The home of Australian Black Opal
FAQ Where are the opal fields in Australia? Where are black opals mined? Where are the Lightning Ridge opal fields?
New South Wales produces the largest proportion of Australian opal in terms of value. Lightning Ridge is famous for producing black opal, the darkest and most valuable form of opal. White Cliffs is known for seam opal which is usually white (milk) opal or crystal opal.
The Lightning Ridge opal mining fields are synonymous with world famous gem quality black opals. Unlike ordinary opals the black opal has carbon and iron oxide trace elements in it, producing the most sought-after opal in the world.
Legend has it that the name “Lightning Ridge” was coined after a shepherd, his dog, and six hundred sheep were killed during a fierce electrical storm, while sheltering in a low ridge in the area.
Situated in Northern New South Wales 768km from Sydney, the Ridge is home to an estimated permanent population of about 3000 who live in the town and work either servicing the miners or digging for the stones – particularly the rare black opals which are the true treasures of the district.
Population estimates for the town have proved difficult due to the transient nature of many of its inhabitants. In 2001 it had 1,826 persons, including 344 indigenous persons (18.8%) and 1,304 persons born in Australia (71.4%). The population is said to be highly variable as transient miners come and go over time.
There is an official population indicator sign on the highway as you enter the town that says, Lightning Ridge — population?. Prior to the 2004 Public Enquiry into the functioning of Walgett Shire Council, it worked on the basis that there were about 7,000 people in the town, but the enquiry found that this estimate was given no support by the 2001 census and contrasted with the 1,109 people who voted in the town at the local government elections in 2004.
Lightning Ridge lies in a large geological feature called the Surat Basin, which is part of the vast Great Australian Basin. The Great Australian Basin covers 1.7 million square kilometres of eastern Australia. It was formed when the sediments of the Basin lay at the bottom of a large inland sea. It is these sediments that later hosted the formation of precious opal.
The sedimentary host rocks are essentially horizontal. This is because they were deposited on the floor of the inland sea and have not been deformed. The rocks which host the opal at Lightning Ridge were deposited in shallow water near the edge of the Basin, probably in an estuary.
Overlying the Cretaceous sedimentary rocks are sandstones and conglomerates that were deposited by streams and rivers in the Tertiary period, about 15 million years ago. Many of these younger rocks have hardened to form silcrete and are often quarried for road materials.
Most opal at the Ridge is found between 6 and 18 metres from the surface – not so deep that they are out of the reach of smaller miners, but deep enough to make their mining hard work.
There is an Aboriginal explanation for the opals discovered in the Lightning Ridge area. According to legend, a huge wheel of fire fell to earth and sprayed the countryside with brilliant coloured stones.
Opal was first discovered at Lightning Ridge in the late 1880s, with the first shaft being put down around 1901 or 1902 by Jack Murray, a boundary rider who lived on a property nearby.
Some time later, a miner from Bathurst named Charlie Nettleton arrived and began sinking shafts. Nettleton had been an opal miner at White Cliffs but his luck and money ran out and he moved to Queensland. Convinced that there were more opals across the border he returned to New South Wales and started seriously prospecting on a hill, later known as Nettleton’s Hill, on Angledool Station. This was to become the site of Lightning Ridge.
The Lands Department later gazetted it as Warrangulla and it was known as that until World War 1 when it reverted to its original name. It was he who in 1903 sold the first parcel of gems from the field, receiving only $30, not even a fiftieth of the price that could have been obtained only five years later.
A number of famous stones have been found at Lightning Ridge, including the 822g ‘Big Ben’ and the ‘Flame Queen’ which was sold for £80 because the miner hadn’t eaten a proper meal for three weeks.
Since opal was first discovered, Lightning Ridge has become synonymous with opal mining in Australia, and hence a very interesting place to visit. (Particularly during the annual goat races). Lighting Ridge offers a true vision of gritty life in the Australian outback, and the town’s mineral water spa baths (artesian bore) are great for relaxation.
The Ridge sees over 90,000 visitors per year, either fossicking for fun, looking for their fortune, or to see what an outback mining town is really like. This influx of tourists means that this once rough and ready town now boasts a number of good quality motels, an endless array of souvenir and gift shops, some good restaurants, and a veneer of civilisation.
Lightning Ridge still has a diverse range of native wildlife including kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, echidnas, possums and a remarkable range of reptiles. The town is also a haven for rare Australian birds and you can get up close and personal with a number of fascinating animals.
The township and the lure of the black opal have been neatly summed up in Laurie Hudson’s poem:
There’s a sleepy little township, out beyond the western plains,
Lightning Ridge, the town of opal, where there’s heat and scanty rains.
The location is not scenic, just rough ridges all around
Nature sired her scenes of beauty, in black opal, underground.
If you’ve never seen black opal, you have missed a splendid sight,
Like quicksilver gaily coloured, slipped through the shades of night.
Though you’ve roamed the whole world over, seen most all there is to see,
There are scenes you’ve never dreamed of, in the stone of mystery.
Lightning Ridge boasts a number of social and sporting facilities, including a golf course, pistol club and archery club. The town’s Opal Festival is held in the September-October NSW school holidays. Other annual events are the Great Goat Race at Easter and the Opal and Gem Expo in July.
White Cliffs, situated in north western New South Wales, was Australia’s first viable commercial opal mining field. For about thirty-five years this field was the only major producer of opal for the world’s markets – the last year of the 19th century (1899) saw the White Cliffs opal field become the largest producer of precious opal anywhere in the world.
White Cliffs, like Coober Pedy, produces predominantly ‘seam opal’ (i.e. opal that forms in horizontal seams in the ground as opposed to small nuggets, or ‘nobbies’.) White Cliffs is also notable for producing ‘opal pineapples’ (pictured left), a strangely shaped opal fossil in the shape of a mineral crystal. These rare fossils are formed when a mineral crystal of glauberite (or ikalite) is first replaced by calcite and then opalised.
Opal was first produced in 1890, following the discovery of stones in the area by a party of kangaroo hunters in 1889. White Cliffs opal was unique in that it represented the world’s first seam opal. Consequently, this opal was easier to value, clean, manufacture, and therefore was much sought-after. The White Cliffs opal field also was uniquely rich in opalised fossils – pseudomorphs of shells, bones, and even crystals (opal pineapples). All too frequently, at the turn of the 20th Century, White Cliffs opal was sold as Hungarian opal (an opal that had not been mined in quantity for almost a century!)
In 1899 some two thousand people lived within two miles of the town area of White Cliffs. These pioneers lived in five hundred timber and iron houses, as well as countless ‘calico mansions’ fabricated from Hessian and bark, or canvas. There was an underground restaurant, bakery, and bar; but dugouts were scarce and miners mostly lived in mine shafts.
White Cliffs supplied world overseas markets for some twenty-five years; in the process restoring the ‘forgotten gem’, opal, into favour after centuries of adverse superstition. Over a century White Cliffs became an outdoor classroom for geologists; palaeontologists, government officials, and hopeful fortune-hunters. Intense summer heat drove the first miners underground – by 1900, most residents had followed suit. In 1999, ninety per cent of local residents lived in some 135 dugouts.
Opals from NSW
The Australian Gemmologist, Vol 19, #7, 1996. “The True Story of White Cliffs.”, Glen Rowe.
The Australian Gemmologist, Vol 20, #6, 1999. “White Cliffs: A Century of History.”, Glen Rowe.
“Opal”, Qld Dept. of Mines & Energy