Upon first blush in Lightning Ridge, you may find an opal-mining town with very little to keep you here for more than a day or so. It reeks of an environment trying a touch too hard to be attractive to tourists. The one and only road to leading into and out of town is lined on each side with billboard after billboard featuring opal-related attractions and opal stores. You see a lot of the same adverts over and over again too – on not only billboards, but lining fences, and even painted and plastered into the general surroundings. It’s a little over the top.
But somehow it also adds to the character of Lightning Ridge, which is quirky and whimsical. There is so very much more than meets the eye if you want to discover its colourful underbelly. Allow yourself to stay a while. Head to the bowling club or one of the handful of cafés to meet some locals, and stay long enough to get to know them. If you do, you’ll see a whole different side to Lightning Ridge that is fascinating.
Never have we met such a concentrated group of incredibly generous people, who are so proud of their home town. They were willing to give of themselves to help us, and expressed as much interest in our story as we had in theirs.
Everybody has a different and unique story of how they came to Lightning Ridge. Only a few people we spoke to were born and raised here; almost everybody comes from somewhere else.
“In the old days of mining here, people came here to disappear. You rarely knew anybody’s name, and those names you knew were probably fake nicknames in any case. You didn’t ask much about somebody, and they didn’t tell too much either,” said one person about the opal rush that started in the early 1900s and converted Lightning Ridge from a deserted piece of land to a bustling mining town.
People came from all over the world and bought (or squatted on) “claims”: access to small pieces of land with permission to dig shafts to mine for opal. Anybody could and still can do it; for a few thousand dollars you could set yourself up with a claim, a trailer to live in, and much of the equipment you need to operate your small and practically instantaneous mining business.
And although there are still a number of mines and miners in Lightning Ridge, many of the big miners and prospectors are starting to do their active work further a field. It was when this started happening that the town collectively and individually had a choice to make: pack up and move shop, capitalize on the already steady stream of visitors to town wanting to see what “opal fever” is all about. And so it was that tourism became the main draw (and a large income source) for Lightning Ridge.