Gayle is an accountant. Shh – don’t tell. She thinks she’s a writer.
Published March 27th 2016
It's Kooky and it's Quirky, it's an Outback Aussie Legend
Top 12 Things to do on a Lightning Ridge Holiday
You would be hard pressed to find a more quirky and interesting town than Lightning Ridge. A black opal mining town in outback New South Wales it is only a 2 and a half hour drive from Moree.
Now a mecca for tourists it is hard to number the attractions and oddities to be seen and you would be well advised to plan a week's stay to do the town justice. Add to that the nearby Garwin, Glengarry and Sheepyard Opal Fields and you are spoilt for choice.
'Emus on a Plane' by artist John Murray mounted on a pole outside a hotel (Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge)
It is best to plan ahead as Lightning Ridge is a popular place with a number of annual festivals and is sometimes booked out. Details of attractions, tours and accommodation options can be obtained from the Visitor Information Centre on 02 6829 1670.
This is my take on the top 12 things to do on a Lightning Ridge Holiday.
Chambers of the Black Hand
Drive yourself or do as we did and hop on the courtesy bus to The Chambers of the Black Hand, an old opal mine in which over five hundred carvings have been made in the sandstone walls. We take a short tour through the mine, forty feet underground, and listen to a talk on opal mining in Lightning Ridge before we are left to wander through the chambers of carvings and paintings
Lion carving in old opal mine, Chambers of the Black Hand (Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge)
The carvings have been 18 years in the making and work continues still. Each chamber has a theme. There are Egyptian, jungle, biblical, classical, super heroes, celebrities, dinosaurs, goblins, Buddha, Aboriginal, Dogs and Aztec. The opal miner turned artist, Ron Canlin, uses a jackhammer, a pickaxe and kitchen utensils to do the carvings.
When we are done looking we grab a free cup of coffee and peruse the opals and jewelry in the only underground opal shop in town.
Chambers of the Black Hand is on the Mine Fields, 5kms along 3 Mile Rd at Yellow Car Door 7. Courtesy Bus Tours are held daily at 10.10am and 2.40pm but otherwise there are daily rolling tours from 9am to 12noon and from 3pm to 4.30pm. Cost (March 2016) is Adults $35 and Children $10. They can be contacted on 02 6829 0221 or via their website.
The Mine Fields
The mine fields at Lightning Ridge are quirky to say the least. We visit 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 blower on the mine fields at Lightning Ridge (Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge)
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.
Housing, or camps, are often makeshift and sometimes bizarre. 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. These makeshift dwellings are often constructed from recycled materials. We see an old fridge jammed beneath a camper to take the place of the truck it used to be on
Signs are a little different in Lightning Ridge (photo copyright Gayle Beveridge)
On Pony Fence Field we pass Astronomers monument, built between 1983 and 1998. 20 and 60 litre oil drums were used to make the columnar structure.
Air vets rise 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.
Mud maps can be obtained at the Visitor Information Centre at Lot 78 Bill O'Brien Way (a service road beside Morilla Street). The Centre can be contacted on 02 6829 1670 and more details can be found on the website. Black Opal Tours can be contacted on or via their website. Outback Opal Tours can be contacted on or via their website.
This magnificent, although incomplete gothic style castle, based on Italian ruins is built on a mining lease. The 15 metre tall structure is the work of Vittorio Stefanato, known locally as Amigo.
Visitors are welcome for a small entrance fee and should not be deterred by the roughly painted signage beside the property. Signs like, 'Beware of two dogs. They are off the chains' and 'Snipers on the loose.'
Amigos Castle in Lightning Ridge (Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge)
We enter the castle through an art gallery and look at the paintings and sculptures as the artist tells us Amigo's story. It is a personal story reinforced with photos pinned on notice boards.
Beyond the gallery the castle has no roof. A wishing well sits within the walls. Upstairs a floor above the gallery gives a view of Amigo's yard on one side and an all encompassing view of the castle walls, a small keep and a corner turret, on the other.
In the grounds beside the castle is all manner of oddity. A bicycle with a barrow wheel is labelled 'Winner of Tour De France 1896.' A 'boat' destined for the Sydney to Hobart if only sail could be found. A pile of old boots and signs everywhere.
Amigo's Castle is on Sunflash Street via Black Prince Drive, Lightning Ridge. If you are following the car door tours, it is Red Car Door 4. It is open most days from 9am to 5pm. Admission is $5 per person. Further information can be obtained from the Lightning Ridge Visitor Information Centre on 02 6829 1670 or by visiting the website.
Bevan's Cactus Garden
With over 2,500 plants, Bevan's Cactus Nursery, is the third largest in the world. Most of the plants are native to the Americas and have been grown from seeds collected around the world. Others have been transplanted from elsewhere enabling the gardens which began in 1966 to display plants that are over 100 years old. The oldest plant is almost 150 years old.
