Lightning Ridge is one of those iconic places in Australia where you need to visit at least once in your life to discover its history, natural yet harsh beauty and the rough characters that call this place home.
Most travellers known that Lightning Ridge ( or The Ridge, as known by locals ) is home to some of the best opal in the world and where lost people seem to go to get away from problems.
There’s no doubt that it's a bloody hot, remote and isolated area but the Ridge seems to be busy all the time with travellers passing by or making it their own destination. We decided to explore the area but made the mistake in just turning up without booking accommodation into one of the 4 parks in town.
Luckily just 3km away Lorne Station is an old shearing property that’s opened their gates up to campers and with nearly 10,000 acres to camp on we were guaranteed a spot, a down to earth park with basic facilities where you can setup for a day or for weeks.
Lorne Station itself allows you to fossick on their mullock heaps around the property, we didn’t get lucky here finding any colour but the managers reckon others have.
Lightning Ridge is a very tourist town now with coffee shops, art galleries and in the cooler months the parks are packed with southerners that flock here to soak in the artesian water that comes from nearly a 1km underground.
Sceptics say that soaking in this mineral enriched water heals you of your aches and pains and may even add a few years to your life, all we know is that once you get past the sulphur smell it does feel good where the water temperature is around the 40c mark.
Hitting up the local Tourist info centre they are more than happy to give you an array of booklets and advice that allow you to do a stack of self guided tours around town and the outer reaches. Definatly the most popular around town are the four car door tours. There are green, red, yellow and blue car doors scattered around town all with a different theme that you follow and discover different quirky highlights around town, most take around the 30 min mark and start from the heart of town.
Depending on which one you take there’s history, unusual houses made of weird materials ( like the bottle house or the castle complete with a moat ), there’s a drive to a tin church made for a movie, others take you to original mines, lookouts, old car relics and much more.
Dating back to the 1800’s when pastoralists used the area for huge sheep stations it wasn’t until early 1901 when a boundary rider named Jack Murray picked up some ‘pretty rocks’ one day which was Opal that had eroded to the grounds surface.
He substantially was fired from his job as a rider as he spent Sundays digging up these rocks. Later on he and a mate walked 700 miles to White Cliffs, sold their small diggings and the rush was on. It was hard work in the early days where miners dug the hard ground by hand then had to haul the dirt and rock by hand to the surface.
On the yellow car door tour, it will take you to one of the original and largest open cut opal mine in NSW and reportedly the richest black opal source ever found. Here at Lunatic Hill it was said men had to dig three times deeper than other areas to find any fortune. As word spread of black opal being found here a village, Nettleton, grew nearby down on Three Mile Flat workings.
Over the next 60 years the ‘hole’ got so big that it became to unsafe to work around but they kept going and in 1986 a huge hand side black opal was found estimated at $6m, today the area is fenced off to the public but viewing areas let you gaze down into this massive hole.
From the air it looks like a million mole hills around the Ridge but these are all mollock heaps, dirt taken from vertical shafts deep in the ground where miners are looking for that seam of colour and maybe a fortune. Mine claims around here are generally 50 x 50 m square and in that area any number of holes can be sunk. Wandering around the mines on the claims are a big no no and at night it would be extremely dangerous.
Wanting more than the normal tourist route we were told about ‘other’ Opal fields about 100km to the west of Lightning Ridge, called the Grawin Opal fields where things were a lot tougher. The drive across to Grawin via Cumborah is all tar but things get pretty rough and ugly as soon as we hit the turn off into Grawin.
There’s no shire council out here to maintain the roads and most locals leave there tyres at 20 psi due to the unforgiving and relentless corrugations. The 20km drive into the fields is like something out of a mad max movie with 40+ year old trucks working the area, unregistered, no doors and with weird mining gear welded to the back.
There’s nothing pretty about this area as its all coated in a whitish dust, a bit like baby powder, on the trees, on the make shift dwellings, vehicles and trust me it gets in everywhere.
A few years a go someone saw a vision out here and created the ‘Pubs in the Scrub’ after visitors kept dropping in looking for something to do. Now days there are several ‘Pubs’ ( more like licences sheds ) where you can grab a feed and a coldie.
We found that you can free camp behind either pub as long as you spend a few dollars there too, and for that they will give you the heads up where you can noodle or fossick in legal mine dumps around the area. The most poplar two are up near the Sheepyards ( one of the original mine areas ), where after 50 years the piles of rock and dirt are as large as a footy field and over 10 metres high.
Every few hours a mine truck will drive to the top of these piles and dump a few more ton of rubble out - just don’t get in their way. It’s a unique community where they work had looking for that elusive big opal full of colour.
In 1905 the first opal was found nearby at Hammond Hill and it wasn’t until 20 years later that the first substantial piece of rock that created an ‘opal Rush’ to the area. During the war era it was done by candlelight and as per the Ridge it was all dug by hand by pick and shovel. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that proper tools, jack hammers and trucks made an appearance in the area that made things a little easier, turn the clock to the 1990’s when gear like giant vacuums cleaners made life easier in the mines and hydraulics made work work even quicker.
These days the trucks and machinery have the right of way on the road and we really didn’t see too many number plates on anything, rough roads must shake them off !. Local rumour has it that when the local constabulary show up for a drive around, the town goes quiet and it’s hard to find anyone around. Maybe that’s why there’s no real population count.
Another ‘pub’ out here is the Club in the Scrub where you can also free camp, book a basic cabin, have a yarn to a local ( maybe get a few tips ), play a round of outback golf, have a feed or just relax and take in the memorabilia around on the walls.
The area is alive with quirky and unique characters, tours, signs and more - if only just once in your life make the trip to this iconic area, trust me you won’t be disappointed.
Just one last thing - watch out for the Hudson Cactus. Its a pest to the area and can and will go through shoes - trust me I found out the hard way .