightning Ridge Bore Baths
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 20L/ second, constant and transported via 100km of open drains supplying many farms in the area. With over four million litres of water being wasted though evaporation and seepage, not to mention 600-plus tonnes of salt entering the landscape, measures of conservation were recently implemented and the water flow is now regulated and transported underground.
Getting your own Black Opal:
Time in Lightning Ridge will inevitably turn to buying opal, and like most types of shopping, particularly that involving jewellery, it is often the ladies who lead the way with the male of the species firmly in Angledool Opals, Down to Earth Opals, GGS Goldsmith, the Opal Bin and the Opal Cave, but one that should be high on the list is Lost Sea Opals. Conveniently located next to a café and round the corner from a gallery, Lost Sea Opals is a jewellery shop showcasing wonderful pieces of set Opal and also specimen pieces, with all opal jewellery made on the premises produced in a viewable workshop.
If the partner is wanting but the wallet is unwilling, you can always fossick for your own opal at the visitor centre where a regularly replenished supply of material is provided and many who try their luck have been pleasantly surprised. In fact, last year a couple found a piece of black opal valued at over $20,000. So it can certainly be worth it. A note of caution, though, this is the only place in town that you can do this and fossicking in someone else's claim, or 'ratting' as it is known, is not something that is taken too kindly and should be avoided.
No visit to Lightning Ridge would be complete without a trip to the Grawin. About one 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.
Visiting Lightning Ridge
Lightning Ridge can get very hot and dry during summer, even many locals think so and take their holidays then so many places wind down over the summer months. Consequently, the best time to visit is from Easter to October.
Many fellow travellers will relate stories about the Ridge as much has been written about this wonderful place, but that will give you as much understanding of the place as trying to smell a colour or hear a sunset. But take the time to make your way to the Ridge, and all will make sense.
The Ridge will welcome you with classic country hospitality, but it will certainly not be 'more of the same'. They are a unique bunch of characters out there that pride themselves on a wonderful and heartfelt eccentricity; it is something about the pioneering spirit.
For more information, please visit the Lightning Ridge website