You would miss Lightning Ridge on an Australian map if you were not specifically heading there. It is off the well worn Castlereagh Highway and just south of the Queensland border. What makes it worth the 8km detour is that it is one of the few places in the world where black opals are found and black opal are recognised as the most rare and valuable form of opal in the world. Australia produces nearly all of the world supply of the rare and valuable black opal.
So what is Black Opal? Opal is non-crystalline silica, similar to quartz, but is not a mineral. Its internal structure enables unique diffraction of light to produce white, grey, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, magenta, rose, pink, slate, olive, brown, and black. Opal is formed from a solution of silica (very fine sand-like particles) and water. In some sandstone outback regions, water passes though the sandstone to form a silica-rich solution that flows to voids formed from decomposed fossils and as the water evaporates, a silica deposit is left. This is repeated over vast periods and from it, an Opal is formed. (Source: Lightning Ridge Website)
With so many attractions we chose carefully and combined a number of the Car Door road trips with an organised half-day trip.
Bird of Paradise Art Gallery
Lightning Ridge has to be seen to appreciate the harshness of outback life and there is a unique, if austere, beauty in the landscape. On the Yellow Car Door road trip we stopped at the Bird of Paradise Art Gallery and were greeted by artist Paul Bird. His semi-naïve style of painting draws inspiration from the colours and surrounding landscape; lots of pink stone and earth works juxtaposed with surrounding red earth. Whilst I was getting the ins and outs of Paul’s approach to his work, the MOTH (Man of The House) was impressed by Paul’s handy stonework on the house he built himself.
On leaving I noticed a sign detailing the artist’s home and listing the home’s positive attributes. I was intrigued, it seemed like a sprawling home with a custom-built studio running the width of the house and all for $144, 000. What a shame the heat and flies are part of the lifestyle, I could have been persuaded.
Chambers of The Black Hand
Ron Canlin is the inspiration behind the Chambers of The Black Hand, an artistic endeavour from which he earns a comfortable living. Over 25 years ago he purchased an unwanted mine with dreams of making his fortune from opal. When that did not happen he turned his focus to the walls of the mine and the potential to express himself in a more creative way.
The chambers are jackhammered from the sandstone, walls are prepared and Ron Canlin’s imagination does the rest, with the help of basic tools of the trade – that include kitchen utensils for the fine sculpting work.
The sculpting depicts faces of celebrities and politicians – and doesn’t Julia Gillard’s face do the caricaturist proud – the Last Supper is a dynamic depiction on one of the hallways between the chambers. Estimates differ but there are between 600 and 700 sculptures in the chambers.
Our home for the three days and nights we were in the area was the Opal Caravan Park, a privately owned and brand new caravan park. The owner has used his experience of camping and overnight stays at caravan parks and made this park something of an icon within the caravan and camping fraternity. The amenities received a rave from everyone; clean, plenty of room to place clothes, glass doors on the shower so your clothes don’t get wet, hair dryers, potted plants (even in the men’s block) and a staff who understand customer service.
All this luxury made up for the barren sites of dirt and pebbles. Electric drills (available from the office) were a must to drill holes for tent pegs and there were few trees to provide shelter. However, those issues did not detract from the pleasant staff, great facilities and the swimming pool. The swimming pool was packed each afternoon when temperatures rose to the high 30s and it was a great time to swap travel stories and pick the brains of others who had been where we were headed next – the Warrumbungles.