The small historic opal mining town of Lightning Ridge is an offbeat outpost of the dusty outback.
History of Lightning Ridge, NSW
On the southern side of the New South Wales–Queensland border, the town of Lightning Ridge is best known for its rare black opals. The region is home to the Indigenous Gamilaraay or Kamilaroi people. Their Dreamtime stories tell of rare stones made from a huge wheel of fire, which fell to earth and scattered the countryside with the stunning colourful opals.
The town was originally called Nettleton’s Hill after Charles Nettleton. He was the first European settler to find opals in the area in 1902. The town’s renaming is based upon the story that came about one night during a massive electrical storm. Supposedly, a shepherd, his dog and 600 sheep had taken shelter behind one of the region’s infamous ridges, when all were instantly killed by a lightning strike. And so, the name stuck, and the town was informally referred to as Lightning Ridge years before it was officially established in 1963.
Opal Bin and Big Opal Underground Mine Tour in Lightning Ridge
Known for its rare black opals, the town is a go-to for both its mining history and a chance to marvel at the shimmering gems. At the Opal Bin, visitors can see the gems being mined, cut and polished there, before choosing their own to purchase.
For an immersive experience, take a Big Opal Underground Mine Tour. Here, you can experience what it would have been like to work in an opal mine. Get your hands dirty by fossicking for opals too. If you come across one of the precious stones, be sure to take it back to the Opal Bin. The resident opal carver will expertly craft it into shape for you.
Car Door Tour and Black Opal Tour
Venture around on a self-guided driving tour called the Car Door Tour, where each primary-coloured car door shows off a different aspect of the town.
Black Opal Tour is a must-do for first-timers. You’ll visit the Astronomers Monument and Observatory, as well as out-of-place, gothic-style Amigo’s Castle. You’ll also make a stop at miner Fred Bodel’s camp, where he began mining opals in 1906 and continued for 40 years.
Take a dip in the Bore Baths
Don’t miss a trip to the town’s two-million-year-old Bore Baths. Naturally heated, water from deep inside the Great Artesian Basin fills the baths. It maintains a constant temperature between 40 and 50 degrees Celsius. After a long day of fossicking, you can wind down in the bubbling water and view the night sky. (Just keep one eye out for lightning!)
Places to stay in Lightning Ridge, NSW
In the heart of town, Sonja’s Bed and Breakfast is an ideal place to relax and rest your head after a day out and about. Unwind in the entertaining area with its outdoor camp kitchen and comforting fireplace. Sonja’s also has a large upstairs balcony where you can spy native birds and wildlife with a view of the old opal fields surrounded by towering gum trees.
For outdoor-style digs, head to Lightning Ridge Outback Resort & Caravan Park. The pool and lounge area offer guests a tranquil experience, with air-con and flat screen in tow. Just minutes from the town centre, you won’t be too far from all the attractions and activities.
Lightning Ridge Opal Festival in Outback NSW
Held once a year is the four-day Lightning Ridge Opal Festival. Held in the last week in July, the event attracts more than 4000 visitors to the town and boasts market stalls, an opal and gemstone expo, a jewellery design competition and the annual Opal Queen Ball.
Just south of town, an 18-metre-tall public artwork stands proud. ‘Stanley the Emu’ is made from tonnes of scrap metal, three Volkswagens and a few rusty satellite dishes. Created by local artist John Murray, Stanley perches above the highway into town. A little weird and proud as heck, he represents just what the real ‘Ridge is all about.