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Wonders of Lightning Ridge

Home > Lightning Ridge > Adventure | Art and Craft Centres | Galleries | Mines | Shopping
by Susan J Bowes (subscribe)
Writing for pleasure to showcase the best Australia has on offer.
Published September 7th 2017
Fossick for Black Opals at the Ridge
Around ninety percent of the World's Opals can be found in Australia. Lightning Ridge in the northern part of New South Wales, has the largest known deposits of black opals in the world, so it's no wonder people flock to the small town in the Walgett Shire to try to make their fortunes. On a recent holiday there, I was told that you needed a "sense of humour" to live in Lightning Ridge as the big find is nearly always far from reach. Summers can reach temperatures of forty plus Celsius and winters equally as cold.

It is said that in the 1870's, the town was named after the bodies of a farmer, his dog and 200 sheep who were reportedly struck by lightning. In the 2011 census, there were 2492 people living in the town comprising 55.4% male and 44.6% female. Today, Lightning Ridge is a popular destination for tourists and has grown from the once rough and ready town to now providing quality motels, restaurants, attractions and tours.

Opals, Lightning Ridge, NSW, Adventure, Outback, Mining, Tourism, Art & Craft, Galleries, Shopping
Semi-black Opal Ring (Author's Photo)


An opal is classed as a mineraloid because of its amorphous character. It is deposited at a low temperature and is most commonly found in sandstone, marl, basalt, limonite and rhyolite. The opal's internal structure makes it diffract light and depending on the conditions in which it is formed, it can take on many colours. The colours range from clear to white, grey, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, magenta, rose, pink, slate, brown, olive and black. The black opal is the rarest and the one everyone is trying to find. One such find was the Aurora Australis, which was found in 1938 and when polished weighed 180 carats. It was valued at AUD $1,000,000 in 2005.

Opals, Lightning Ridge, NSW, Adventure, Outback, Mining, Tourism, Art & Craft, Galleries, Shopping
Mining, Lightning Ridge (Author's photo)


If you are wishing to prospect for your own finds, you can either apply for an exploration licence or take one of the tours provided in the town. Under the Mining Act 1992, an Opal Prospecting Licence can only be granted over lands defined as an Opal Prospecting Block within designated areas of Lightning Ridge and White Cliffs. More information on these licences and associated fees can be found on the website or through the Resource and Energy Department offices in Lightning Ridge.

Opals, Lightning Ridge, NSW, Adventure, Outback, Mining, Tourism, Art & Craft, Galleries, Shopping
Hot Artesian Bore Baths (Author's photo)


However, if you do not wish to spend days prospecting, you can take a tour with Black Opal Tours. From 10.00 am to 2.00 pm, you will be accompanied on a coach by an experienced guide who will give you an informative overview of the town, its history and places such as Amigo's Castle, The Artesian Bore Baths, Lunatic Hill Open Cut Mine, Fred Bodel's place, Astronomers Monument, opal fossicking, demonstration of opal cutting at the historic Platform 1 red rattler train carriage and given the opportunity to purchase a unique piece of opal jewellery to take home. A visit to Bevan's Opal Catcus Garden and the underground mine, Chambers of the Black Hand is also included in the tour. If you have a large group, tours can be tailored to suit requirements.

Opals, Lightning Ridge, NSW, Adventure, Outback, Mining, Tourism, Art & Craft, Galleries, Shopping
Bevans Catcus Nursery (Author's photo)


Bevans Cactus Nursery began in 1966 with seeds collected from all over the World. Many of the plants are now over 100 years old and one nearly 150 years old. The garden is the largest cactus nursery in the Southern Hemisphere and houses approximately 2,500 young and aged varieties. Now run by the original owner's son John, whose informative tour of the nursery oozed with his passion of the origins of each plant and the 200 plus species growing on the property. The nursery is open from 9.00am to 5.00pm all year round and can also cater for coaches and large groups. Even if you were not a lover of cacti, this garden is definitely something of a wonder with tall varieties reaching the skyline and others exposing the beauty in their flowers.

Opals, Lightning Ridge, NSW, Adventure, Outback, Mining, Tourism, Art & Craft, Galleries, Shopping
Bevan's Catcus Nursery (Author's photo)


I was very impressed with Chambers of the Black Hand, an underground mine, where the owner Ron Canlin has carved and painted numerous characters set in the sandstone walls. What started off as a few scrapings with his knife while waiting for a colleague to come down to the mine has developed into eighteen years of the most amazing sculptures meandering through several drives or tunnels in an old opal mine.

Opals, Lightning Ridge, NSW, Adventure, Outback, Mining, Tourism, Art & Craft, Galleries, Shopping
Sculptures, Chambers of the Black Hand (Author's photo)


Going through old newspapers, books and encyclopedias gave Ron the inspiration of things to carve. Complete with a few kitchen utensils, a jackhammer and pickaxe the Chamber of the Black Hand showcases hero characters of Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, an Egyptian chamber with hieroglyphics, an animal room, carving of David, a big Buddha, dinosaurs, goblins and wizards and much more. The Last Supper, took Ron six months to complete, yet the pondering Nostradamus took him only five hours to carve. Ron has lots of ideas still to develop, some of which have come through the suggestions of the visitors to the mine over the years. Although the mine did not yield Ron the opal profits intended, this incredible museum of sculptured carvings is a must on any bucket list of adventures.

Opals, Lightning Ridge, NSW, Adventure, Outback, Mining, Tourism, Art & Craft, Galleries, Shopping
Chambers of the Black Hand (Author's photo)


Another unique characteristic of Lightning Ridge is that location of properties is nominated by coloured car doors with numbers painted on them. The Chamber of the Black Hand is found on 3 Mile Road, five kilometres up opposite the yellow car door 7.

Opals, Lightning Ridge, NSW, Adventure, Outback, Mining, Tourism, Art & Craft, Galleries, Shopping
Look for the car door and you will know where you are (Author's photo)


After a long day fossicking and touring, a relaxing dip in the Artesian Bore Baths is certainly worth the time. The Baths are formed by warm mineralised water bubbling up 900 metres below the Earth's surface. Although therapeutic for aches and pains, it is strongly suggested that you spend no more than ten minutes at a time in the baths because the water is at a constant temperature of 42C.

If you are contemplating a trip to Lightning Ridge, the town's Opal Festival is held during the September October school holidays and the Opal and Gem Expo in July. Apart from this, there are many galleries and other tourist attractions to visit in Lightning Ridge and I hope in the not too distant future I can return for a longer stay.
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Why? An adventure for any keen fossicker
When: Anytime of the year
Where: Northern New South Wales
Cost: Individual costs for tours, accommodation etc.
Your Comment
Great article Susan. What a fascinating place.
by May Cross (score: 3|2175) 259 days ago
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