Lightning Ridge may be the Black Opal capital of Australia serving up quirky characters and bizarre adventures. But it now comes with a side of great coffee.
Bruno’s is one of the two great Italian eateries that surprises most visitors to Lightning Ridge. (Image: Destination NSW)
Some people used to say that outback towns this far from ‘civilization’ could only serve lacklustre takeaway food and intolerable instant coffee, but there is no trace of that myth today in Lightning Ridge.
Real Coffee in the Outback
The north-western NSW town’s foodie offering is robust, buoyed by a duo of Italian restaurants and a trio of cafes – Opal Street, Morilla’s and Busy Bee – that actually do ‘real’ coffee. Yes, real specialty coffee in the outback.
Good coffee found in Lightning Ridge; Morilla’s is one of a handful of great cafe’s in the outback town. (Image: Destination NSW)
While ‘the Ridge’ has all the creature comforts and punches well above its culinary weight for a town well, exact population unknown, perish the thought that it has ‘sold out’ and become a bush Bondi or outback Fitzroy.
Oh no, Lightning Ridge has been and always will be powered by its ragtag collection of colourful, untameable personalities. People who famously came for a week and stayed for a lifetime because the blue, green and red fire of those black opals wedged in their mind’s eye.
Lightning Ridge’s Arts tail
Their often inexplicable stories manifest in unlikely ways everywhere you look in this free-range town. On the outskirts, 18-metre-tall Stanley the Emu greets you from the roadside.
No visit to Lightning Ridge is complete without dropping by and checking John Murray Art Gallery. (Image: Destination NSW)
Creator of this VW-Beetle-bodied ‘Big Thing’, local artist John Murray, embodies the Ridge’s ‘Back o’ Buggery’ bush spirit. His whimsical ‘realism’-style paintings embrace the outback hues and ‘human folly’ of the Ridge, on display to browse and buy at John Murray Art Gallery on Opal Street.
If you’re fascinated with arts, learn about John Murray’s different approach in painting and his inspirations. (Image: Destination NSW)
A deeper understanding of Lightning Ridge’s penchant for playing by its own rules can be gained at the Chambers of the Black Hand gallery (and opal shop).
Chambers of the Black Hand is a remarkable place that symbolizes the creative and innovative side of ‘the Ridge’. (Image: Destination NSW)
The sandstone walls of Ron Canlin’s old opal mine have become an unlikely canvas for hundreds of carvings and murals, from tributes to Lord of the Rings and a subterranean Last Supper carving to a statue of Elvis Presley and an Egyptian chamber with ‘humorous hieroglyphics’. Send your kids cross-eyed by setting them the ‘Where’s-Wally?’ challenge.
Black Opal Capital of Australia
Perched on the cusp of an ancient inland Gondwana sea, Lightning Ridge is home to a perplexing array of options for visitors curious about black opals.
Take a stickybeak around aptly named Lunatic Hill Open Cut mine to see one of the richest sources of black opal ever found. You might even kick one up yourself. It’s now a fitting monument to the brave, foolhardy and occasionally jackpot-hitting miners.
Beautifully presented jewelries with wide variety of styles that you can choose from can be seen at Lost Sea Opals by designer Jo Lindsay. (Image: Destination NSW)
To see the finished products in their best light, check out the stunning creations of jeweller Jo Lindsay at Lost Sea Opals boutique. Witness the gems being cut and polished by a true craftswoman.
Jewelry designs at Lost Sea Opals are inspired by the vivid colours and beauty of the opals. (Image: Destination NSW)
The earth here cradles some of the world’s rarest fossils and, excitingly, prized 100-million-year-old opalised fossils. But you have to know where to look so the Australian Opal Centre runs a limited number of seasonal fossil digs, in conjunction with the Australian Geographic Society. The six-day expeditions have uncovered some mind-blowing specimens, including Australia’s smallest dinosaur babies (book ahead).
Known to house the world’s greatest public collection of Australian opal, learn more about opal, opalised fossils and mining at Australian Opal Centre. (Image: Destination NSW)
Plans for the new significant Australian Opal Centre building are cresting the horizon. The energy-efficient, two-storey structure will become an extraordinary national monument to Australia’s national gemstone.
Lightning Ridge’s distinctive architecture
The Ridge’s shanty-chic architecture is as colourful as the gemstones that funded it. Beer Can House – built by Gary and Pat Holms back in the days when we used to drink out of steel cans – and perhaps Lightning Ridge’s most recognisable structure, the Camelot-esque, ironstone-boulder Amigo’s Castle (made by Vittorio ‘Amigo’ Stefanato), are standouts in an ocean of eccentricity.
Part of the amazing Amigo Castle. Onsite is a yard full of drums and other unusual ‘collectibles’. (Image: Destination NSW)
Finding hidden gems among the sprawling labyrinth is a cinch for visitors, thanks to the distinctly Ridge-onian phenomena of coloured-coded car-door tours. Four self-drive safaris cover as much unconventionality as you can take (get your maps from the Lightning Ridge Visitor Information Centre, off Bill O’Brien Way).
See Lightning Ridge on a tour
To see if you can strike it lucky, Outback Opal Tours offers a comprehensive town tour (including an underground mine visit) and a full-day jaunt that ventures into ‘opal-rush’ territory, where folks live in camps without power or town water.
Enjoy a happy hour with a difference at the Glengarry Hilton.
Visiting the ‘Pubs in the Scrub’ of Grawin Opal Fields is a highlight. Beer and banter flow easily at the Sheepyard Inn, Grawin Club in the Scrub and the Glengarry Hilton. And, if you’re lucky (and game), you might even score a personal mine tour from a friendly patron.
Watch the sun setting and appreciate the view in the outback at Nettleton’s First Shaft Lookout. (Image: Destination NSW)
As the light begins to change, take a slow drive out of town, perch at Nettleton’s First Shaft Lookout, and witness sunset ignite the Coocoran Opal Fields. Then boomerang back into the Ridge to catch an under-the-stars “cinematic celebration of Lightning Ridge” at the SPARK Outdoor Cinematic Exhibition.
Relax and unwind in the naturally heated outdoor Artesian Bore Bath. (Image: Destination NSW)
The perfect way to de-brief from a wild day in the north-west is to indulge in unpretentious Ridge-style wellness. Slink into the mineral-rich waters of the Artesian Bore Bath (a toasty 41 degrees) for a soothing soak in an open-air pool, while you reflect on a compelling day in astonishing Lightning Ridge – a place where the bizarre soon becomes normal and the normal bizarre.