Lightning Ridge, NSW.

First shaft lookout at sunset

2 weeks in Lightning Ridge was what we gave ourselves, so many people looked at us like we were crazy when we said we had 2 weeks. ‘What will you do for that long?’ was a common question!

The truth is we’ve tried to do everything, twice! And I’m sure there’s still stuff that we have missed! It was also the last week of the school term and we had school work to finish up so that we could all actually have a 2 week break without fighting to get it all done. So throw in a few days spent finishing that off, not to mention some online work meetings for us and our everyday work we do for our businesses back in Townsville and the 2 weeks flew by! We also were lucky enough to have some family come and stay at Lightning Ridge the first week of the school holidays (our second week there) and that was really nice for us all.

Looking out through a window at one of the bottle house’s

Joel and Ashton are keen opal hunters so fossicking was high on the to do first list. The first afternoon after setting up we went to the information centre to get all the tips on where to go and what to see. We left with plenty of maps and info, the most exciting of which were the car door tours. You donate $1 each for the 2 brochures, 1 has 4 car door tours on it and the other only 1 but they were the best $2 we spent, DIY touring at its best, and they really are a must do while here! You find your way around the car door tours by following the numbered and coloured car doors, our highlights were Nettletons First Shaft Lookout for sunset and the bottle house, both on the Green car door tour. Amigos Castle on the Red car door tour which we would’ve loved to have seen inside, but again due to covid it was closed for tours and you could only look from the outside, Last but not least, the ‘Goddess of 1967’ church and Lunatic Hill on the Yellow car door tour. Even without these faves of ours there’s plenty of other things to look at from old rusty cars to ridge traffic lights hanging in random trees.

We stayed at the Opal caravan park which is on the outskirts of town only 200 or so metres from the Artesian Bore Baths. It has its own fossicking area and we found it to be clean, flat and a fantastic spot to spend a couple of weeks. Although I must admit the toilet blocks looked totally different the second week we were there, school holidays make everything busier and dirtier and I think we’ve all decided we much prefer travelling and staying in caravan parks when it’s not school holidays! The first afternoon at the caravan park we went straight to the fossicking pile to find our fortune. Funnily enough both Joel and Ashton found opal pretty much straight away, one of which we ended up getting polished as a keepsake. So it was a pretty good start to our time in The Ridge.

Because of the mad, keen fossickers in the family the first full day we had we went and did a walk in mine tour so we could find out some more info about the ins and outs of opal hunting and what it is we’re actually looking for. The tour we did was $50 for the 4 of us and was pretty much a self guided tour down into the mine. The mine itself is an old, now unused one and had some videos you could watch and information scattered throughout. There was also a fossicking pile out the front which we looked through and I found my first piece of opal. Everyone was super keen to find more opal so we decided to head out to Grawin which is about 45 minutes from Lightning Ridge and where most of the seam opal is found these days. They chase black opal in The Ridge and it’s the only place in the world it can be found, so they say it’s rarer then diamonds!

Grawin is a whole other world! There are mine camps everywhere, huge mining holes and dirt roads that all look the same, we took a wrong turn and got totally lost, which is actually part of the fun in Grawin! There’s also 3 places to choose from to have a beer, only 2 of which you can have lunch at. The Pub in the Scrub is the first one you come to and we loved it, we spent quite a few days in Grawin looking for opal and having lunch here. The other options are The Glengarry Hilton which we also had lunch at one of the days and The Sheepyard Inn. Other then that there is only dirt, shacks and two huge dump piles from the mines which is where you go fossicking (or noodling as it is called out here) the two dump piles are as big as football fields and 6 story’s high at least! The miners drive their dump trucks to the top of the mounds and dump the sandstone, clay and dirt out of their mines. This is where the everyday person can go to find the opal that the miners may have missed. Mostly we found what they call potch, or common opal, the miners don’t keep this stuff as it’s not worth anything to them. It’s mostly blue and shines like glass, occasionally though you find a piece that has some colour in it. That first day we were so excited to even find potch but after we learnt a bit more we were specifically looking for colour, you can imagine the excitement when we did actually find small pieces of real opal with colours shining through it! We ended up getting a few small pieces cut at a small jewellery shop in town called Lost Sea Opals. The lady there must have thought we were loopy getting these little stones cut and polished but she entertained us and even got excited with us when we saw them after they were done, she also has some really amazing jewellery pieces in her shop which are worth checking out. We were pretty happy with our treasures!

