Gayle is an accountant. Shh – don’t tell. She thinks she’s a writer.
Published August 10th 2015
A town like no other, a gem full of fire
The Black Opal Tour
If you want the low down on Lightning Ridge ask an opal miner but there's no need to wander onto a mining claim and hover at the top of a shaft waiting for a miner to surface. That's never a good idea. Black Opal Tours has already found the miner for you and matched them up with a great introductory tour to this eclectic town, its people and its history.
Car doors are used as signage throughout the Lightning Ridge mine fields and self drive tours are guided by them.
If you have only a short time at 'The Ridge' the Black Opal Tour is a comprehensive snapshot. If you are staying longer it will give you a better idea of what to see next.
We had three days in town and chose the tour as an introduction. Most of the tour is on dirt roads which in dry weather do not require a 4WD so you could travel around the mine fields yourselves. Mud maps are available at the Visitor Information Centre. Once on the fields the tracks meander this way and that and we were glad of the tour as it would be easy to get lost in this mining maze.
Contact: Black Opal Tours can be contacted on 02 6829 0368 on their website, or at 31 Potch St, (Corner of Potch and Pandora Street) Lightning Ridge NSW 2834. The Black Opal bus will pick you up your accommodation.
Tours and Times: There are two tours within Lightning Ridge. The 3 Hour Classic Black Opal Tour runs twice daily, seven days a week from 8.45am and 1.30pm. (Summer Tours 8.15am only). The 4.5 Hour Package Tour with Underground Experience at Chambers of the Black Hand runs daily 12.30 (Summer only).
Costs: (as at August 2015) for the 3 Hour Classic Black Opal Tour are $35 adults, $30 seniors, $80 Family (2 adults, 2 children, additional children $15 each). For the 4.5 Hour Package Tour With Underground Experience they are $70 adults, $65 seniors, $170 family (2 adults, 2 children, additional children $15 each).
Getting There: Although in the Outback Lightning Ridge is relatively easy to get to. Directions from Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide can be found here.
Mine Fields The tour takes us to Three Mile Field where we see the arched metal of bucket hoists rising up from the ground, some with mounds of opal dirt beneath them, others set beside tip trucks, loading dirt directly from the shafts. In contrast to Coober Pedy we only see one blower amongst the hoists. A blower is an apparatus that sucks the dirt out of the mine like a vacuum cleaner.
A bucket hoist ready to lift dirt from the shaft into the tip truck.
There are piles of opal dirt waiting to be washed and tumbled. We pass a tumbler laying idle. The tumblers are modified mixers from the back of concrete delivery trucks. Lightning Ridge, like many parts of Australia is suffering through drought and only limited water is available to run the tumblers.
A tumbler, a modified mixer from the back of concrete delivery truck, used to wash and tumble opal dirt.
Housing, or camps, are often makeshift and sometimes bizarre. Many miners have erected sheds as their accommodation. We are told not to be deceived by the exterior as some of these contained magnificent homes. Opal miners, it seems, do not display their wealth as it attracts 'ratters', or thieves to their claims. We pass a domed structure that looks more like it belongs on the moon than an opal field. Other miners live in caravans, old buses or shanties.
One of many unusual camps (residences) on the Lightning Ridge opal mining fields.
These makeshift dwellings are often constructed from recycled materials. Very little goes to waste at Lightning Ridge. We see an old fridge jammed beneath a camper to take the place of the truck it used to be on. It seems a little precarious to us but it is not out of place here.
On Pony Fence Field we pass Astronomers monument. Alex Szperiak, now deceased, who changed his name to Robinson Crusoe, built the monument between 1983 and 1998, to honour the great astronomers, Copernicus, Galileo, Isaac Newton and Fred Hoyle. Alex used 20 and 60 litre oil drums to make the columnar structure.
Now and then an air vent rises above the surface giving away the mine's location beneath. Relinquished mine shafts are covered with trench mesh and surrounded by barbed wire. Claim numbers are engraved onto metal tags which are wired to star posts.
What would a trip to Lightning Ridge be without fossicking for opals and the tour stops for twenty minutes to give us a go. Will we catch opal fever? Our guide passes around samples of what to look for and explains how best to search. We choose our places on the fossicking heap which is washed and tumbled dirt donated by miners for tourists. Although not unheard of, it is not likely a commercial stone will be found in this dirt.
All fourteen of us at least find some potch which is an inferior quality opal and is generally one colour only. Our potch is mostly a pale milky blue. It isn't gem opal but the find is exciting and it makes a great souvenir. One lucky lady finds a small piece of green opal.
Potch, common single colour opal which has little or no value.
If fossicking through the heap captures your imagination there is also a free fossicking heap at the Visitor Information Centre.
Fred Bodel's Camp
We visit the oldest camp in Lightning Ridge, that of Fred Bodel, a true Ridge character. Fred began mining at Lightning Ridge around 1906 and lived in this camp for over 40 years until he was in his nineties. He passed away in 1973.
Fred Bodel's camp, the oldest on the Lightning Ridge mine fields.
Frozen in time, Fred's possessions remain in the camp as they once were. It is thought that Fred unearthed a wealth of opals in his time but chose to retain his simple and spartan lifestyle.
