Black opals and Aussie art. There’s a lot more to Lightning Ridge than meets the eye.
When someone mentions the name “Lightning Ridge’, generally the first thing that springs to mind is opals, black opals. True. Lightning Ridge, or ‘the Ridge’ as it is commonly referred to, hosts the largest concentration of black opals found anywhere in the world. But as we discovered, there’s a lot more to the Ridge than precious gems.
The Ridge has long been a destination on Dinah’s and my ‘Bucket List’. It is around 1000 kilometres from our home on the Sunshine Coast, good roads all the way, making towing our caravan easy. From the Sunny Coast via Ipswich and Cunningham’s Gap to Warwick and then Goondiwindi for our first night’s stop over at the Goondiwindi Tourist Park. A beautiful location on the banks of a peaceful lagoon, the sites are spacious and the amenities excellent. From Goondiwindi, a full day’s drive to Lightening Ridge via Moree. We stayed at the Big4 Opal Holiday Park in the Ridge. This is an excellent park with huge sites and fantastic amenities. On the outskirts of town, this is the place to stay with your RV in Lightning Ridge. It was winter when we were there so too cold for a swim in the pool, but the thermal baths are literally 200 metres down the road. They are fantastic. There’s ‘happy hour’ entertainment most evenings and it only a short drive to town for a meal at any one of the restaurants in the town centre, or at the Bowls Club. You do need to be a member to enter the Lightning Ridge Bowls Club. You can join on the spot for $3 which is refunded over the bar in your first round, and the food is well-priced and excellent. Check out the Big4 Opal Holiday Park at: www.big4.com.au/holidayparks
Lightning Ridge. A ‘romantic’ name.
Lightning Ridge – to find a more appropriate name for the home of such a beautiful gem would be quite difficult, as the fields have no equal in the world.
It is not known who originally called it Lightning Ridge. One theory is that the name came about after a terrifying electrical storm one night, when a shepherd, his dog and 600 sheep were killed by lightning while sheltering on one of the ridges. The history of Lightning Ridge is fascinating. The first recorded findings of black opals at the Ridge was in 1873 when Robert Moore, the then manager of Muggarie Station discovered the unique coloured stones. A former Ravenswood gold miner, he had uncovered the stones on the nearby Nebea Ridges and sent them to Sydney for evaluation. To his dismay, he was informed that they were of no commercial value. However, it wasn’t until 1887 when a piece of opal was discovered in a gravel pit , now part of the famous Nine Mile field, that it came to the attention of the Mines Department. Subsequently, in 1900 Jack Murray, a boundary rider from Dunumbral Station found a ‘floater’ while setting rabbit traps. In 1901, he sank the first shaft on Lightning Ridge.
Since then, the name and reputation of Lightning Ridge has flourished. Government departments used it for nearly 100 years before it as officially gazetted on 5 September 1963. The main street of the present town is named after the now-famous opal ridges, Moorillas in Aboriginal folklore. Hence the name, Morilla Street. The first building to use the name Lightning Ridge was a small inn, built in 1884. Parts of the original corrugated iron structure remain and are a fascinating glimpse back to a time when life was a lot tougher in this outback settlement.
More than meets the eye
Today, Lightning Ridge is a thriving community of (officially) around 2,500 residents. Unofficially, closer to 7,000. Miners, farmers, itinerant workers, and even famous artists all call the Ridge home. John Murray is a Lightning Ridge-based celebrated eponymous artist with a particularly unique vision of Australia, as depicted in his photorealistic and whimsical characterisations of outback scenes and creatures. In John’s own words: “When I arrived out here as a city artist, my first impression of the landscape was the simplicity and clarity of my surroundings. Over the years I have been trying to capture the energy and beauty of such as seemingly “nothing there” landscape. This simplicity encompasses great colour and light and seems harsh yet safe at the same time. Mixed with the interplay of human, animal, and plant life the landscape becomes full of immense emotion detailing a great kaleidoscope of raw beauty, contrast, and humour. The outback is a graveyard of historical remnants and examples of human endeavour. In many ways my paintings pay tribute to these pioneering souls both past and present.” (www.johnmurrayart.com.au).
His gallery on the main street of Lightning Ridge showcases his work and captures the spirit of Aussie outback adventure. All around town, walls of buildings display vibrant John Murray murals. In 2021, John Murray was announced as a finalist in Australian Street Art Awards.
