The Three Pubs in the Scrub located just outside Lightning Ridge are remote, ramshackle and probably home to a snake or two. The beer comes in cans, the schnitzel comes in portions the size of your head and everything else comes with a tall tale attached.
And that’s why taking a trip to see them, and the opal fields around Lightning Ridge, is one of the best things to do in Lightning Ridge and a must-do for lovers of all things quirky.
But first, we hit a problem…
There’s a lot of fun things to do in Lightning Ridge, but to see quite a bit of it, you have to not like your car very much – which is a problem, as it seems Mr Differentville loves his.
I only discovered this about two minutes into a bone-rattling journey down one of Lightning Ridge’s famous off-road car door tours where the word suspension got mentioned around 42 times and the speedo dropped to under 9kph – at this point, I knew that if I wanted to see the three most famous pubs in Lightning Ridge, someone else was going to have to drive me there.
That someone was Outback Opal Tours and their Full Day Tour of the opal fields and the pubs in the scrub.
What Are The Pubs in the Scrub?
Erm, they’re pubs, in the scrubby bushland that makes up the opal fields about 70km outside Lightning Ridge.
You visit three pubs on the tour…
The Sheepyard Inn, the Glengarry Hilton and the Club in the Scrub – so far, so, walking down any Aussie high street.
Do you remember when you were little and announced you were bored, and your mum told you to make your own fun?
Well, that concept still reigns supreme in the Garwin, Glengarry and Sheepyard opal fields just outside of Lightning Ridge.
There’s no shops, no cinema, no footie stadiums – heck, there’s barely internet out here and so, you need to pass the time in more interesting ways.
Cue pubs seemingly constructed from bits of old tire, random tree trunks or planks and lot of corrugated iron but you’ll also find trees full of bras, trees full of thongs (the shoe ones, not the undies one), a golf course with no grass and ladies loos warning you to check for snakes before you sit down!
As someone on a previous tour when they turned up at the pub below said said ‘this isn’t a Hilton.’
It’s also not really a pub crawl…the beer is only part of the story on this tour – in fact, we didn’t even have one in The Sheepyard as we were too busy wandering around checking out the decor and the parade of old cars out the back.
As normal, I’m not going to spoil the tour by giving you all the details or stories that are told – that’s not fair on the company offering the tour, or anyone who pays their money and thinks ‘hang on, I know this bit’ but stories there are.
Of lost shoes and lost fortunes. Of blokes called Nashy and Dougie and of the day of the rotten fish.
By the end of the tour, not only do you understand a lot more about opal mining and why the pubs have grown up here, you get a feel for the soul of what makes this place so unique and special and the sense of community out here.
And you’ll learn a lot about dirt…
Time to go Specking
Specking is what the people of Lightning Ridge call the art, science, pastime, whatever you want to call it, of digging through piles of dirt to find tiny bits of opal.
If you go to Coober Pedy, it’s known as fossicking.
Officially, you get one session of specking/fossicking on the tour, but when your guide is as obsessed with it as ours was, you might find yourself with 3-4 sessions.
The principle is simple. The dirt comes out of the opal mines for which Lightning Ridge is famous and its washed and sorted through – but, sometimes tiny bits of opal might miss the eagle eyes of the miners and be there for you to find.
It does happen; and, every so often as you’re digging around the dust, you will find something that looks sparkly and get all excited, only to be told that it’s potch.
Potch is opal, but it doesn’t have the unique arrangement in the molecules of silica that make up the rock that causes light to bounce off them. That’s what gives ‘proper’ opal their irridescent sheen and variety of colours – and their value.
You will end up with a bag of potch after your tour… or maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones and end up with a an opal.
I just got a thumb infection after digging in the dirt with a hangnail hole (so, maybe take some sanitiser with you!).
Do You Eat on the Tour?
Just a bit!
We had morning tea in the first pub and then a hearty pub lunch in the second. You’re definitely not going to go hungry and I’d say to skip breakfast if you can as you’ll have two meals between about 11 and 1pm.
