The opal fields of Lightning Ridge – The mesmerizing draw of luminous stone

The opal fields of Lightning Ridge – The mesmerizing draw of luminous stone

I have been drawn to Australia for a long time. I got a Working Holiday visum just within the window of opportunity, and explored the country for many months. Ever since, I’ve suffered from the so-called ‘boomerang syndrome’: once you’ve been, you always want to keep coming back. Which I did several times at irregular intervals. One of those memorable experiences is a trip to the opal fields of Lightning Ridge.

The ancient depths of Gondwana

I can’t even begin to define my favourite place in Australia. It’s such a vast and unique country, with awe-inspiring prehistorical landscapes everywhere. Even the desolate desert areas of the Outback are fascinating. I could be on walkabout in Australia for months without getting bored – and still run out of time! 😉

Australia is the most ancient continent of them all. Some of it was already present on the surface of the Earth at the beginning of the geological time scale, when the rest still had to ooze from the crust or bubble up from the mantle over many millions of years.

Welcome to Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, Australia.

Lightning Ridge and the opal fields

Way out in the scrubs of northern New South Wales, nearly 800 kilometers inland from the east coast, lies the Outback opal mining town of Lightning Ridge. It’s a fair bit off the beaten track, but it’s worth the detour.

Lightning Ridge is the only place in the world where the elusive black opal is found.

Australian black opal

Opal is unlike any other gemstone. The sheer array of colours, shapes and forms that occur in them, the way they shift at each angle and change with the light that falls onto them is truly mesmerizing. Black opal is the most precious of them all, enhancing the luminous colours with dazzling contrasts.

It’s like northern lights and a volcanic eruption simultaneously frozen into iridescent stone, forged from the ancient depths of Gondwana. And it’s difficult not to get enchanted by their beauty. Some opals even have galaxies captured within.

Lightning Ridge opal.
Luminescent Lightning Ridge black opal. Photo: Wikimedia.

Homemade structures, Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, Australia.
Homemade structures in Lightning Ridge.

A trip into the Outback opal mining towns

The landscape around Lightning Ridge is dotted with heaps of opal rubble and miscellaneous mining equipment. Signs warn you not to stray off into the bush, as you might fall unsuspectedly into a hidden or obsolete mining shaft. These are all small scale mines, a maze of holes and tunnels beneath the ground. Most of them are operated by basic mechanical equipment.

Quirky structures & signs

People who live here make creative use of just about everything. Quirky works of art made from car wrecks, random machinery parts, sheets of corrogated iron, rusty bicycles and pieces of wood are found all around town. Somebody even built a castle out of bottles and rocks.

Amigos Castle, quirky work of art, Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, Australia.
The Amigos Castle of Lightning Ridge, built with bottles and rocks.

Iron church Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, Australia.
The Iron Church.

Flying emu bus, quirky work of art, Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, Australia.
Flying emus!

Opal fever

Lightning Ridge has its own underground opal mine museum, where you can get a sense of the pioneering history and the hardships the miners had to endure to extract the precious opal. In the dug-out ‘cinema’ in one of the excavated cavities you can watch an interesting documentary about the lifestyle of the local characters. And what it is that draws them to Lightning Ridge – besides the opals.

There are lots of craft shops where you can buy freshly dug opals directly from the miners. Or have your rough nuggets cut and polished into a nice & shiny shape. At the Australian Opal Centre you can see various collections and exhibitions, and learn about the multi-facetted aspects of opal mining.

Lightning Ridge underground mine, New South Wales, Australia.
The underground opal mine museum.

Lightning Ridge opal fossicking heap

There’s even a huge fossicking heap outside the Lightning Ridge Information Centre, where you can try your luck at finding a nugget of opal. Miners dump their leftover opal rubble there, for the occasional visitors and locals alike to enjoy a bit of fossicking for fun. Of course it has already been sifted through many times. But you can still find some nuggets that were overlooked in the process.

Someone actually got lucky and found quite an impressive one not long before I was there.

And I could feel the opal fever creeping in and taking hold of me as I scavenged around it, looking for the shiny bits. Unsuccesfully. I didn’t strike it lucky…

Fossicking heap, Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, Australia.
The fossicking heap outside the Information Centre.

Red cardoor route, Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, Australia.
The red cardoor route.

Cardoor routes around Lightning Ridge

You can explore the area around town and its quirky attractions on a number of routes. They are marked – in a fair dinkum Lightning Ridge way – by different coloured car doors.

Lightning Ridge itself is a relatively modern urban centre with all the basic comforts, amenities and even an olympic sized swimming pool. But the makeshift mining camps that lie beyond in the fabled opal fields of The Grawin are something different altogether.

