7 to 8 September 2019
Arriving in Lightening Ridge you can’t fail to notice that this is opal country. We booked ourselves into a cabin at the Crocodile Caravan Park as our last night under canvas at Emmaville had been too cold and temperatures were still getting down to 5°. We were happy, however, to have avoided the dust storm that had hit the town the day before. “I couldn’t see passed the bonnet of my car” the man in the laundry room told me.
80% of the world’s opals come from Australia and mostly from the areas around Lightning Ridge and Coober Pedy. Lightening Ridge in particular is famous for its black opals, some of the most beautiful and expensive.
Looking around at all the abandoned cars and machinery and old tin roofed shacks you would think Lightening Ridge’s heyday was long gone.
But there is still opal around and we stopped first at the Australian Opal Centre to find out a bit more. A lovely Dutch man who had been living in Australia for many years told us how the stone is formed when millions of years ago liquid silica found its way into cracks in the rock and solidified creating the multicoloured opal. So long ago that dinosaur fossils have been found encased in opal. We learnt all about the different grades of opal. A carat of N1 opal costs $15,000 and has the clearest, brightest colours. (Sorry Bridget, our travel budget just didn’t stretch to that black opal you asked for!)
For the slightly more affordable cost of $1 we picked up a map for several self drive tours of the town and surrounding area. Named the Car Door Tours we literally followed numbered and coloured car doors to different points of interest. The green one took us through one of the opal fields – a bizarre looking landscape of piles of earth and lots of deep holes from which the piles came. Evidence of mining is everywhere you look in Lightening Ridge.
It being late in the day our first car door tour ended at a sunset lookout, looking out across the Coocoran Opal Fields which had their boom in the 1990s. Returning to the caravan park we listened in to the local radio station, Opal FM, and got a funny insight into life in the small town with talk of the local events and items for sale accompanied by proper Australian songs like Aussie As and Wine Time.
The next morning we set off on the yellow car door tour which took us first to a working mine. Operated by a single miner who has diversified into tourism (maybe his opal seams have all run out!). He had dug the mine himself, tunnels disappearing in all directions in search of opal. Each miner has a very defined area to mine in and encroaching on another’s area is serious business. We weren’t sure if he was exaggerating when he told us of murderous, vigilante style reprisals but this seemed like a town where it could be true.
The yellow car doors took us on to an open style and more industrial mine at Lunatic Lookout but generally the mines were all a one man and his caravan kind of operation.
The yellow car door tour ended at a corrugated iron church built for the filming of The Goddess of 1967 and Stanley the Emu built by local artist John Murray and making good use of the old car parts lying around.
The blue car door tour took us somewhere very surprising indeed. Cacti aren’t indigenous to Australia but here was Bevan’s Cactus Nursery, a collection of 2500 cacti from all over the world. In such an arid landscape the plants looked very at home and it was certainly the biggest cactus garden we have ever seen.
At the end of our tours we stopped at the town’s artesian bore baths. The baths are fed by the Great Artesian Basin which is one of the largest freshwater basins in the world and an important source of water for
a huge area of Australia. The water in the baths is 41.5 degrees (we checked on Stefan’s watch!) and it was so lovely and relaxing after all the dust. The baths are a really social place for locals and tourists alike.
We loved the baths so much that we decided to have one more dip before we left Lightening Ridge and got up at sunrise. Even then the baths were busy with people and we can understand why they are so popular as we headed off on the next part of our journey feeling fully rejuvenated…