Strike Me Lucky // Opal Fossicking in Lightning Ridge (NSW)

Located around 9 hours North West of Sydney on the edge of the outback lies Lightning Ridge, the largest opal producing fields in Australia and a town as colourful in its character and diversity as is its world famous black opal.


Highlights

  • find your fortune
  • explore an opal mine
  • fossick for opal and fossils
  • fish for yabbies
  • photography (amazing sunsets)
  • relax in a hot spring

Lightning Ridge is my ‘escape place’- a place I can go where I can’t be contacted if I so choose – I can spend a whole day scrounging around in the dirt and not see another soul.

No matter where you are from you will leave this town feeling like you have found home – you will feel welcome and everybody will respect you no matter how rough or quirky you may be. I could waltz into the club covered head to toe in dirt and nobody would bat an eyelid – because everybody else looks worse after a day of mining!

Life is tough, so are the people – they don’t worry about the little things in Lightning Ridge, the only thing that matters is finding more opals!

Aside from the alluring loot, a highlight for me is the quirky resourcefulness of its residents – I love driving around looking at how people turn old junk into useful contraptions, if not their very dwellings. There’s easily 101 uses of an old tyre, car doors are used as markers and advertising signs, old cars become old chook pens, nothing goes to waste.

The people are as dinky di aussie as you’ll find though many are from foreign lands. Our infamous larrikin humour is on display in many ways, my favourite being a sign at the Grawin fields which reads “place bodies here ->”.

My other favourite attraction is the town’s large bore bath, a giant public pool entrapping the artesian bore water from kilometres beneath the surface. It’s usually around 40 degrees and a 10-minute soak can cure anything at all.

Fossicking for Opal

There is no shortage of opal to be found! Fossicking is known as “noodling”- you essentially look through old piles of dirt the miners have discarded, hoping to find pieces of colour which they missed. There are several public noodling areas you can visit for free as well as small sites located at various town attractions – my recommendation is The Walk In Mine and Lorne Station. For serious noodlers, a drive out to the Grawin opal fields is always rewarding, there are 3 public dump sites there, each is about the size of a football field.

How Do I Noodle?

Grab a bucket with a little water and a little metal garden rake. Keep the sun over the back of your shoulder. Get on your knees! – the closer your eyes are to the ground the more success you will have. Slowly rake through the dirt.

Opal is generally found in greyish blueish or black coloured potch. Potch is colourless opal, it still has a glass like appearance to it, as does opal. So look for the blue and grey rocks, and any pieces which look shiny in the sun  – that’ll be the sun reflecting off the opal! Not all look like that, some large chalky pebbles will have thin veins of crystal opal showing – these can often have precious gems hiding inside them.

Wetting the stones helps you to see if there is any colour. Expect to see lots of people licking stones, it’s quite normal!

Got a bucketful of rocks – now what?

Never ever ever smash them with a hammer – if a stone has opal inside it, you won’t be able to glue all those little pieces back together!

There are numerous people in the town offering a stone cutting service, usually at no cost. You could also take them all to your local lapidary club where there are always opal cutting enthusiasts.

Can I sell it?

Yes – there are ‘buyers’ in the town who are always wanting fresh material. There are also many professional opal cutters who can polish the stone and jewellery makers for settings but these take time and most of these folks are already booked out weeks at a time with local miners requests.

How To Get There

From Sydney the most direct and scenic route with fewest changes in speed zones and the least semi trailers sitting on your bumper bar, is to drive up the F3 Freeway, take the Hunter link freeway out to Singleton. Continue on to Musswellbrook, Scone, Quirindi, Narrabri, Wee Waa… Lightning Ridge.

On a good run with a yummy cafe stop at Murrurundi and lunch at Narrabri it takes 9 hours. It is immensely pretty and once past Narrabri, pretty dead flat. No roos either until you actually get close to Lightning Ridge. I have visited Lightning Ridge about 18 times – the trip never gets dull!

You can also travel using public transport – train to Dubbo then a bus to Lightning Ridge.

When To Go / Where To Stay

July is home to their Opal Festival – it is a mammoth affair and accommodation can book out months ahead, completely. There are all types of accommodation and no shortage of places you can just pitch a tent or swag.

I love Lorne Station, an old cattle farm just near the airport – it’s much quieter than town, I get woken by birds instead of squeaky windlasses, it’s flat for camping, and has shade (rare!) and a large camp kitchen and amenities block – all I need to take is my tent and sleeping bag. Lorne is specifically set up for large caravans and tents.

Lightning Ridge gets extremely hot, over 50 degrees is common in summer months. Mid May-June is perfect. Temperatures can drop to 3-5 degrees in winter months at night.

Essential Gear

  • a $1.50 bucket from Mr Cheap in Lightning Ridge
  • a $9 small metal garden rake from Bunnings – also available at Mr Cheap if you forget your own
  • tent, sleeping gear
  • sunscreen
  • patience!
  • Maybe a fly net
  • you do NOT need a fossicking license

Safety Warnings

  • old mine shafts are not places for fun and exploration. Most would have unstable roofs – stay out!
  • Trespassing on old mines can prove unsafe in a number of ways. There is no such thing as an old abandoned mine – somebody owns it – stay out.
  • finding opal is addictive!

 

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