Lightning Ridge is a cool opal mining town in New South Wales and it’s perfect if you’re in search for fun and unusual things to do on your holiday as there’s quirky sights everywhere – however, once I arrived we hit a small snag. So, while this isn’t the exact post I planned to write about my Lightning Ridge visit, it’s a kind of useful one… read on to find out what happened.
The Original Plan…
Top of the list of things to do in Lightning Ridge is to take the cool ‘car door’ tours that pinpoint the quirky side of this opal mining town – and all of them are, at least partly, on dirt roads.
They are passable in a normal car in good weather and the whole ‘dirt road’ thing had been mentioned many times in our house – however, as we bumped along the road to our first stop, it turned out that Mr Differentville had turned on his selective hearing during these past conversations and was currently NOT happy.
Muttering something about suspension, axles and tuning, as the car shook underneath us, he decided that if we had to go off road to see things, we weren’t going – which pretty much scuppered all my plans for the holiday! Cue, a 15 minute sulk – and then frantic checking of google maps.
At this point I had to get creative, and, while you might not have a petrol head partner who refuses to get his wheels dirty, you might be driving a rental car that technically can’t go on a dirt road, or an RV that you might not want to take on one, and in that case, this is the guide for you.
The New Plan…
Find all the fun and unusual things you can do in Lightning Ridge without have to drive down a bone-shaking dirt track. So here they are…
1. Find the Street Art
John Murray is Lightning Ridge’s resident artist and you’ll find his fantastically colourful emus, cows and other creatures dotted around the walls of the town – and also in his gallery located on Opal Street.
2. Visit Stanley the Emu
Murray is also responsible for Stanley the Emu, the unofficial mascot of Lightning Ridge. Stanley’s story is pretty well known, but it’s fun so I’ll tell it too.
Stanley is 18 metres high and made from an old Volkswagon. Originally, he was supposed to go off to live in Birdsville, but no-one had quite factored in how they were going to get him there – and, so, down the road he went instead!
If you’re on a bit of a road trip, you’ll also find Murray’s painting of Elvis Emu in nearby Parkes – find out exactly where in our post on the best Elvis sights in Parkes.
3. Head to the Bottle House
I’m not sure what’s more fun here – the fact that back in the 1960s someone decided to make a house from old bottles – including the kennel outside. Or the shelves full of tat and treasures that are located within it.
Either way this is one of the most fun things you’re going to do in Lightning Ridge and you might be amazed what memories all the knick-knacks conjure up.
I saw a bottle of Avon-perfume in a deer-shaped bottle that reminded me of being about 6 years old – I hadn’t thought of that bottle in years yet there it was just sitting there.
The Bottle House Museum is located at 60 Opal Street. They don’t have a website so you’ll need to check the house itself for opening hours – and allow at least an hour inside, there are thousands of tiny items to look at.
4. Soak in Ancient Water
The water in the Artesian Bore Baths, on Sherman’s Way, is 41.5 degrees and roughly two million years old! It bubbles up into the town from the Great Artesian Basin and soaking in it is a fantastic way to spend some time at the end of the day – or the beginning as the baths are open 24 hours a day.
They do close between 10-12 for cleaning though so don’t turn up then. There are changing rooms but you’ll need to bring your own togs and towels.
I did not allow nearly enough time for this in my trip – if I did it again I’d booked a couple of soaking sessions into my plans. It’s very relaxing. but very hot so you can’t stay in there for too long in one go.
5. Head to the Bowling Club
Not for the bowls, instead you’re going to here to eat a plate of retro-Aussie style Chinese food the size of your head!
Any English people reading this who miss the Chinese food you had in the UK, you will love it here. It’s not quite as good as Portia’s Place in Canberra – but only because they don’t do deep fried crispy duck as well!
Don’t worry about driving here – if it’s too far to walk from your accommodation, they offer a courtesy bus that’ll pick you up and drop you home. You need to book that in advance, so give them a call to find out more.
Of you could do as we did and book the Wallangulla Motel which is pretty much directly opposite! It was also an easy walk to the other pub in town the Outback Hotel.
You do need to become a member of the club to drink and dine there so make sure you have some ID on you.
6. Take the Pubs in the Scrub Tour
Today’s opal mines are found outside Lightning Ridge in the Grawin, Glengarry and Sheepyard Opal Fields about 70km away from town, and, where there are miners there are pubs to keep the miners happy – and this tour takes you to three of them, each VERY unique.
You’ll also visit some fantastically quirky sights like the bra tree, the thong tree (flip flops not undies!) and the outback golf course with no grass. And you’ll do some fossicking – more on that in a minute.
