When we arrived in Lightning Ridge it was early evening and very hot. It was immediately obvious that this was a real outback town. We had been to Broken Hill and seen the surrounding area including the ‘ghost town’ of Silverton . But up to now there has been nothing quite like Lightning Ridge.
Back in the 1800s it was merely a farming area. The town is said to have got its name from an early pioneer who discovered the bodies of a famer, his dog and 600 sheep that had been struck by lightning. It is probably an outback myth but soon after the area would no longer be known for farming. In the very late 1800s opals were discovered. In 1905 opal mining started in earnest. Not only is the area rich in opals, Lightning Ridge is the only area in Australia (and one of only a few in the world) known to have the famous and desirable black opal.
From then the place kind of took off, with the help of a largely transient population of would be opal hunters. Well, it expanded a little. Even today it is still a small town. Even compared to Broken Hill this place is tiny.
The Unique Spirit of the place the locals call ‘The Ridge’
Lots of characters have come and gone, some stayed. The folk of Lightning Ridge can be described as inspiring and crazy (in a nice way) but they are definitely very friendly. Many have left their mark in the area which has a unique blend of artistic, surprisingly interesting and eccentric attractions.
Lightning Ridge is as much of an iconic frontier town as you could wish for and we loved it.
Unlike the other major Australian opal centres – Coober Pedy, Andamooka, White Cliffs – it is relatively easy to get to and hence attracts over 80,000 visitors each year. This means that it has a a number of decent motels, a good selection of souvenir and gift shops and a few good places to eat. For a real outback town it has a thin veneer of what city-dwellers might call “civilisation”.
Opal mine experience
Naturally the first thing to do was see what an opal mine looked like and learn a little about how these precious stones are brought from the ground.
The mine trip was interesting if only to see that these places do not need to be deep into the earth. In fact opals can be found only a couple of metres underground and up to about 60 metres. So most mines you can visit are just a flight of steps below the surface.
The area is littered with heaps of white dirt (called mullocks) that has been dug up. There could still be valuable opals amongst it all and some tourists have been lucky enough to find them. We were not so lucky however but Dani still wanted to try his luck. They call it fossicking in this part of the world (and Cornwall, UK I believe). It means rummaging, searching or prospecting.
Car door tours
While ‘The Ridge’ itself is small and compact there are several “Car Door” tours just outside of town. One on each corner of the town plus a fifth one about an hours drive away (more on that one later). The idea is each attraction is marked with a number on a car door (literally) which is coloured according to the route. You have the Red, Blue, Green and Yellow car door routes. Each one takes in different aspects of the town.
The roads are unsealed but OK in a two wheel drive vehicle. That said it helps if your car is not too low to the ground – which ours was. We had recently changed the SUV hire car for a different and lower profile car. Not ideal for these areas but we made the most of it.
There is very little chance of any old car door being thrown away around here. Locals use them as signs to mark their property.
Lightning Ridge Cemetery
OK, I know it may seem that this blog is turning into a morbid tour of graveyards but there is something fascinating about these places; especially in pioneer towns like these. They are historically important places for any town. So please bear with me.
People came here from all over the world once the opals were discovered. The cemetery is testament to that fact. You only have to look at the names on the headstones to see what a universal magnet this place had been for over one hundred years.
Some made their fortune while others made little, if anything. But they kept arriving. All with the same dreams. They all mixed in with those already established in the town and helped make the place what it is – still a fascinating place.