A long weekend in Lightning Ridge
Embark on a quirky Outback adventure with a long weekend in Lightning Ridge
Opals aren’t the only gems of Lightning Ridge – find natural desert wonders, charismatic characters, underground art galleries and more on a 72-hour journey through this Outback town.
With hidden surprises waiting to be unearthed, Lightning Ridge has plenty to offer the intrepid traveller. Get up close to the buried history of this opal-mining town and travel underground to tour working mines or fossick for your own precious stones. But if mining life is not quite your thing, this Outback outpost has a creative side to discover, with subterranean carvings, imaginative painters and designer jewellery makers. The desert landscape offers some unexpected natural treasures, too – soak in mineral-rich waters that bubble up from the Great Artesian Basin and climb to nearby peaks to survey this historic mining town during its epic golden hours.
- Learn the shining history of this mining town
- Fossick for your own black opals in a working mine
- Take a dip in the two-million-year-old thermal Artesian bore baths
- Lunch with the quirky mining community at the Grawin ‘Club in the Scrub’
- Discover a sandstone gallery 11 metres underground
- Browse local jewellery shops for the ultimate souvenir
Time to hit the road.
Lightning Ridge is one of the most northern parts of the NSW Outback, so you can expect a bit of a journey to get there — from Sydney and Canberra it takes about nine hours to drive. Alternatively, you can fly to Moree, which is a two- to three-hour drive away from the town. Make sure to hire a 4WD if you’re flying; they are recommended for unsealed roads and for visiting many of the national parks.
Day One: Friday
Discover the mining life.
Day one is all about unearthing the heart of this town: the opal mines. Opal mining began in Lightning Ridge in the late 1800s and its century-old mines are still the source of many of Australia’s iridescent black opals. After breakfast at Opal Street Cafe, start the day at Cooper’s Cottage, built in 1916, this rustic tin shack offers an authentic glimpse of the ramshackle life of mining pioneers back in the day. The ‘Ridge’s’ desert landscape is more flourishing than you may think: take a stroll through Bevan’s Cactus Nursery. This locally owned farm grows more than 2,500 succulents and cacti, including some rare and ancient plants – some are more than 100 years old. Drop by the Lightning Ridge Visitor Info Centre to pick up a map of the region’s unique Car Door Tours– these self-drive tours are marked by colourful wrecked car parts and take in all the essential sights of town.
Refuel with lunch at Gourmet Gecko, then start your Car Door Tours to a couple of Lightning Ridge landmarks you’ll have to see to believe. The Red Car Door Tour heads to Amigo’s Castle, a gothic-style structure in the middle of the dessert built by hand using discarded sandstone boulders. Another unusual piece of architecture is the Bottle House and Mining Museum. A former miner’s camp, this innovative building is made from discarded beer bottles and artefacts. More ancient artefacts are on display at the Australian Opal Centre, where you can learn the history of these precious stones and see some of the rarest opalised fossils and historic samples from around the world.
As dusk approaches, Nettleton’s First Shaft lookout is on the Green Car Door tour route, and is in prime position for a front-row seat of the setting sun. Not only is this the perfect vantage point to watch a golden glow cast over Lightning Ridge, but it is also the site of the town’s very first opal mine made by Charlie Nettleton in 1903. Keep dinner casual tonight and pick up takeaway woodfired pizzas from Bruno’s Italian Restaurant and eat these freshly made slices right beside a crackling fire.
Day Two: Saturday
Get your hands dirty.
This morning, we’re hitting the spa…though it’s not quite the spa you may have in mind. Lightning Ridge is home to a channel of the Great Artesian Basin, one of the largest and deepest freshwater basins in the world, and natural pressure sends bubbles of mineral-rich thermal waters up into bore baths across the NSW Outback. Soak up the goodness of these two-million-year-old natural springs (that sit at a constant 41 degrees Celsius) before heading to breakfast at Morilla’s Cafe, a town favourite for waffles, pancakes and specialty coffee. After you’ve fuelled up, it’s time to head underground and explore an original working opal mine at The Lost Treasure Opal Mine Adventure. Experience this 75-year-old mine just like the miners and marvel at the tunnels all hand-dug by one person. If you’re feeling lucky, have a go at fossicking through their spoil heaps for a gem of your own.
Next up we’re heading to the Grawin opal fields. Tour around to see these working mines in action, then head over tofor a drink, or even a round of golf at its unique desert course. Grab a bite to eat here, or visit the Glengarry Hilton for lunch; not quite like its hotel chain namesake, this tin-shed bush pub offers cold brews and a classic Outback feed.
Before the sun goes down, make time to drive across to the opal mines near the Sheepyard Inn. The spoil heaps that surround these mines are perfect for fossicking for opals, and you might just find some buried treasure to take home. A big day calls for a lavish feast – sit down to a bellissimo meal at Bruno’s Italian Restaurant, with premium steaks, seafood, rich pastas and an authentic Italian tiramisu to finish. Buon appetito!
Day Three: Sunday
Find your artistic side.
Watch sunrise bring the Ridge to life at Bald Hill Lookout. This morning we’re starting the day underground for an art viewing with a twist. The Chambers of the Black Hand is a subterranean gallery 11 metres below the earth’s surface in a 100-year-old former opal mine. Over the past 23 years, former Royal Marine and deep-sea diver Ron Canlin has etched countless artistic carvings into the walls of these opal caves. From native animals to Lord of the Rings characters to dinosaurs and more, this unique experience is like the Mount Rushmore of the Outback. More creativity awaits at the John Murray Art Gallery, where the former Sydney artist showcases his realist paintings that capture Outback NSW with vibrant colour and quirky scenes.
You can’t end a holiday without a souvenir to remind you of your weekend away — hunt down some beautiful bling at designer opal jewellery shops Lost Sea Opals and pick out something special for your loved ones or a precious piece for yourself. Finish off your trip with one last pub lunch at Nobby’s Bar — a classic Outback drinking hole and a quintessential taste of country life in Lightning Ridge.and