Food is included in the tour, you just have to pay extra for any drinks that you want.
But, if you’re veggie or need a gluten-free meal, then make sure you tell Outback Opal in advance.
The normal lunch choices are chicken schnitzel or fish and chips so they’ll need to make sure you’re catered for.
It’s not like the chef can just pop to the nearest supermarket to stock up if you don’t.
Can You Go to the Pubs Without a Tour?
You can. In fact, it’s actually known as the Orange Car Door Tour and you can pick up a map at the Lightning Ridge Tourist Information Office.
However, the roads are not sealed out here and some of them can get seriously muddy at even the first sniff of rain.
As such, if you’ve got a 2-wheel drive, a rental car or a campervan, you might not want to risk heading out here on your own.
Plus, when someone else is driving there’s no worries about having a beer in each pub if you want one!
Usually one benefit of taking your own transport to these things is that you can jump out and photograph any little odd things you see on the way, but, our guide Natalie was great at making sure we knew what we were coming back to photograph and, if anyone needed a shot of something we weren’t officially stopping at she’d happily do a quick pit stop to make sure they got it.
And, if you do go alone, you won’t hear anywhere near as many cool stories about what goes on out here, like exactly why there’s a chair with a seatbelt on it at the Sheepyard Inn or why Nashy has a tree full of thongs (flipflops) named after him.
What Day is Best to Book the Tour?
The Outback Opal Full Day trip only goes with a minimum number of six people, so, if you’re going to the Ridge out of season, I’d say try and book your tour on a Saturday to try and max out the chance of people being in town.
But prepare to be flexible as, you might not hear that the tour is going ahead until the morning, or even afternoon, before.
I freaked out about this a bit, as I like to know what I’m doing and when and at that time, you needed to book the Chambers of the Black Hand (a cool underground art thing), but Franka who runs Outback Opal told us that everyone in the Ridge is used to things moving around if tours fill or don’t fill, just warn the Chambers that you’re also on hold for a tour and they’ll let you be a bit more flexible.
We actually got the call to say our tour was a go while underground at the Chambers of the Black Hand.
So, is the Outback Opal Tours Full Day Tour Worth It?
For us, it absolutely was.
We wouldn’t have got out here on our own and we really enjoyed hearing about why this place is so special.
Also, we were five days into a road trip and Mr Differentville loved having a day off and being driven for once. It really reset him for the drive home.
My only criticism of the tour is that I’d have preferred to spend a bit more time sitting around in the sun with a beer in each pub, maybe getting a chance to chat to some of the miners drinking there, and a little bit less time digging around in the dirt.
We did get a decent amout of time at each pub, but the first two you’re eating and exploring and/or digging and so it was only once we got to the Club in the Scrub at the end of the day that we really got a chance to chat to people.
But, I probably wouldn’t be saying that if I was one of the people who walked away with a $2500 stone which has happened in the past.
My bag of potch still sits on my bookshelf though. One day maybe it’ll make it’s way into the garden to fill up a flowerpot or something.
Maybe I’ll even make one of the prettier bits into something to wear.
Maybe, actually inside one of the big bits there is an opal.
Maybe, maybe, maybe… Well, it wouldn’t be Lightning Ridge without some dreams.
How to Book the Outback Opal Pub Tour
Note: We booked and paid for our own tour so there’s no advertising going on here.
What to Read Next…
If you like the idea of pubs in the middle of nowhere, you might also want to add a trip to the Carinda Hotel to your Lightning Ridge trip. It’s the pub where David Bowie shot Let’s Dance and it’s an easy overnight stop from the Ridge.
See more about our trip to Carinda here.
Who Writes Differentville?
My name is Helen Foster and I’m a journalist and author living in Sydney.
My travel articles have been published in titles include The Australian, Body & Soul at the Sunday Telegraph, RAC Horizons, Jetstar magazine and more.
I like the weird, the wonderful and anything that makes me jump and down with glee like I’m about three. That’s what you’ll find here.