What’s it like in Lightning Ridge?

We found this article, by Craig Tansley to be very interesting.
Sourced from http://www.stuff.co.nz/travel/australia/2682961/Finding-fortune-at-Light…

Finding fortune at Lightning Ridge

‘We don’t do surnames around here, mate.” I might have expected this from the big blokes at the local watering hole in Lightning Ridge and perhaps the two old miners I spoke to outside their claims on the edge of town. But this bloke is driving our tour bus and he still refuses to divulge his name.

“I’ve known blokes out here 20 years and all I know’s their nickname,” he says. “A lot of people come to escape their past. A name’s just something they can get you for we’ve got no use for them out here.”

The streets, apparently, have no use for them either. To find where you’re going, you’ve got to follow coloured car doors and white teddy bears tied to trees.

We are talking about a place with a question mark below “population” as you drive into town; where the census records fewer than 1800 people yet there are more than 2500 private boxes at the local post office. There aren’t many places where a person can stake a mining claim on a piece of earth for a few hundred dollars and become a millionaire overnight.

Yep, Lightning Ridge is one strange town. There’s nowhere else quite like it. It’s like the 1850s never passed; it’s where a fortune can be lost and found in a single day of digging. It’s like a museum that doesn’t close for the evening it continues getting a little crazier when the sun goes down.

Fifty-two nationalities inhabit this tiny place. They came looking for their fortune in opals and opals seem to breed a certain type of madness. “People come out here and lose their minds a little bit,” one old-timer tells me. “But I reckon it helps if you lose it completely.”

My favourite character is Amigo, who built a castle not far from the middle of town with just one covered room in which he sleeps on an old mattress laid out on the floor. But that’s not the strange part; Amigo has dug hundreds of metres of tunnels by hand underneath his castle. Why? “I don’t know mate, I like digging,” he says. “In summer I’d dig to get away from the heat, in winter I dug to keep me warm.” Call it reverse-cycle air-conditioning, Lightning Ridge-style.

Amid this madness is a clever tourist program. Travellers can come to the outback and sit on the sidelines of all this eccentricity; it’s a fascinating view. You can drive through land where miners sit side by side praying for pay day.

You can get down a mine yourself and experience life underground Chambers of the Black Hand gives you the best opportunity and you’ll find Australia’s most unusual art gallery down here, too. Owner Ron Canlin spent 10 years chiselling the sandstone walls into more than 400 eclectic works of art. His place sums up Lightning Ridge: people set themselves crazy challenges but they often can’t explain why they do it.

Canlin was an opal miner before deciding he’d turn his hand to stone carving when he wasn’t digging for his fortune. For a decade or so he toiled alone. His business partner, Trevor, insisted they open it up for the public to view. Now you can see Tutankhamun’s tomb, the Sistine Chapel, the Last Supper even Shrek and the Simpsons are 12 metres underground.

In Lightning Ridge you can buy the best-quality black opals on Earth or even better, you can turn your hand to “specking” and find an opal yourself. Last year a couple on holiday uncovered a $20,000 black opal in a specking dump just outside the visitors’ centre.

There’s the state-of-the-art gallery of outback artist John Murray on the main street and the Australian Opal Centre, which has the world’s greatest public collection of opal and opalised fossils. If you stay long enough you’ll meet the miners who bring them in, surely a tourist attraction in their own right.

There’s plenty to do and see at the Ridge but mostly I like to sit back and observe life in all its madness. My favourite time is the evenings, when the locals come to soak at the town’s artesian-bore baths. Into the water they wade; voices raised in 52 dialects.

In a town of misfits and hermits who cherish their anonymity, it’s a theatre performance worth an admission price.

And you just know they’re all dreaming the same dream, the one about tomorrow being the biggest pay day of their lives.

Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of Tourism NSW.


Getting there

Lightning Ridge is about 720 kilometres north-west of Sydney and is easily accessible by road. Or fly to Dubbo with Qantas or Rex and hire a car for the four-hour drive.

Staying there

The Lightning Ridge Hotel Motel has motel rooms, cabins and caravan park facilities, see lightningridge.net.au.

Things to do

– Experience working underground and an art gallery carved out of the earth, under the earth at Chambers of the Black Hand, see wj.com.au/whatto/blackhand.html.

– Tour the town’s best attractions, including Amigo’s Castle, with Black Opal Tours, see blackopaltours.com.au.

– See some of Australia’s most irreverent outback art at John Murray’s art gallery. He has won his share of art awards but likes nothing better than to stick it to the “arty types”, see johnmurrayart.com.au.

– Learn about opals at the Australian Opal Centre see australianopalcentre.com.

– Learn about the town’s bizarre history and see one of the world’s best kerosene lamp collections at the Black Queen. (Don’t yawn, there are lamps that belonged to US presidents and French kings.), see blackqueen.com.au.

– More information at lightningridgeinfo.com.au.