Lightning Ridge is a mining town in north-eastern New South Wales, bordering Queensland. According to legend, the name originated after a shepherd and his sheep and dog was killed during a heavy lightning-storm in the area. Since opals where found in the area during the 1870s, this has been a place to count on. With its scarred moonscape, Lightning Ridge doesn’t look like much. In fact, one might think of a large Swiss cheese when visiting the area. But the holes in the ground are signs of hard work, a result of sweat, blood and tons of patience. In the past, everything was done by hand. Pickaxe and shovels were used. It could go many hours, days and weeks before you found anything of value. But all the workers nourished a dream of one day being richly rewarded.
Australia is the largest producer of opal, of which the black variant is particularly sought-after. And this is exactly what Lightning Ridge is known for. These specimens have a black base-colour and shimmer in all the colours of the rainbow. You can try digging yourself, but make sure to stay within marked areas. Territories are taken seriously, and one overstep can end badly. Nevertheless, Lightning Ridge is an open town that welcomes visitors, something that is not entirely obvious among other mining cities.
The locals are known for being odd characters. And sure enough, one must be of a certain character to cope with the oppressive heat. During the summer months, the heat can become excruciating with temperatures up 50 degrees Celsius. Because of this, the locals have sought coolness under the ground. Several buildings are below the ground where the temperature is more pleasant and humane. In the town centre, there is an exciting art scene and as you might have expected, much circles around opals, such as museums, tours and shops. But there are also hot springs to bath in after a long day out in the sun.
Thirty kilometres west lies Bourke, a town which is said to be the beginning of the real desert. The Australian term Back O’ Bourke refers to this place being very far away. And this, no one can deny. The town with its 3,000 inhabitants lies almost 800 km west of Sydney, in the middle of New South Wales. Darling River meander close to Bourke and is its artery and source for life. The water cuts through a landscape that otherwise is bone-dry, covered with orange-coloured dusty sand. Drought often affects the region. Bourke is a different city that used to revolve around the wool industry, but which now has become a destination thanks to its unique outback-feeling.
Sights and experiences
One can’t deny that opals are the main attraction and many of the town’s sights revolve around the gemstones. To gain a deeper understanding of the town and its surroundings, you can join in on a guided tour. Outback Opal Tours (outbackopaltours.com.au) is a company that has two tours to choose from, a half day tour and a full day tour. They bring you to a mine and you can try yourself to look for gems. The employees have ties to the town and have in one way or another worked with opals. If you want to dig on your own, visit the old opal mine known as Walk in Mine. The mine has undergone a hefty makeover recently and is now called Opal Mine Adventure (opalmineadventure.com.au). Here you can walk around at your own pace and learn more about the miners’ lives and the gems. The entrance fee is 20 dollars for adults and includes stepping down into the mine. On selected areas, you can dig through piles of dirt to look for opals if you wish. Do not forget your water bottle and a cap to protect you from the sun.
John Murray is a local artist who paints with acrylic paint. He is inspired by the tough desert landscapes and makes unique and humorous interpretations of the surroundings. His art gallery is located at 8 Opal Street and is open to visitors (johnmurrayart.com.au). There are, among other things, paintings, postcards and posters for sale. At Bevans Black Opal & Cactus Nursery (bevanscactus.com) cacti of all forms are cultivated. The owners are real enthusiasts and passionate about the thorny plants. Over the years, they have collected seeds from all over the world which they have grown. They believe to have around 2,500 variants. In addition to cacti, they also have opals. Co-owner John can also guide you around the city and tailor a tour specifically for you. It is open daily between 09:00 and 17:00.
Twelve meters below the ground at 3 Mile Road are Chambers of The Black Hand (chambersoftheblackhand.com.au). This is Ron Canlin’s work, a local opal-digger who spent several years carving out sculptures out of the ground. He bought the mine in hopes of hitting the jackpot. When his dreams never came to be, he turned the mine into a museum. Characters such as magicians, dinosaurs and angels now adorn the space underground. After a long day of exploring, visit Artesian Bore Baths at Pandora Street. Two outdoor pools of different sizes are filled with hot water from earth’s warmer inner. The water can be very hot, so watch out when you take a bath. The pools are open around the clock. Avoid the worst heat during daytime and come after the sun has gone down and let your body rest while you look up at the sky in to count for stars.
