is a mining town, bustling with tourists eager to get a glimpse of the world-famous black opal. Unlike ordinary opals, the carbon and iron oxide trace elements present in black opals, allow the rainbow
colours to contrast so much better. Black opals can fetch between $2,000 per carat to an incredible $15,000 per carat, depending on factors such as: body tone (or blackness), play of colours, brilliance, and pattern. The town with its relatively small population
of around 6,000 people, is often overwhelmed with over 80,000 visitors every year, with many trying their luck at opal fossicking. Opals aside, Lightning Ridge
is also the most prolific and only significant source of dinosaur fossils in the state. The strong tourist interest in this once rough and tumble town has promoted excellent growth, in which nowadays - you will find some lovely places
to stay, eat and visit.
The town of Lightning Ridge
is located about 6km from the Castlereagh Highway, which is part of the Great Inland Tourist Link. This highway trek takes in a small section of the Newell Highway (route A39) from Dubbo, before meeting the Castlereagh Highway, also known as the A55. The Castlereagh Highway, which begins at Lithgow in NSW, provides a practical route to north Queensland
. It passes through many old colonial towns such as: Gilgandra, Gulargambone
, Coonamble, and Walgett - the gateway to the opal fields. You’ll be fascinated with the history and culture of these old towns, so take your time and stop in at the visitor centres, have a good look around - and maybe stay overnight.
How to Use this Trek Note
In this trek note, we provide Place to Place distances (see Directions tab), a downloadable plot file, and POI files to enable you to use this as your driving itinerary, or as a base guide to add other side trips. As with all ExplorOz Trek Notes
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According to Aboriginal legend, a huge wheel of fire fell to the earth and sprayed the countryside with brilliant coloured stones. A number of Aboriginal tribes settled in the region including: the Kamilaroi and Ularai tribes near Lightning Ridge
and Walgett, the Weilwan and Kawambarai tribes near Coonamble, and the Wiradjuri tribe, which occupied a large area of central New South Wales
south of Dubbo.
The name ‘Lightning Ridge
’ was legend in its own right - coined after a shepherd, his dog and six hundred sheep were killed during a ferocious electrical storm whilst sheltering in one of the low ridges in the area. The name had flourished - used by Government departments for nearly a century, until it was officially gazetted on the 5th September 1963. The first building to use the name Lightning Ridge
was a small inn built in 1884 by T.J. Merry. Lightning Ridge
has indeed had more than its fair share of triumphs and tribulations. Like most important discoveries in the annals of history - it is filled with legends, hardships, determination and perseverance, all of which have shaped this town for what it is today.
Common opal was discovered in Australia
more than half a century before the findings at Lightning Ridge
. Precious opal was first discovered in 1868, and further opal discoveries in outback Queensland
and New South Wales
led to Australia
’s first commercial opal fields at White Cliffs
in 1894. It wasn’t until Jack Murray discovered opal near Lightning Ridge
late in the year of 1900 that helped pave the events
toward the recognition of the world famous and highly valuable - black opal.
Professional prospector Charles Nettleton uncovered the opal-mining potential of the area in 1902. Nettleton, an experienced opal and gold miner from White Cliffs
, began prospecting on a hill
, later known as Nettleton's Hill
, on Angledool Station. This was to later become the site of Lightning Ridge
. Nettleton dropped his first shaft on the high country now known as McDonald's Six Mile on 15th October 1902. It proved unsuccessful, and it wasn’t until early in 1903 that Nettleton joined forces with Murray and his team at Shallow Nobby’s that they found a good yield of precious black opals.
Jubilation would soon turn to disappointment as they were only offered 10 shillings from a Sydney
based dealer for 2.27kgs of their best rough-cut black opals. Undiscouraged, they decided to keep mining, and in late 1903, Nettleton and Murray walked the arduous 700km journey to White Cliff with a 3.6kg parcel of black opal. The market at White Cliff was still based on light opal, and this unheard-of nodular dark opal brought little interest. They reluctantly settled on the small pittance from Ted Murphy, a field agent for the notable Adelaide
-based opal trader named Tullie Wollaston. Tullie Wollaston was extremely enthusiastic with this new type of gemstone, and his efforts helped stage the world market for black opals.