The camp is a rough two room dwelling made from sheets of corrugated iron, logs and stones. Between the rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom, is an open passage lined with logs and covered with corrugated iron. In the bedroom a walking stick hangs from a mantelpiece and a kerosene lamp sits on a table.
In the kitchen a worn chair sits beside a Metters Beacon Light wood stove. There is still a kettle and a pot on the stove and Fred's enamel pannikin sits upside down atop a bottle on an adjacent table.
Fred's mining claim, where the camp sits, is now registered in perpetuity by the Mines Department and is maintained by the Lightning Ridge Historical Society.
This area was originally named Lunatic Hill in 1908 when miners left the flat for the ridges and were thought to be lunatics as the hill added 60 metres to the distance to dig to the opal layer. The hill was worked traditionally until the 1960 when it could no longer be safely or commercially mined underground. It was then mined as an open cut until the 1990's and is now maintained as a tourist attraction.
The Lunatic Hill open cut opal mine at Lightning Ridge.
Halley's Comet, the world's largest uncut black opal nobby, weighing in at 1,982.5 carats, was found here by the 'Lunatic Hill Syndicate' around the time Halleys Comet passed over Australia in 1986. An information board at the site tells the story of this opal which at the time of discovery was valued at $6 million.
A plaque in honour of Australian author Ion Idriess who mined at Lightning Ridge.
A plaque at Lunatic Hill commemorates Ion Idriess, a well know Australian author who commenced his writing career in the early 1900's by sending articles to newspapers while he somewhat unsuccessfully mined for opals on the hill. His book about his opal mining experiences, 'Lightning Ridge,' is available for purchase at the Visitor Information Centre.
Opal Cutting Demonstration and Devonshire Tea
Black Opal Tours have their shop and hold their demonstrations at Platform 1, the Flying Postman's historic red rattler C7339 train carriage which was in service from 1929 to 1992. Some of us are old enough to have ridden the red rattlers. Other carriages next door have been converted into a residence.
Devonshire tea with Balck Opal Tours (Image from the Black Opal Tours Facebook page)
While we enjoy a drink and some scones with cream and jam, yum, our guide demonstrates how a nobby, clay which may contain opal, is ground to (hopefully) reveal the opal inside. The sound as the clay is ground is dull and low but when opal is struck it changes to a sharp, ragged squeal. Sadly, in this instance it is not gem opal within but only potch. A gem opal can be quickly ruined if it is ground or cut too far.
Inside the red rattler - the Black Opal Tours Shop (Image from the Balck Opal Tours Facebook page.)
Inside the carriage we are shown solid opal jewellery, doublets and triplets. The difference in quality and composition is explained and demonstrated. A synthetic opal is passed around and we are shown how to recognise the fake, useful information indeed. We also see honey opal, a clear amber potch. On display in the glass cabinets is not only jewellery but also uncut opals or varying quality and colour. So beautiful.
Then it is time to indulge ourselves, to walk away with our own black opal. We are on a budget so we buy the little tubes of opal chips for our grandchildren. Other souvenirs are available.
The street names in Lightning Ridge all relate to opal mining and are a tour in themselves. Pandora Street is named after the fine opal found in 1928. Potch Street is named after potch, common opal which does not have the 'play of colour.' Harlequin Street is named after rare opals with patches of colours arranged in an almost checkerboard pattern. Three Mile Road leads to the famous Three Mine Field.
Just before we leave the mine fields and return to town we pass Amigo's Castle. The castle was built by disenchanted opal miner Vittorio Stefanato from ironstone he collected from the opal fields. Following controversy over the legality of the building, it remains unfinished but amazing nonetheless.
We pass by the Artesian Bore Baths on Pandora Street. These naturally heated thermal baths are free to all and changing rooms are provided. We see people enjoying the baths and have a laugh as some are sitting in the water wearing their Akubra hats. The baths are open day and night except between 10am - 12noon Monday to Friday for cleaning
Lightning Ridge is full of surprises and we come upon an Olympic quality swimming pool and water theme park. In the Outback! The 50m pool is the result of community fund raising and donated materials and time which was commenced in 1988 by five school girls. Since then a diving centre has been added.
Somebody asks about Bevan's Cactus Nursery, the third largest in the world and the largest in the southern hemisphere. Even though it is not billed on the tour our guide drives by so we will know the way. There are over 2,500 plants in the nursery.
Why? For an invaluable introduction to opal mining, the mine fields and the town. Great if you don’t have much time or to give you an idea of what to see yourself.
When:3 HourClassic Black Opal Tour twice daily, seven days a week 8.45am and 1.30pm. (Summer Tours 8.15am only). 4.5 Hour Package Tour with Underground Experience at Chambers of the Black Hand daily 12.30 (Summer only)
Where:Pick up at your accommodation. (Business address: 31 Potch St, (Corner of Potch and Pandora Street) Lightning Ridge NSW 2834)
Cost:(At Aug 2015) 3 Hour Classic Black Opal Tour $35 adults $30 seniors $80 Family (2 adults, 2 children, any additional children will be charged at $15 each). 4.5 Hour Package Tour With Underground Experience $70 adults $65 seniors $170 family (2 adult