Our day of departure from Byron Bay begun as any true adventure should – without any real idea of where we’d be staying en route to our destination of Lightning Ridge – the world capital of rare black opals. ‘The Ridge’ was added to our itinerary based upon my sister’s recommendations following her visit there 4 years prior – apparently it’s bursting with unique charm. As temperatures in the Outback often sink to below freezing at night, we perilously disregarded Google’s recommended route and took a detour past the large inland city of Grafton, to buy a more substantial winter doona (Australian for duvet).
Freezing our socks off at 1,000m
With the day getting on, we decided upon our overnight stop; Glen Innes, a small country town we’d passed through before, conveniently equidistant between Byron and our ultimate destination of Lightning Ridge. The drive up was far hairier than we’d expected – featuring never ending hairpins taking us higher and higher through the Gibraltar Range National Park, all while keeping to the outside of my lane, for fear of being smashed off the mountainside by one of the many monstrous trucks that passed us.
Once we’d finally completed our unexpected ascent and phone signal returned, Joella did a spot of campsite research using her phone while I safely got us to Glenn Innes. Brilliantly, Joella found us a fairly priced place to stay, just a short distance out of town. It was only while driving down the 9km long dirt track that we gave Three Waters High a call – luckily for us the owners had just arrived back from holiday, only 10 minutes before!
On arrival we ventured out of our warm car into the bitter cold, to have a chat with the owner – Steve Langley, who we later discovered was once a local celebrity, famous for his amazing sounding ‘Outback pub crawls on horseback’. After paying up and suspiciously having to sign a waiver, he filled us in on why it was so very cold; we were at an elevation of over 1,000m, and snow had been forecast :-/
Despite having just arrived themselves, Steve’s wife had already kindly stoked the fire for the hot water, and showed us round the ‘gunyah’ (an aboriginal wooden hut) that included the camp kitchen, TV, VHS player and toilets, all wrapped up in Australian cowboy decor. After splitting wood outside for the open fire surrounded by a herd of horses, we got to work cooking dinner while being overlooked by a boar head mounted on the wall – how surreal 🙂
After watching “Extremely loud and incredibly close” – a touching film about an Autistic boy coming to terms with losing his father in 9/11, by attempting to discover the purpose of a mystery key, we turned in for what was an uncomfortably cold night, not helped by me coming down with man flu :-/ But ultimately our new doona kept us alive, and after a warming bowl of porridge in the morning, we were ready to hit the road again.
Arriving in the Outback
Our drive to Lightning Ridge was one of changing colours; from luscious greens of the forests and grassy plains, to the barren browns of the dusty scenery that now surrounded us. Once our phone signal completely disappeared and the last radio station fizzled out, the extremity of our remoteness hit us – we were now well and truly in the Outback. Fortunately a little before we arrived in ‘the Ridge’, a bar of reception appeared, allowing Joella to phone and reserve us the last available spot at the cheesy sounding Crocodile Campsite.
The ‘van’ that we’d booked turned out to be a brilliantly vintage static caravan, that seemed to have time travelled from the 1960’s. After checking in, it felt like we’d been welcomed into the family – most of our fellow guests who frequently stopped to chat to us were regulars, and come to stay every year.
Each night there was a gathering in the cosy camp kitchen area, where people brought their ‘grog’ (Aussie for booze) and had a good old natter. In addition, Lionel the owner cooked up some stunning pumpkin scones, and other nights were filled with humorous yet thought provoking bush poetry from a characterful bearded traveller.
Two of our favourite recitings were:
Mad Jack’s Cockatoo
There’s a man that went out, in the flood time and drought
By the banks of the outer Barcoo,
They called him “Mad Jack”, ’cause the swag on his back,
Was the perch for an old cockato.
By towns near and far and shed, shanty and bar
Came the arms of Mad Jack and his bird
And this tale I relate, it was told by a mate
Is just one of many I’ve heard.
Now Jack was a bloke who could drink, holy smoke!
He could swig twenty mugs to my ten,
And that old cockatoo it could sink quite a few
And it drank with the rest of the men
Clancy of the Overflow
…In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy
Gone a-droving `down the Cooper’ where the Western drovers go;
As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,
For the drover’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.
And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.
I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,
And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city
Through the open window floating, spreads its foulness over all
After stopping in past Tourist Information (no matter how small Australian towns are, they always seem to have one), it was confirmed via the maps we picked up just how pleasantly unique Lightning Ridge was; full to the brim of peculiar characters attracted by the chance to strike it rich with opal mining, with accompanying stories and oddities you could never make up. All mostly untouched from the usual paraphernalia you’d normally expect from a town offering so much in the way of attractions that often leads to places becoming tourist traps. We can only assume this hasn’t occurred thanks to being hidden in the Outback, 10 hours from the coast.
Car door tours
As you’d expect from a place like Lightning Ridge, they’ve quirkily gotten in the habit of using old junk as signage for houses and property, as well as things like old fridges for mailboxes. A form of up-cycling I guess! This has led the locals to laying a trail of old car doors to form self drive tours around the town and it’s surroundings. In all there are four trails, differentiated by colour: Red, Blue, Green and Yellow, with each taking you past a myriad of free and mostly affordable paid for oddities.
Our first tour took us past Amigo’s Castle, an unfinished castle but impressive none the less, single handedly built by one man, based upon one from his homeland in Italy. While looking round for the very affordable sum of $5 each, we were given a short narration of its colourful history involving court battles for using iron stone Amigo didn’t own and building a residential property on a plot of land designated solely for mining. Fortunately the locals recognised how special it was, and managed to save it from being knocked down through a series of death threats to the Council apparently! Despite attempts at threatening signage that mostly come across as black humour, Amigo grew tired of people driving past taking photos, so now resides behind the castle in an old caravan.
