Struck by Lightning Ridge

4 November 2010

Our collective conscience has a vision of the outback, and Lightning Ridge is its epitome

There are experiences on this earth that transcend into other-worldliness: stepping onto a New York pavement for the first time; walking with the ghosts in a concentration camp; seeing the sunset in Uluru, or Broome or Kakadu.


Lightning Ridge also possesses that ability to transport you. It takes you out of the here and now, and puts you into a rich and vibrant caricature of the outback.


Many of us would be familiar with the iconic work of John Murray. For me, being in Lightning Ridge was like living inside one of his paintings. And this was still despite the fact that it was cold, grey and wet – hardly the stereotypical weather of the outback!


You don’t have to be in Lightning Ridge for very long to realise that what makes people tick here are opals. Behind every enterprise, behind the twinkling eyes of every local, beneath every footstep, you can feel the opals working their magic. There’s a look that locals get when they discuss this gem, a sort of lusty reverence. They’re goners – the potion’s drunk, their fate now to forever love this mistress.


Standing in Down to Earth Opals with a rock no bigger than three 20-cent pieces lying side by side in my hand, I caught an inkling of that potion’s power. This little rock was worth a cool $120,000. It coruscated and dazzled with the shifting light, and for a moment I considered doing a runner.


Opals in Lightning Ridge are especially alluring. They’re black, flecked with radiant red, green and blue. Few places in the world produce black opal with such reliability. Red against black is the rarest combination; white and green is the most common.


My first stop in Lightning Ridge was the Chambers of the Black Hand, so called because entry down to this opal mine was adorned with a painted black hand. This was an excellent example of Lightning Ridge’s unique navigation system. There are no street signs or house numbers in much of the town. Instead, car doors are nailed to trees to signpost the way, such that you might be looking to take the first left after green door eight, for example.


Donning helmets, the tour group and I were led down a multitude of steps carved into the earth to a depth of 40ft. This claim has been worked nearly since mining for opals began in Lightning Ridge at the turn of the 19th century. Today, however, it’s artistic gems rather than the geological variety that we’re here for.


Miner Ron Canlin has spent decades carving statues and painting murals in caverns hewn from the sandstone. His art is unashamedly eclectic (it couldn’t be any other way in Lightning Ridge), ranging from murals of bushland settings to comic book heroes to mythological figures.


As we’re shown around this subterranean art gallery, our tour guide explains how opal is formed, and the wonder of opal starts to insinuate itself just a little more. Over time, water containing silica washes through the sandstone, leaving behind the silica, now trapped in voids within the stone.


If the spheres of silica, against all odds, stack in an even lattice, precious opal is formed. The gem possesses no colour of its own; the colours you see are the result of light diffracting through the silica spheres. Much more likely, the silica spheres will arrange in an irregular hotchpotch, rendering the opal dull and lifeless. Indeed, they call this common, worthless opal ‘potch’.


If you enjoy nocturnal pleasures, Lightning Ridge won’t let you down. We learned that of the town’s population of around 3000, nearly all of the world’s nationalities were represented. This was affirmed to our tastebuds’ delight at the Lightning Ridge Bowling Club where we dined on, of all things, an Indian feast.


And the night was far from over. Next stop was the Artesian Bore Baths, open around the clock and free for all. The baths remain at a therapeutic and deliciously relaxing average temperature of 42 degrees. Those with arthritis or rheumatic troubles will in particular benefit.


For first-timers, something I can’t recommend highly enough is a tour. I went with Black Opal Tours and loved it. We were taken around the surreal and mysterious dwellings that form so much of the character of the town, from ramshackle corrugated iron huts to great follies such as Amigo’s Castle.


To see so many dilapidated huts, built on or near the owner’s shafts to mines below, with no plumbing, electricity or roads provided, you wonder how on earth anyone could bear it. Then you remember the opal. We had a taste of opal fever during a lesson on opal hunting as we fossicked – or ‘noodled’ – amongst the tailings (discarded deposits of earth from a mine) reserved for the tour. The tourist information centre also has a large hill of tailings to fossick over, and tales of people finding opals worth five-figure sums spurred us on. Suddenly every glint and gleam on the ground was a ticket on the gravy train. We had to be dragged away.