Back O’ Bourke Exhibition Centre (visitbourke.com.au/back-o-bourke-exhibition-centre) is located at Kidman Way. In the same premises you will also find the local Visitor Information Centre that can help you with questions and tips. At the Back O’ Bourke Exhibition Centre, the history of the area is told in an informative and exhaustive manner in newly built premises. If you buy a two-day ticket through the Information Centre, a tour along Darling River with PV Jandal is included (kidmanscamp.com.au/bourke/product/jandra-river-boat-cruise). The boat only runs during the winter months, Mondays to Saturdays at 09:00 and 15:00. On Sundays, the boat departure at 14:30. The cruise is one hour long. Sit around the campfire during the eucalyptus trees at Kidmans Camp and take part in Poetry on a Plate (kidmanscamp.com.au/bourke/product/campfire-poetry-dinner). A kind of theatre-dinner where a main course and a dessert are served while you are entertained by songs and poetry about Bourke’s history.
A few kilometres north of the town lies Back O’ Bourke Gallery (backobourkegallery.com.au) at 26 Darling Street. The paintings are made by artist Jenny Greentrees. Most of them depict different Australian landscapes. Many shows Lake Eyre, which after strenuous downpour is filled with water. This transforms the arid plains and the area from above looks like veins of water ploughing through the soil leaving colourful patterns looking like something from a different planet. Fifty-two kilometres south of Bourke lies Guidebook National Park (nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/visit-a-park/parks/Gundabooka-National-Park). Within the park you can follow secluded hiking trails, see Aboriginal rock carvings and spend the night in tents.
Good to know
The Visitor Information Centre in Lightning Ridge is located at Bill O’Brien Way (walgett.nsw.gov.au/tourism/visitor-information-centres/lightning-ridge-visitor-information-centre.aspx). They are open daily between 09:00 and 17:00. Contact them if you feel compelled to look for opals yourself in the excavated piles. An informative website to look at is Lightning Ridge Info (lightningridgeinfo.com.au). Bourke’s Visitor Information Centre is located along Kidman Way. Also, check out the official website Visit Bourke (visitbourke.com.au). During the summer, the Information Centre is open between 09:00 and 16:00, and during winter they are open from 09:00 to 17:00. If you are interested in seasonal work, you can turn to the Information Centre, which has knowledge about harvest seasons.
Summer falls between November and February with temperatures closer to 40 degrees Celsius, sometimes hotter. Avoid visiting the area during this time, not only are temperatures excruciating but most places are closed. Instead, come during winter.
Lightning Ridge is located 727 km from Sydney and Bourke is another 30 kilometres away. The easiest way to get to one of the destinations is by car, not only to experience more along the route, but also to aid you when you want to get around in the towns (wotif.com/Car-Hire). However, you can get there by public transport. From Sydney, take the train to Dubbo and change to a bus to Bourke or Lightning Ridge. A fun and different way to see Lightning Ridge is to follow the placed-out car doors around the town. They have been painted in four different colours and placed out at different points of interest. Contact the information centre to get a map of the area.
There are several accommodation options to choose from in Lightning Ridge (hotelscombined.com/Place/Lightning_Ridge.htm). Cheap rooms for two are available at Bluey Motel at 32 Morilla Street (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Bluey_Motel.html). Here you can stay for under 100 dollars per night. A simple accommodation, but all the basics you need. The owners are very friendly and helpful. It is in the centre of Lightning Ridge, within walking distance of most things in town. If you want to camp, Lightning Ridge Outback Resort & Caravan Park is conveniently close to popular attractions such as Black Hand, Artesian Baths and The Black Queen (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Lightning_Ridge_Outback_Resort_Caravan_Park.htm). The Resort has a swimming pool and offers a bus service to and from the airport.
Also in Bourke there are several accommodation options to choose from (hotelscombined.com/Place/Bourke.htm). Kidmans Camp (kidmanscamp.com.au/bourke) is located near the Mitchell Highway in the northern part of Bourke. They have cottages, allotted parking spots for caravans and motorhomes, and simpler grass spots for tents. On-site facilities such as swimming pool and kitchen are available for all guests to use. Just next to Kidmans Camp you will find the boat PV Jandra that have daily departures during the winter months. In addition, Poetry on a Plate is held in the area, so this is a strategic position during a visit. Another option is to stay with Bourke Riverside Motel (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Bourke_Riverside_Motel.htm) at 3 Mitchell Street. The former Old Telegraph Hotel has been renovated and rebuilt. There are several cafés and restaurants within walking distance and access to washing machine, swimming pool and BBQ. They have four different room types. Prices vary, from about 105 dollars per night and upwards. Back O’ Bourke Motel (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Back_O_Bourke_Motel.htm) has large and fresh rooms along Wanaaring Road. This accommodation is well suited if you are a larger group travelling together.