While driving further into the desert, we reached a house entirely made from old tin cans and bottles, all held together with mortar. It was quite an eerie experience as we were on our own in the desert wilderness, a long way from town, and there was a chain on an old pick-up truck clanging gently in the wind – have you seen Wolf Creek!? Fortunately inside was a visitors book to sign, comically stored in an old fridge, that helped cut the tension.
That evening we decided to check out ‘Spark’; a locally made film, providing an arty take on life in the Ridge. Although it was rather cold sitting outside in the desert; watching a projection on the side of an old barn definitely felt like a fitting stage, and the tea we’d taken in our trusty flask helped keep us warm 🙂
Venturing deeper into the outback
The following day while Joella was expertly driving us round the Yellow door tour, we decided to drop in past Marg Carvings, intrigued to take a look at some of the stunning opals on show. And by golly how glad we did! While there, Marg excitedly told us about The Grawin – a series of mining fields and accompanying oddities a short drive out of town. We were immediately intrigued and couldn’t resist following the treasure map of sorts that Marg scribbled down for us.
After 45 minutes of sealed then gravel roads, through the dusty wilderness sadly littered with countless dead kangaroos, we arrived at our first stop: ‘The Club in The Scrub’. Before parking up, we found ourselves unexpectedly driving through it’s surrounding golf course. However the course was like no other we’d ever seen before; strangely lacking any grass and instead featuring dusty fairways and soil heaped greens – it was all very surreal! After stopping in for a swift XXXX beer, and browsing the community notice board featuring various mines up for sale (very tempting), we set off once again for our next destination…
En route we drove past numerous working mines, buzzing with activity. It seemed like an odd existence spending one’s life digging in the dust (which looked like snow at times), living in small caravans in the back of beyond, with the constant hope of finding enough shiny opal to survive on. But hey, the wonderfully diverse nature of people is what makes the world so interesting and beautiful! After dropping by the lovely Sweeneys arts and craft shop for some homemade chutney, we eventually made it to ‘The Hilton’. Rather than a branch of the global hotel chain, it fortunately turned out to be another characterful outback pub that served us up some mightily fine steak sandwiches.
Later that day, despite its hefty entry price ($40 each) we ventured down into the famous ‘Chambers of the Black Hand’. This was originally intended to be a working mine, dug out single handedly by an Englishman who caught the opal bug. Unfortunately none was found, and he instead begun carving 40 feet underground, into the limestone walls. 18 years later, and he’s still working away, although what’s already there is quite impressive for the most part; featuring Greek Gods, Egyptian mummies, depictions of the Last Supper and countless modern day movie stars.
On our last evening we finally made it to the Artesian Baths – hot natural springs that are permanently 41 degrees, completely free and open 22 hours a day! While there we couldn’t avoid getting caught up in some awkward conversations, involving conspiracy theories that the Jews control the Earth and everyone else are merely slaves! We did our best to humour him while waiting for the sun to set, then quickly made our excuses and exited.
Heading back to Civilisation
Before leaving, we couldn’t resist having a quick look inside the impressive art gallery of the famous John Murray, known mostly for his humorous paintings of Australia wildlife and landscapes.
After touring round the petrol stations to find the cheapest fuel, we were on our way and sadly had to say goodbye to our time at the Ridge, including the local radio station: Opal FM. Complete with toothless sounding DJs who described all weather as “fine” whether or not it was sunny or cloudy; it played mostly rock and country music, along with tracks about Lightning Ridge including one by legendary John Williamson, which describes the Ridge and it’s inhabitants perfectly:
At Lightning Ridge
…He’s a dreamer, he’s a drinker
A Bull-Ant in a hole
He’s a schemer, He’s a thinker
He’s a lonely soul
He’s gouging for the opal
Like a Wombat or a Mole
Way out there at Lightning Ridge…
As per our travel to Lightning Ridge, we had no idea where we’d be staying overnight on our return leg to Brisbane, for our next housesit in two days time. Fortunately after a mornings drive, while taking in Thallon’s impressive painted silos and giant wombat as we stopped for lunch, some friendly Grey Nomads (retirees who travel north in Winter following the sun) recommended a free campsite at the back of a nearby pub.
It turned out that Nindigully was Queensland’s oldest watering hole, and despite us expecting a few caravans parked up, we were greeted by over a hundred! Despite its popularity, we still managed to find a lovely spot to park, alongside the neighbouring river. After a few beers in the old world pub then a quick feed of rice and beans, we hit the hay.
The next day we made sure to pass the Yangan Hotel, where my sister Bex and Amanda had worked during their travels in Australia a few years prior to us. Despite some enquiries, unfortunately the owners have changed hands and weren’t around when Rebecca and Amanda were; therefore meaning no free beers for us 🙁 After another scurry through the amazing WikiCamps app to find a place to stay that evening; Maryvale, another free pub campsite caught our eye.
This time we had the camping area all to ourselves, and the pub itself was bustling with wonderfully welcoming locals, some of whom were fantastic characters including a bloke who wore a comically big bow time and provided a taxi service for the locals in his convertible Mercedes (very stand out for a small country village where most people drive massive Utes and SUVs). Our final evening before arriving in Brisbane ended perfectly with enormous hearty burgers and ice cold beers, accompanied by travel tips from a friendly Aussie couple and an impressive acoustic set from the bar maid (helped out by the taxi driver haha)!
We were expecting a lot from our adventure to Lightning Ridge, and what it delivered far surpassed our expectations 🙂