We had a fantastic time on this tour – and, taking the day off driving completely refreshed Mr Differentville for the rest of our road trip.
Click to see a longer review of the tour.
Or, if you’re already sold on the idea of beers in the bush, the tour is run by Outback Opal and you can book it via their website.
They also offer a town tour which takes you to Amigo’s Castle and a local opal mine where you can get underground and see how the town made its name.
Again, you’ll find full details on their website.
7. Take a Trip to the Hebel Hotel
One benefit of Mr Differentville’s refusal to go onto any road that wasn’t paved was that we got to add a trip to this quirky pub on the Queensland border to our trip as it was up the nice smooth highway!
It’s located about 70 km up the road from Lightning Ridge, about 4km over the Queensland Border, and, it’s famed for its John Murray paintings dotted around the outside – and it’s proper country pub look on the inside.
They don’t serve lunch but, you can head over the road to the general store who do.
8. Visit Amigo’s Castle
Created by local resident Vittoria, this hand built castle is on the orange car door tour – but, you only have to go up sealed roads to get to it, so you can still visit.
Inside you’ll tour the castle, check out an art gallery – and, even see the remains of a ‘dinosaur’.
I’m being a bit vague as it wasn’t open when we were in town, as Vittorio had been arrested (for a murder that he has now been found guilty of) and things weren’t quite running to their normal schedule.
Some people think the castle should now be torn down, but, as I write this, it is still open to visitors, seven days a week from 9-3pm.
9. Wander Morilla Street
There’s all sorts of cool sights dotted up and down the main street of Lightning Ridge – from the half derelict, but very photogenic Coopers Cottage which gives you an idea of how the miners lived before we go air conditioning!
On the other side of the road you’ll find the Heritage Cottage (which opens a couple of days a week – exact times here) and the cute garden behind it. Opal shops and flying cow outside the Outback Hotel – where we saw a man having dinner with a cat on a lead!
You never know quite what oddity someone will have added next.
One spot you will miss out on if you don’t want to take your car off road, or it’s rainy as it’s a dry weather road, is the sunset spot at Nettleton’s First Shaft Lookout – but, don’t panic, you can still get a pretty good view of one on Morilla Street!
10. Fossick at the Information Centre
Fossicking is basically searching through piles of opal dirt hoping that one of the miners might not have noticed that they left a shiny treasure behind.
If you take the Pubs in the Scrub tour you’ll be able to do a lot of it, but, if you don’t, you’re going to have to drive off road to find a fossicking area – and, remember, we’re not doing that in this post – so, there’s a ‘sanctioned’ fossicking pile outside the Tourist Information Centre at the bottom of Bill O’Brien Way.
I’m not sure you’ll find anything there that’ll make you rich, but if you have kids they’ll love digging for treasure.
11. See Some Metal Art
Lightning Ridge has a couple of famous residents – the stars of the TV show Outback Opal Hunters – and one of these, Peter Cooke, has a fun hobby – he makes metal sculptures from bits of old machines.
You can see these alongside the road near his workshop on Shincracker Street.
The day I was there Peter was outside and happy to have a chat and he told me he’s hoping to move the sculptures to somewhere more official with some other fun plans attached at some point.
Once he does that’ll be another fun way to spend time in Lightning Ridge.
12. Visit the Underground Carvings
The Chambers of the Black Hand is described as an underground art gallery – the work of opal miner Ron Caplin, the fun images are carved out of the rock what used to be Ron’s Opal Mine – the problem was, said mine wasn’t exactly brimming over with opals and so he decided he needed to find another way to make the mine pay – and tourism was it!
The sculptures are really fun and there’s something new around every corner.
It’s a fantastic sight, and one of Lightning Ridge’s must sees, but it creeps in last here because The Chambers of the Black Hand are 3km off the main street of Lightning Ridge – and, while it’s quite a rough road, it is paved until you get close to the mine but this one might be a bit dicey in a rental car so use your judgement on that one.
I know 3km might not sound too far to walk, but it gets really hot in the Ridge and so I wouldn’t necessarily advise doing that unless it’s a cool part of the day.
The Chambers are open every day but you do have to book your visit in advance via their website.
So there you have it – how to see Lightning Ridge without losing an axle. When this little blip occurred I was super disappointed, and, there are some sights I wish I’d seen like the Beer Can House, but, we still had a fantastic trip, so don’t let not being able to drive off road stop you visiting Lightning Ridge if you’re in the same boat.