A day in … Lightning Ridge

By | Category: Travel destinations

Lightning Ridge as I first saw it in 1975

I’ve been to Lightning Ridge before.  Forty-two years’ ago.

The town is tucked away in the north west of the Australian state of NSW and is known for only one thing – opals and, in particular, it is the source of black opals, the only place in Australia where you can find them.

My wife and I were returning to a place we had visited when our entire family headed north on one of those quick exploration trips that we used to do in those days. That the journey would be well over a thousand kilometres didn’t deter us in those days and it certainly didn’t on this trip either.

Surely after all these years the place would have changed. And it has. The change has been overwhelming and for the most part, the change has been for the better.  But in one particular case it has been for the worst. That old “explorer against harsh conditions” feel about the place has gone as the town has become more like a tourist town rather than a mining one..

store signage is rustic

After driving for a day from Sydney we stopped over – just as we had done all those years’ ago – to overnight in Walgett. Then as now, it is the southern entry point  for travelling the last seventy kilometres to Lightning Ridge.

Much of Walgett hasn’t changed. It was a dispiriting, unenergetic place then and it isn’t much more appealing now. Then we stayed in a caravan; this time it was a motel, the best we were told in the town. It wasn’t bad at all as motels in the outback go. We were staying in Walgett because, on that previous expedition, there had been very little accommodation in Lightning Ridge. The three motels there had accommodation for about seventy people between them and that was it. Most was dormitory accommodation. and some still survives today.  There was a caravan park  with a water tap in the park and this was labelled “free” reminding you that droughts and water shortages are part of outback life.  That has changed and there are now three caravan parks, a few motels and some B&B’s but I knew no one who had been there recently so Walgett it was for a night.

as the car looked back in 1975 when the road was just dirt

In the morning, as we pulled into the road, the school playing field opposite was covered in an off-white colour. Had it snowed? Of course not; not in this part of NSW. What we were seeing were hundreds and hundreds of galahs, a greyish/whitish parrot with a pink chest. We were used to seeing them on this trip but not in a large flock like this. Could I get a photograph? Not on your life! As we pulled into the road, they took off en masse.

All that time ago,  that the road had been a dirt one. Then our purple Holden had been transformed into a browny sludge colour because the advice from old timers had been to drive fast – that way you crest along the top of the ridges in the road instead of feeling every rut. Today it a tarmac road, single lane but better than many roads I could name. Compared to years, ago the journey was comfortable.

the road into Lightning Ridge today

What wasn’t, was seeing so many dead kangaroos and wallabies at the side of the road. There were emus, usually fairly solitary birds wandering along the side of the road and sometimes we caught a glimpse of parent birds shepherding the four of five youngsters between them. Twice I came across goannas sunning themselves on the tarmac surface. They were no more than two feet long and had the sense to get out of the way before I got that close.

Surely the last few kilometres into Lightning Ridge would be a dirt track? No, it is all tarmac, even the side streets in the town are tarmacked and that was our first big surprise.

this is the sight awaiting you as you turn off the highway to reach the town

The second was that it had changed out of all recognition since last time.  There was still a fairly tacky sign as you got the beginning of the town but from there the change began. For a start there is a tourist information centre, a better one than I have seen in many bigger places. And they have there own opal prospecting area. This is a heap in which you can fossick for opals and learn what you need to look for before you visit the main sites on the outskirts of the town where you might have a chance of finding an opal. You can find out what tools you need, the sort of places in which to look and what to do when you have found some (that’s it if you are lucky – we weren’t. Our only opals were shop bought!)

The tourist brochure for Lightning Ridge that I had in 1975 with the new , 2017 one

Not one shop was older than 27 years. The shabby, dusty place that we remembered is now a small thriving community with tourists going from one opal shop to another. There are petrol stations where there had been one in the past and whilst we were there it was broken and petrol was dispensed from drums. Being cautious,  I had taken the precaution of filling up in Walgett.  There were cafes and art shops, pavements and where was the dust that used to hang in the air when the wind blew?

I wandered into Peter’s Opals the oldest shop in the town. Peter doesn’t go out and fossick himself. He makes his money cutting and polishing opals and then selling them onto tourists. And not all his opals come from the town itself. The opal seams run long out there in the north west.  For example,  two well-known areas, Glengarry and Grawin are each about sixty kilometres away but distance is relative here and people will travel that without thinking twice. Some go just to see the Glengarry Hilton which is unrelated to the international hotel brand.  Its a pub and backpacker haunt that claims to be a bush pub but is a bit more themed as a “typical” bush pub than the ones I remember.

the Bottle House as it was in 1975; today it is smarter

Some things remained. There was still the Bottle House which is as it says – a house made from bottles, mostly beer bottles. Its been spruced up a bit and today, houses artifacts rom the past.  Oringinally a miner’s place, not a lot goes to waste when you are eking an existance from the slender opal finds that was the life of most miners. In the same spirit there is a house made from old cans (a lot of beer cans mixed with soft drinks’ ones) which was built, I think, after I last visited because I don’t remember it all.

What I do remember are he mounds where people have fossicked before and the spoil from the diggings create these hills. Sometimes you are lucky and find a likely piece of white/hardened clay that looks a promising find but those that fossicked before were diligent in looking for anything that gave them a dollar or two. people do it and its called “noodling” or it was when I first went there. Better still to go and find a spot near the mounds and fossick away or go near an old shaft making sure it is safe to do so.

The Miners Co-op Store

As I mentioned, our only opal finds were in the shops. And there are plenty of them in which to spend your money. Some were  as much as $A30,000 whilst the majority were between the $S150-$500 mark. ($A1 =about 58p, 77 US cents or about two-thirds of a euro.) The place where the miners used to go, The Miners Co-op Store is still there, looking very small compared to  modern shops but essential in its day to those that spent most of their time looking for elusive black opals.

Today, if you want that old time, mining feel then leave the town and drive a few miles to the nearby workings. But the warning remains. Make sure it isn’t someones claim before you start fossicking and make sure your accommodation has a bath where you can soothe the aching back you will undoubtedly have when the day is done!


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