Postcards from the Ridge
They say that art is in the eye of the beholder. Certainly, this is true in Lightning Ridge where you’ll find more than meets the eye. Beyond wide-eyed native birds, John Murray’s depictions of caravans out of control as they finally reach their destination at the Ridge are particularly humorous as they apply to we RVers. John’s works of art have been translated into vibrant postcards that make an extraordinary form of communication to family and friends from the Ridge in a way that no modern email can hope to replicate.
Fields of dreams
The real opal action happens about 70kms from The Ridge on the opal fields. To get a taste of ‘opal fever’, the best way is to take a full day tour of the opal fields and mining camps. There are a number of reputable opal fields tour companies based in Lightning Ridge that offer half day and full day fully escorted tours. What many of us don’t realise is that the opal fields are so far from the township of Lightning Ridge. Rather than taking your own vehicles over unsealed roads and dirt tracks to often difficult to find locations of interest, tour operators allow you to enjoy the day in air-conditioned minibus comfort with an experienced and highly knowledgeable local as your tour guide, so you learn the full story and don’t miss a thing. You’ll hear colourful tales and entertaining history about the area and learn how and where Australia’s ‘National Gemstone’ is ethically mined.
Australia unearthed, you’ll hear about life as an opal miner, visit opal camps and learn how this remote community live on the opal fields, off-grid. You’ll view mining machinery and working mines, fossick on mullock heaps and visit the Sheepyard Inn, Glengarry Hilton and the Club in the Scrub for a beer and a yarn and real opal fields hospitality. You’ll also have time for a little fossicking. Visitors have been known to unearth valuable opals from the many mullock heaps in the area. This is tough country so make sure you dress appropriately. Leave the thongs at home and bring a hat, water bottle, insect repellent and strong walking shoes.
There’s no place quite like the Ridge
Lightning Ridge isn’t the easiest place to get to, but the drive is worth it. Located about 8 hours north-west of Sydney, the roads are good and the town is well-suited to and welcoming of all RV vehicles. Once at the Ridge, the question is “What to see and do?”
Some visitors come to the Ridge because of the healing powers of the hot springs, others to find their fortune, yet others, simply to experience one of Australia’s most unique destinations. There is lots to do here. There are the bore baths, conveniently located within walking distance of the Big4 Opal Holiday Park; the mysterious Chamber of the Black Hands, an underground gallery with over 350 sculptures hand-carved into the walls; opal fields tours (an absolute must); the famous Car Doors Tour at sunset; Amigo’s Castle, an incomplete Italian-style castle that is pure fun to visit; the John Murray Art Gallery in the main street; the Astronomer’s Castle built to celebrate Polish astronomer Copernicus using old oil drums; Bevan’s Cactus Garden with an impressive 2500 plants thriving in the hot, dry Ridge climate; 5800 bottles that make up the iconic Bottle House; and, of course, the Beer Can House, a monument to Aussie beer drinkers. And much, much, more. Even a simple walk around town is rewarding as you pass an eclectic mix of old and new structures – slab wood and iron miners’ cottages and modern brick edifices, many adorned with John Murray murals.
There is also a good selection of eateries in town, including cafes and coffee shops, restaurants, and the famous Ridge Bowls Club where you can play bingo on designated days. Or you can cook up a storm with family and friends outside your own van. For a full run-down of what’s happening at the Ridge, go to: www.visitnsw.com/destinations/outback-nsw
Australia is an amazing place to explore and Lightning Ridge is right up there with the very best. And remember, in recognition of your visit to this iconic outback town, nothing beats a postcard home from the Ridge!
Main picture: John Murray postcard from Lightning Ridge
- Commemorating the naming of Lightning Ridge
- Spacious sites at the Big4 Opal Holiday Park
- Original settler’s cottage at the Ridge
- Historic Reserve at the Ridge
- There is no better place on earth to buy black opals
- John Murray Gallery
- John Murray’s famous big birds mural
- John Murray street art
- Murals adorn buildings throughout the Ridge
- Fossicking in the mullock heaps on the opal fields
- Old mining machinery on the opal fields
- The famous Shipyard Inn on the opal fields
- The Club in the Scrub on the opal fields
- Inside, opal fields’ hospitality
- Coming and going from Lightning Ridge