Dusty road to The Grawin, Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, Australia.
Dusty road to The Grawin.

Off the map

Once you head out into the bush, you are largely off the grid. The people who live there have to be self-sufficient in almost every way. And the road runs out of bitumen long before it reaches The Grawin. It wasn’t even on the official map. The Lightning Ridge information centre gave me an improvised map with rudimentary roads drawn in.

So I ventured off into the wilderness, and rocked up at the Club in the Scrub bush pub just before sunset. To the bemusement of the local clientele, who were quite surprised to see a foreign sheila in a rickety car emerging out of the scrub unexpectedly.

Club in the Scrub bush pub, The Grawin. Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, Australia.
The legendary Club in the Scrub bush pub.

Funny road sign, The Grawin, New South Wales, Australia.
If you have a car with working brakes, you give way to other vehicles at The Grawin… 😉

The Club in the Scrub

But the locals at The Grawin were very welcoming and I ended up having a great time with them. There happened to be a party going on, as one of the residents was celebrating a milestone birthday. The Club in the Scrub had live music, and someone improvised as DJ to keep the tunes going all night.

The place was full of rugged & tough looking blokes with lots of stories to tell. Some of them might well be millionaires, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by the way they look, or dress for that matter.

Road under repair, The Grawin, Lightning Ridge. New South Wales, Australia.
Roads under perpetual repair…

The Grawin opal fields

The next day, one of the friendly locals invited me on a spontaneous drive around The Grawin. He wanted to show me the interesting places and talk about the history. There are no street names anywhere, and the roads are bumpy & dusty and perpetually under repair. But there are lots of artistic creations too, a botanical cactus garden, and even a 9-hole golf course.

Several bush pubs have been crafted around the opal fields, such as the Glengarry Hilton and the Sheepyard Inn. The Club in the Scrub also has its own Weather Rock.

Glengarry Hilton bush pub, The Grawin, Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, Australia.
Glengarry Hilton bush pub.

Weather Rock at Club in the Scrub, The Grawin, New South Wales, Australia.
The weather rock. If it’s shaking, there’s a bloody quake!

Underground opal mine

I was also offered the rare chance to go down into the ground & see a real working opal mine. Not just any mine, but the one where the biggest black opal in history was found, about five years earlier. This opal even features in the Guiness Book of Records. It weighs more than 2 kilo and is officially measured at a staggering 11.341 carats.

A picture of the record winning opal hangs proudly in the Sheepyard Inn bush pub at The Grawin, along with the Guiness Book of Records certificate. Its nickname is ‘The Sea of Opal’, for the sparkling blue and green ocean colours all around it.

Opal mine, The Grawin, Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, Australia.
Inside a working opal mine at The Grawin.

Queensland boulder opal

Another stunning variety is boulder opal, with intricate matrixes of ironstone and colourful veins of opal shining through. They look like translucent tectonic plates, with rudimentary continents from the time before Gondwanaland emerged.

Boulder opals are only found in the Outback of central Queensland, even further beyond the black stump and the back of Bourke. The Queensland boulder opal fields are nearly 1000 kilometres inland from Rockhampton, beyond the end of the Capricorn Highway between Winton, Quilpie and Yowah.

Queensland matrix boulder opal.
Stunning Queensland matrix boulder opal. Photo: Australia National Opal Collection.

Club in the Scrub bush pub, The Grawin, New South Wales, Australia.
The Club in the Scrub.

Running out of time…

I seriously considered going there as well, but it was just too far out in the bush. And I was running out of time everywhere. Even more so after bumbling around the opal fields of Lightning Ridge and The Grawin, for a longer time than I had originally planned.

But it was absolutely worth it!

Lightning Ridge and The Grawin map

This handy interactive map shows several interesting places around Lightning Ridge and The Grawin. You can also zoom in on the different sections of the route for more details.

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Australian walkabout

At the end of 2012 I went to Australia to see the solar eclipse in north Queensland on November 14. In Cairns I decided to rent a car and go bush. I took the inland road and camped along the way in various national parks, Outback towns, and sometimes even in the middle of nowhere, emerging a month later at the southern end in Melbourne.

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Outback sunset, New South Wales, Australia.

More to explore & discover

The Hazards – Scrambling up to prehistorical views

Hinchinbrook Island – Unspoiled tropical wilderness

Aurora Solaris – The sunset version of northern lights

Northern lights – Hunting the elusive Aurora Borealis

Kerlingarfjöll – Steaming valleys and surreal landscapes

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First published: 15 March 2017

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