Grawin is a must do when you come to Lightning Ridge even if you don’t get Opal fever like we did it’s really worth the drive just to see it with your own eyes and to have a burger and according to our boys the best chips ever at the Club in the Scrub, hot tip though, the last orders for lunch are taken at 1.45, so if you’re planning on eating make sure you’re there earlier. Also during school holidays it was crazy busy, so much so that they actually ran out of food long before the 1.45 mark! The roads in Grawin are all dirt but while we were there weren’t too bad, I can imagine they would sometimes be terrible though, and I’d hate to see them after rain

Another must do here is the Chambers of the Black Hand. It is a old mine that has now been turned into a art gallery of sorts. From the outside it looks like a hole but you walk down the steps to 40 feet below ground and you’re welcomed into an incredible tunnel of carvings. Ron Canlin owns this and is also the incredible artist. He has carved hundreds of pictures and sculptures in the sandstone under the earth by hand using only a butter knife and fork, the same of which he still uses today. The carvings include everything from Disney characters to an Egyptian section and everything in between. There is even a fun distraction for the kids, scattered throughout the exhibition there is a lot of Where’s Wallys carved or painted in various places for them to find, and if at the end they’ve counted them all they get a prize, which is a small bag of potch, our boys loved it and were more then happy with their prize! Archie says his favourite carvings were the Michealangelo and the Egyptian section. Ashton’s was the animal section. I can’t really say I had a favourite but if I had to pick one it would be the carving of the mother and child, and Joel wouldn’t commit to a favourite but commented that he wishes he had spent more time down there. Normally you are able to go down into the actual mine section and see that as well which is below the sandstone carvings but they had it closed to tourists due to covid-19 however there is a opal shop at the end and it was probably my fave one that we saw in the ridge and the guys behind the counter were miners and happy to answer all our questions!

The John Murray Art Gallery is Free to enter and both us and the kids really liked it. His paintings are clever, interesting and fun. There’s a mural in the alley on both sides of the gallery building, 2 sculptures made from recycled bits and bobs out the front and you can see other bits of his work scattered around Lightning Ridge on various buildings. A really easy way to fill in at least an hour, and did I mention it’s FREE unless of course you can’t help yourself and you buy a painting!

The artesian hot springs were only a couple of hundred metres up the road from the caravan park we stayed at and they are HOT! Even in the middle of winter we were walking down all rugged up, hopping in the water for 15 minutes and then able to walk home in wet swimmers and just a towel without getting cold, we actually usually couldn’t even last 15 minutes, it really was that hot! Unfortunately the second week was school holidays and man oh man did they get packed, so we tended not to head over much the second week because while they’re lovely you need a bit of space to hop in and out as you get too hot, it got a bit too busy for our liking.

While the QLD/NSW border was still closed due to the covid-19 lockdown we still decided to go for a drive north to Angledool we had seen a brochure mention that a Chinese settlement had once been there, and after a little googling we found there was a pretty little church and a very old school of the arts building. We found Angledool and the church and school of arts building but could find no evidence of a Chinese settlement. We decided to go talk to the guys at the border crossing as we were meant to be going back to our home state at the end of the week and figured it couldn’t hurt to hear from the horses mouth what we needed to do. Hebel, the border town, was only about 5 minutes from Angledool so we went and chatted to the police and army manning the border. The kids had a play on the park at the edge of Hebel and we headed back to Lightning Ridge.

All in all our stay in Lightning Ridge has been amazing! It was a place I was really looking forward to seeing and it didn’t disappoint! Ashton decided on the first day in Grawin that he really likes it ‘because there doesn’t seem to be any rules, you just build and dig anywhere! Although I am kinda a person that would like an actual house’ was his comment. The ruggedness and quirky signs and things everywhere made it such a fun place to stay and explore, and at least one of us ended up with opal fever, now just to get him to leave!

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