Just one of the 2,500 plants at Bevan's Cactus Nursey (Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge)
There is an abundance of Golden Ball also rather uncharitably called Mother-in-Laws Cushion. Elsewhere is Old Man Cactus, a tall columnar cactus native to Mexico. Then there is the blue-green multi-branched Neopbuxbaumia Scopha, nearly 40 years old, which now stands three to four metres but can grow as tall as 13 metres.
A mound of Owls Eyes Cactus sits on the garden bed like a pile of balls. The Creeping Devil or Snake Plant lies on the ground. There is Prickly Pear, Spirals of New York, the tall Organ Pipes, Dragon Fruit, Aloe Vera, over 40 species of Bougainvillea and so very much more.
If the gardener within you is itching to start your own collection there is a good selection of plants for sale. In a small shop displaying Bevan's Opal Collection you can browse opals from across Australia and perhaps indulge yourself by purchasing an opal of your own.
Bevan's Cactus Nursery is off Bald Hill Road, in Lightning Ridge. If you are doing the Car Door Tours it is Blue Car Door 7. They can be contacted on (02) 6829 2778 or via their website. The gardens are open 9am to 5pm daily and admission is $10 for adults and free for children.
The Bottle House
Originally a miner's claim the Bottle House is built from 5,800 bottles. Once the home of Arthur Germaine and his wife, it is now a museum displaying old wares, curiosities, a gem and rock collection and bottle collections.
In a jar on a shelf is a preserved rat, how bizarre. Old axe heads lay on a table in front of a china plate, enamel bowls are surrounded by aged hand tools, to name but a few of the thousands of items.
Light shining through the bottles that make up the walls of The Bottle House (Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge)
We pass through to a collection of bottles. There is a pair with dog and cat heads as stoppers and another a stags head. On a back shelf are Mickey and Minnie Mouse bottles. A really tall yellow bottle is shaped like a woman.
There is an impressive collection of rocks, gems and petrified woods and even a piece of the Berlin Wall. There is a variety of nobbies, clay or stone with opals inside and also of seam potch (common but valueless opal). There are rocks and gems from many other places. Petrified logs stand in boxes or against the wall as might logs for the home fire.
The Bottle House is at 60 Opal Street in Lightning Ridge. It is open 9am to 5pm, 7 days a week. Admission is $10 for adults and children enter for free. You can contact the Bottle House by telephone on 02 6829 0618. Information about this and other Lightning Ridge attractions can be found on the Visitor Information website.
Fred Bodel's Camp
The oldest camp in Lightning Ridge is that of Fred Bodel. 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 (Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge)
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.
Fred Bodel's Camp is on 3 Mile Field. Mud maps and are available from the Visitor Information Centre which can be contacted on 02 6829 1670 or by visiting the website. Anyone can view the outside but the inside is only accessible on a Black Opal Tour. Black Opal Tours can be contacted on 02 6829 0368 or via their website.
Historical Society and Heritage Cottage
The Historical Society and Heritage Cottage is housed in an old miner's cottage. The cottage was built in 1932 and was occupied until 1975 before being declared as a heritage reserve.
A kitchen and bedroom at the back of the cottage are set up with old time wares. The first of the front rooms is a shop with a selection of books about Lightning Ridge. In the other front room are photos of Lightning Ridge residents and characters along with their stories. Local handicrafts are also on sale.
Inside the Historical Society and Heritage Cottage (Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge)
Behind this building is a cottage with verandahs on three sides. It is the 1914 cottage which housed Lightning Ridge's hospital. Inside there are paintings by local artists depicting Lightning Ridge characters. In display cases are photos of the nurses who worked here. On one wall is the Aboriginal myth describing how Lightning Ridge got its name, which they called Wallangulla (hidden fire stick). Somebody wrote a ballet about the myth and the storyboard sketches and photos from the performance are displayed.
In the yard, along with the usual old wares are a 1959 FC Holden and a washing machine made from a garbage can and a Victor mower. On the front verandah is a bicycle powered by a whipper snipper motor.
The Historical Society and Heritage Cottage is on Morilla Street. It is open 10am to 4pm Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday or by appointment. Entry is free but donations are welcomed. They can be contacted on 0419 639 120. More details can be obtained from the Lightning Ridge Visitor Information Centre website.
John Murray Art
John Murray's art gallery is not just for the art lover but is a treat for all. The art is mostly outback themed and is in many cases, humourous. There are old abandoned vehicles, a startled emu with reflections of 4WD's in his eyes, Tony Abbot in his budgie smuggles (an exaggerated view leaving nothing to the imagination), and cows at a trough filled with XXXX beer.
