The Black Opals of Lightning Ridge

Australia’s Governor General, the Honourable Bill Hayden AC, named the opal as Australia’s national gemstone on 27th July 1993. Of all Australia’s opal, black opal is the most exotic, treasured and looked for. Around 95% of world’s supply come from Lightning Ridge in New South Wales or “The Ridge” as it is known locally.

I first travelled to “The Ridge” in 1999, it was a year of good rains and even in the summer the countryside appeared to have a green tinge. The road and surrounding plains are relentlessly flat marked occasionally with a distant farmhouse or shed. A contrast to later visits following eight years of drought meant that some children and dogs had grown up never knowing rain. Located 8 hours drive North West of Sydney near New South Wales border with Queensland, Lightning Ridge is less a ridge than an ever so slight rise of ground swelling out of Australia’s wide brown plains. Sparsely vegetated with scruffy eucalyptus and native grasses, the entire area’s covered with houses, camp sites and shanties. At night roaring portable generators power all the dwellings that are beyond the reach of the towns electricity supply.

The town is a decent size with paved roads and smart houses that decay at the fringes to the shanty town of the surrounding mine sites. The population officially is around 1,000 people although the membership at a local bowls club boasts more than 2,400. No one can really say how many souls inhabit the local area but the black opal attracts people from all over the world to live and dig for the luminescent gems.

In my many visits I have met an aging ex showgirl from Paris, investment bankers, politicians and even the make-up artist who looked after Elizabeth Taylor in some of her biggest films like Ben Hur and Cleopatra. Fortune has favoured many black opal seekers, others have found solace and friendship in the outback community and have never left. This town in many ways is still a frontier of sorts, hellishly hot in summer and subject to flooding of the nearby river at times. The swarms of flood mosquitoes can on occasions be so intense it is almost impossible to see and breathe if you venture outdoors unprotected.

There are many rather unique sights and places to visit in “The Ridge.” One of the pastimes of visitors is to sift through some piles of dirt that miners have left aside in their diggings. This is known as “noodling” and a number of famous black opals have been found this way. What better way to relax after a day of sifting through the dirt and dust than to swim in the bath water hot Artesian Bores. These bores are from Australia’s Artesian Basin, when rain falls upon the inland side of the Great Dividing Range, the water seeps underground and a million or so years later bubbles above ground into artificial pools. A nifty local way to keep cool in summer is to wear a light shirt into the water, when you step out into the hot wind the evaporative effect is so cooling it takes your breath away!

Another unusual way to look around the camp sites is to take the self drive “Car Door Tour,” the painted doors of cars have been hung in trees. This way you can take the red door tour or green and so on guided by tree bound car doors. It is a great way to find your way around the maze of opal diggings without needing your GPS to get home. This is worth doing just to get a glimpse of outback architecture such as the Astronomers Monument and Amigo’s Castle along with other unique building styles. In town there is the house built of bottles, numerous opal mine tours and a number of shops where you can buy the precious black opal gems. One of the more unusual things you are ever likely to do is pub crawl through the bush taking a swig at “The Glengarry Hilton,” “The Sheepyard Inn” and “The Club in the Scrub.”

Below ground is of course where most of the action lies for miners of black opal. Visitors are not excluded from the cool tunnels, tours undertake to show sculptures and even a cinema underground. There are many eccentricities about Lightning Ridge and the people who live in the black opal country. Overall, like many places of the world, the heart of Lightning Ridge lies in its community, it’s why I keep returning.