Out amongst the humpies, abandoned trucks and buses, and mining machinery standing derelict and forlorn, is the Astronomer’s Monument. This M.C. Escheresque construction stands as an observatory for wandering astronomers and a memorial to a departed wife. It was built by tortured soul Alex Szperlak, driven mad after being wrongly accused of his wife’s murder and serving time for the crime. Poignant and haunting, I think it offers insight into many of the eccentrics attracted to Lightning Ridge.


Another of these eccentrics is the affable Amigo who has built a stone castle on top of his mine. Rooms are often without roofs or doors, and I don’t recall ever seeing a pane of glass. It seems odd, until you remember how hot it gets out here and how little it rains.


Lightning Ridge does funny things to people, and there is no better exponent of this than the Black Queen. Originally hailing from Sydney, the Black Queen and her husband were both successful executives who gave up their comfortable lives to be in Lightning Ridge, instead. You find this out in the Black Queen’s home in an interactive theatre experience, where the tale becomes ever more magical and fantastic. The building is as fascinating as the story that unfolds, being constructed from empty glass bottles.


Now, no trip to Lightning Ridge would be complete without a visit to the aforementioned John Murray’s gallery. His vivid renditions of outback living are unique and quintessentially Australian. After standing in the streets of Lightning Ridge and meeting some of its characters, to me his paintings perfectly capture what it is to live out here.


The district around Lightning Ridge has a number of attractions too. In nearby Brewarrina, you can delve into a riveting history of the 40,000-year-old stone fishing traps in the nearby Barwon River. These National-Heritage listed traps stretch for 500m, and you can get a guided tour from the local Aboriginal people. The visitor information centre contains wonderful displays of art from local artists and historical artefacts.


And just down the road is the gateway to the Outback: the back o’ Bourke. Bourke is steeped in history and legend, and has played host to luminaries such as Henry Lawson and Fred Hollows.


The newly completed Back O’ Bourke centre offers a state-of-the-art facility to explore the history and culture of Bourke, the Darling River and surrounds.


The words of Henry Lawson are interspersed throughout and provide an evocative counterpoint to what you are seeing. If you’re not familiar with his work, you soon realise why he is so revered.


Set aside a decent chunk of time to see the centre – you’ll need it. Once your brain is full, you can satisfy your stomach at the centre’s café. The pathway to the café is lined with old posts that hold special significance. I won’t give away the secret here, though!


Fred Hollows, the famous eye surgeon, was a much-loved son of Bourke. Indeed, a long, low wall, written with these words, marks the way in to town: Fred Hollows – Vision Way. In the 1970s he began treating trachoma in the local Aboriginal people, before taking his treatment to the world. He requested that he be laid to rest in Bourke, and you can find his grave and a memorial to him at the Bourke Cemetery.


I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun, or learned as much, as I did on this outback adventure to Lightning Ridge. Will I ever return? You bet. And next time it may just be for keeps.




From QLD, follow the A55 south from St George or Roma. From NSW, get onto highway 29 travelling east/west, or highway 55 travelling north from Dubbo.




Lions Park, Morilla Street
Lightning Ridge
NSW 2834, Ph: (02) 6829 1670




Onyx St, Lightning Ridge
Ph: (02) 6829 0304.
The hotel is also a caravan park




Open 24/7, end of Pandora St. A Pandora’s Box of pleasure!

8 Opal St, Lightning Ridge. Ph: (02) 6829 1130.

See an amazing public display of Australian opal and fossilised opal. Ph: (02) 6829 1667.

50km south of Bourke along the Kidman Way. 2WD access during dry weather.

100km NE of Bourke.




Underground art gallery and mine tour.
Ph: 6829 4730 or 6829 0224.

See the best of Lightning Ridge. Adults $25, seniors $20, children $10.
Ph: (02) 6829 0368. E: [email protected].

Outstanding outback theatre – with a twist. $25. Ph: (02) 6829 0980.

By Sean Cummins