Lightning Ridge, Black Opal
© Simon Bayliss
We all love the unique things about Australia and while many would argue there are many unique places around the world, we take a particular pride in our special outback places, journeys and experiences. Our uniqueness is really something... unique.
Few towns in Australia are as inimitable as Lightning Ridge and fewer things are more distinctively Australian than the Black Opal for which the town is famous. The pair go hand in hand, after all, Lightning Ridge is known as the home of the Black Opal.
A precious gemstone that is found in a few places around the world, 95% of commercial opal is uniquely Australian, primarily from South Australia. Of that, only 2% is made up of the elusive Black Opal and nearly all of that is mined at Lightning Ridge.
While not actually on the Darling River, it is one destination that should be included in the iconic Darling River Run touring route; one of the best in Outback NSW!
But the ‘Ridge’ was not the first NSW opal town as White Cliffs started commercial mining of our national gemstone in 1884. Despite Black Opal being found in Lightning Ridge in the early 1870’s, that form of opal was little more than a curiosity when presented to gem buyers in Sydney, so the focus of opal mining centred on White Cliffs to the west and further afield in South Australia.
Early last century, word had spread that a new form of Opal was discovered and many thought their fortunes lay there and headed east from White Cliffs. One such person who made that journey 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 recognised as the major force behind developing the industry, and from that 1,400km round trip, on foot and during a drought, lay the foundation for the commercial ‘development’ of the Ridge. Today, with that pioneering spirit firmly entrenched, Lightning Ridge is one of the best outback destinations for the traveller.
The Ridge Experience
Visitors can become so enamoured with the town, the people and the lifestyle, that a short visit can turn into a week or a month. For some though, the allure of the town is so strong they never leave.
Lightning Ridge is located just off the Castlereagh highway north of Walgett about 200km northeast of Bourke (as the crow flies) and is easily accessible for those travelling the north-south route through outback NSW or heading east-west along the Darling River Run.
Lightning Ridge will welcome you with that classic country hospitality that marketers can only dream, but it is neither forced nor put-on and is certainly not be 'more of the same'.
One thing Lighting Ridge does have in abundance is 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.
Local Postmaster, Laurie Hudson, 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’, and like the ‘stone of mystery’, Lightning Ridge also displays its uniqueness in many different ways depending how you wish to experience it.
What is Black Opal?
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, grey, 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 differs from other Opal as it is formed on a black quartz-like layer that enables greater refraction/reflection of the light to the top of the opal, especially the reds and pinks; and these colors are rarer, more beautiful and or course more valuable.
Interestingly, the actually process of how an Opal forms is still primarily a mystery and there are many theories. Consequently, determining where it can be found is also enigmatic 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.
Touring Lightning Ridge
Like many places, Lightning Ridge has 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.
Each self-drive tour allows the visitor to experience places like the Astronomer’s Monument, Amigo’s Castle, 3 Mile Opal field, Lunatic Hill, Nudey’s Paradise. (It’s all in the name), Chamber of the Black Hand, (a massive underground sculpture gallery), the “Goddess of 1967” church, Walk-in-Mine (self-guided opal mine tours) and Bevan’s Black Opal & Cactus Nursery, to name a few.
For those that are a bit ‘saddle-sore’ from the travel, the artisan bore baths is a favourite and one of the main reasons some people visit the Ridge. 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.
Getting your own 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 tow. There are many options for buying opal and opal jewellery. 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 something to be avoided as it is considered stealing.
Ridge Art and Artists
The Ridge has a wonderful artistic history with many well-known iconic artists. One on the main street not to be missed is the John Murray Art Gallery. John is an internationally acclaimed artist who produces beautiful iconic Australian landscape paintings full of life, colour and the essence of the outback. His paintings are full of wildlife ‘personalities’ and even some very familiar political characterisations including Julia Gillard as an Emu, and Tony Abbott resplendent in his ‘budgie-smugglers’. John’s gallery walls are adorned with some big open landscapes and standing in front of them can be a surreal, not to be missed, experience.
No visit to Lightning Ridge would be complete without visiting the Grawin, about 1 hours’ drive via Cumborah. The Grawin is 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, but a warning, there are no greens, only ‘browns’.
Need a Pool?
Drive through any country town and you will usually see a swimming pool, but the Ridge pool is slightly different and was built in a very Ridge way. Back in the 1980’s group of local schoolgirls were getting tired of having to travel to Walgett (over an hour away) to attend swimming training. So they combined their savings and started to raise money for the project. Needless to say, the pool was built, as was an indoor gym, basketball centre and most recently an Olympic standard diving centre. That is the can-do attitude and community generosity that makes the Ridge such a special place.
Ridge Festivities & Festivals
To further appreciate that sprit and the real character of Lightning Ridge, the perfect time to visit the town is during one of its wonderful festivals. The Easter festival, compete with a two day horse race event, rodeo, parade, wheelie-bin races, street markets, and ‘the big dig’. The Ridge Easter festival is one of the best and well-known outback festivals. The Opal Festival (late July) is all about the Black Opal, while ARTtober celebrates the wonderful artistic community of the Ridge.
Lightning Ridge can get very hot and dry during summer, many locals also think so and take their holidays then and consequently the town winds down over the summer months, so the best time to visit is from Easter to October.
Many fellow travellers will relate stories about the Ridge and 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 unique sense.
For more information, please visit the Lightning Ridge website