There is no lack of John Murray art on Lightning Ridge buildings (Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge)
If you have been walking around town you will already have seen samples of John's artworks which adorn many of the town's buildings.
The original paintings are all for sale but if your purse doesn't stretch that far there are prints, postcards, calendars and tourist mementos on sale.
John Murray's Art Gallery is at 8 Opal Street. The Gallery and shop is open 9am to 5pm weekdays, 9am to 2pm Saturday and Sunday. Entry to the Gallery is free. They can be contacted on 02 6829 1130 or via their website.
Lunatic Hill Open Cut Mine
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.
Lunatic Hill open cut opal mine (Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge)
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 at Lunatic Hill commemorates Ion Idriess,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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.
Lunatic Hill is on 3 Mile Field, Mud maps can be obtained from the Visitor Information Centre which can be contacted on on 02 6829 1670 or by visiting the website.
The Australian Opal Centre
The Australian Opal Centre displays many examples of opals and of fossilised opals, information about opals and the history of Lightning Ridge. The Centre is reported to have the largest collection of fossilised opals in the world, many of which cannot be displayed in its current shop front location. The Society is raising funds to build an underground two story building.
A bizarre set of opal dentures (Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge)
In the display cases of the current shop we see a set of opal dentures, an opalised pineapple, opalised shells, opalised plant fragments, opalised dinosaur bones, and samples of nobbies. A model dinosaur reaches his head out from a corner, a favourite with the children.
The Australian Opal Centre is on Morilla Street. It is open 1pm to 5pm Monday to Friday, 9am to 1pm Tuesday, 9am to 5pm Tuesday or by appointment. Entry is free. They can be contacted on 02 6829 1667 or via their website.
Around this Quirky Town
As we approach Lightning Ridge on the Castleraegh Highway we are greeted by an 18 metre high emu made from scrap metal. This is 'Stanley' a sculpture containing three Volkswagen bodies, a pair of rusting satellite dishes and some serious metal beams.
A sign as we enter town announces, 'Lightning Ridge Population?' The population of Lightning Ridge is hotly debated. The 2006 Census put it at 2,602 but the Walgett Shire plans for 7,000. At the Post Office this morning I saw PO Boxes for 1,863 people but a am told most of these boxes are for four people each.
The Sunday market is on when we come into town and there are people and cars everywhere. The Market is held next to the Visitor Information Centre on Bill O'Brien Way, effectively a service road off Morilla Street.
Cooper's Cottage, one of the oldest buildings in Lightning Ridge (Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge)
Along Morilla Street is Coopers Cottage, built in 1916 with scraps of corrugated iron. Wander in and take a look, entry is free and the cottage is open 11am to 5pm daily.
Old diggings in Morilla Street, feature rusted vehicles and mine equipment ad are fenced off with barbed wire.
At a hotel an old combi van with wings and a propeller is mounted on a pole. It is a work by John Murray, a local artist and is titled 'Emus on the Plane.' This is a wacky town.
Opals and Jewelry for Sale. There are many shops selling opals, although not all are selling local opals which is disappointing. Buy anything from a sample seam of potch, opal carvings or jewelry.
Artesian Bore Baths. The Artesian Bore Baths are on Pandora Street. These naturally heated thermal baths are free to all and changing rooms are provided. The baths are open day and night except between 10am - 12noon Monday to Friday for cleaning.
As unlikely as it seems Lightning Ridge is also home to an Olympic Pool and Water Theme Park. The complex is on Gem Street and is open during the summer months.
Fossicking for Opals
The fossicking heap beside the Visitor Information Centre is free to all. The heap is donated by local miners and is opal clay that has been tumbled inside an agitator. The miner has sorted the tailings but smaller or non-commercial pieces can be missed and are a joy to the tourist who finds them in the heap. We are told a tourist last year found an opal worth thousands in this heap.
Some of the potch opal we found on the fossicking heap (Photo copyright Gayle Beveridge)
Some people come to the heap with small spades and buckets to collect their opal dirt, others bring shaker sievesWe sat down in the clay, picked up a larger stone and started scratching a hole. It is best done in sunlight not shadow and wetting the clay will help to show up colour.
We did not find our fortune and the only colour we came upon was the tiniest sliver of red and green. Beautiful but small. Mostly we found potch a common opal which does not have the 'play of colour', the moving iridescent pattern of rainbow colours, that are present in precious opals. Potch is of no or very little value but can be used as a backing for black opals or is sometimes carved into ornaments. It was nonetheless exciting to find and we have kept our little pieces of potch as souvenirs.
Fossicking at the heap is free and always accessible. It is next to the Visitor Information Centre on Morilla Street, Lightning Ridge. Contact the centre on 02 6829 1670 or on their website. There is free parking and public toilets at the centre.