LIGHTNING RIDGE: Black Opal Capital of the World

Having seen Lightning Ridge feature on a TV program I’d seen recently and ever since finding out the farm was just a couple hours away, I was desperate to get my hard hat on, get down those mines and find myself some Opal. Turns out it’s not as straightforward as just ‘rocking up’ in town…

If it’s your first time in any new town then I strongly recommend making the tourist information centre your first point of call. That’s what we did when we arrived at the Ridge and the ladies couldn’t have been more helpful. They provided a full back story of the Ridge and for just a dollar donation we were given a map of the town, an information sheet on the attractions and the self-guided car door explorer tour instructions. It was at this point that Farley asked if we can just start digging for opal to which the response was a laughing ‘no’. I realised then that we probably weren’t going to get rich with opal mining.Fully briefed on the Ridge we headed off down the road to the first attraction – Coopers Cottage. I wasn’t sure why I was expecting something so grand but we were greeted with the total opposite. The cottage is along the road, you couldn’t miss it and it’s free to go in. Not that you’d want to stay long. It’s got a very eerie feel to it. I sort of felt like I might uncover a skeleton in the wardrobe or under the bed. Just around the corner was John Murray’s Art Gallery, which again is free to visit. It’s only a small exhibition, no photos allows understandably. His artwork was interesting, eye catching and beautiful. Each painting told a story and involved a lot of emus. I certainly would have liked to purchase a few of his canvases but one, I can’t afford to spend that much on art and two, there’s no room in my backpack. If you fancy checking him out here’s a link to his website: our art fix we moved onto the self-guided car door explorer tours. We started with the quickest route; the Red Car Door Tour which takes approx 10 minutes. Be warned all routes are rough, stony, bumpy and uneven. Not the sort of road surface any car would appreciate. The highlight of this route was Amigo’s Castle. A hand made ironstone castle built by a single man, Amigo, who’d got fed up of opal mining so took up the hobby of castle building instead. It’s a small entrance fee of $5 but it’s worth the look around. The red car door route ends with either the Kangaroo Hill to the left or the Bottle House to the right. Kangaroo Hill was closed and we would have liked to visit the Bottle House but sadly we didn’t get time.

The next route we took was the Blue Car Door Tour. Taking us slightly longer (approx 20 minutes), the drive featured the Opal Mine Adventure – Walk In Mine and Bevan’s Cactus Nursery. We didn’t choose to go down this mine as we were hoping to try our luck with opal in another, but this one costs $20 each, is open 7 days a week and there are some great reviews on it. Our third and final route was the Yellow Car Door Tour which takes approx 45 minutes. This one was my favourite because there was a lot to look at and explore. The route began with the Big Opal Mine which was our chosen mine to visit in attempt to try and uncover a secret mound of opal. Again it was $20 each and is open 7 days a week. From the outside, it all looked very cool but I’m not really sure what the dinosaur has to do with opal mining? The owner of the mine was very friendly. He gave us each a hard hat each (it took about 10 minutes to find one to fit Farley’s head), a torch in case of any blackouts and after a safety briefing he showed us to a 20 meter long spiral staircase at the back of the gift shop. This took us down into the opal mine where we were able to venture down three different tunnels. The three tunnels all looked very similar so if it wasn’t for sections blocked off we could have got very lost down underground. I’m no geologist and can’t say I get that excited about rocks but I did find it fascinating that this mine was dug by the man upstairs in the shop. He told us his story of how he owned 5 mines across the Ridge and this one had the least opal in. Dammit! I’d picked the wrong mine!

We did however spot opal in the rocky walls and with a shovel positioned in the corner I was very tempted to start bashing it out. The opal was teasing me. What made the experience even better was that Farley and I were the only ones underground. We did have a laugh attempting to climb the very unstable ladders, finding props to pretend we were real miners and it shouldn’t be funny but Farley continually kept bumping his head on the low rocky ceilings. Thank goodness for hard hats. I was worried that the mine would collapse with the amount of times he bashed his head. Back safely at the top and after catching my breath from the spiral staircase (I would have thought working on the farm would have made me fitter but apparently not), we headed into the gift shop to check out the opal souvenirs. Amongst everything, there was a lucky dip box that cost $5 a ago which caught my eye. I brought one go and look what I won. I’m rich…well hardly but isn’t it pretty. I thought it was a great little idea for a souvenir and I plan to turn it into a piece of jewellery. Anyone reading have the skill to do this? Over the moon with my two tiny pieces of opal we continued with the yellow car door tour. We drove past many pieces of mining equipment, dumps of dirt and miners cottages showing that quite clearly there was still plenty of opal to be found.

The next highlight along the route was the Chambers of the Black Hand Mine. I so wished we could have visited this mine as well but it was another $40 each. If we ever find ourselves back in the Ridge again then I’ll make sure we visit next time. Instead we headed straight for Lunatic Lookout. An incredible view over the oldest and largest cut opal mine. From Lunatic Lookout we headed down to Stanley the Emu. An 18 metre steel sculpture of an emu created by the one and only John Murray. I get the feeling he really likes emus.There is one more route that we didn’t get time for and that’s the Green Car Door Tour. We were told it’s best to drive this one in the evening because the view you’ll get of the sunset from Nettleton’s First Shaft Lookout is breathtaking. So if you’re ever staying overnight in the Ridge, check out the route below. Despite not stumbling across a goldmine of opal I had a super fabulous and fun filled day at Lightning Ridge. However no trip is complete without The Hound aka our crappy car deciding it’s going to misbehave.

Driving home on the long stretched outback roads, sun setting and no service, The Hound decides he wants a punctured tyre. And not just a slow puncture, more like a full on, shredded to the metal, wheel fly off kind of puncture. Brilliant. Miss Health & Safety over here’s panic’o’meter just blew threw the roof. Me panicking didn’t help Farley who seemed to be attempting to remain calm and keeping things under control. And he did have it under control. Not that either of us have ever changed a tyre but he seemed to know exactly what he was doing and I even helped a little now and then with instructions from the car manual – safety first. Before long Farley had the car jacked up and was taking off the bolts when a rusty old ute came to a halt next to us and a man, unshaven with a cigarette dangling from his mouth asked if we wanted a hand. Wolf creek alert. Alarm bells ringing. Passers by don’t come along often on the outback roads so when they do you sure as well hope it’s a genuine person and not an axe murderer.

Farley accepted the help and it turns out ‘T-Rex’ wasn’t wolf creek after all. Tyre changed and with T-Rex heading in the same direction to his local pub, he offered to follow behind us for a while. In return and to say thank you we brought him a beer in a pub that I hope never to end up in again. I do hope T-Rex gets some good karma come his way. Drama over and not having been killed by a potential axe murderer we were soon back on our way home to the farm.

Lightning Ridge is weird, wacky and all kinds of wonderful. For a small town, it’s surprising at how much it has to offer. I came away with lots of interesting stories and memories. I suggest you visit and see for yourself and make sure to take a journey down one, if not all three of the opal mines. You never know, you might just get lucky!

Catch you later

Miss Health & Safety aka Steph