Lightning Ridge

Having a dig at the outback

You'll wait a long time before tasting a better chocolate milkshake than the one you'll be passed over the counter of Morilla's.

Morillas Cafe is on the main street of Lightning Ridge.  If it's anything like the other 264 days of the year, it's probably hot and dry out here at the Ridge today, and anything cold is going to go down a treat.

Lying just south of the border of Queensland and NSW, the Ridge is as quirky a destination as you'll find. Road travellers keep the smile on the dials of local business owners all year round, though in the middle of summer, even the flies start dreaming of cooler air somewhere else.

As a fly-away destination, it couldn't be easier. We always fly out here in mid-winter, where balmy days and cool nights make a welcome change from the chills of Sydney in June. Last time, we stayed at the Lightning Ridge Outback Resort & Caravan Park - perfect for our large group and right in the middle of town, so it was easy to walk anywhere we needed to go.

We had a great Italian feed at Piccolo's Italian in Opal Street. You'll also find the famous John Murray Art Gallery in Opal Street.

Don't miss doing a tour while you're here. Our favourite one so far is The Chambers of the Blackhand. Extraordinary underground collection of hand-carved sculptures, all done by one bloke ... with a LOT of time on his hands.

An example of the stunning work in the Chambers of the Blackhand. A few familiar faces here ...

There are a range of town tours to choose from, but we'd heard good things about Black Opal Tours, so booked a half-day tour with them. It’s a well-run operation, our guide whisking us through the town icons like Amigo’s Castle, some other bloke’s castle, the slightly mad  astronomer’s monument (where prominent signage alerts us to the property NOT being for sale thank you very much so don’t be getting any ideas) and the Bottle House Museum.

You can linger at the Bottle House and ask the lovely old owner why he’s got jars of preserved rodents and feral looking foetuses on his mantelpiece if you like, but then you’d have to get to the bottom of just how long it took him to collect all those empties and how he was then in any condition to build a house out of them.

Underground fun is what it's all about here ... our lot having a few more laughs than the hapless miners of old.

There’s a wonderful optimism about the tourist operators out here. It’s world famous opal country, and home to the mesmerising and illusive Black Opal.

Negotiating the narrow sandstone caverns down the Walk In Mine, we’re brought into the astonishing underground lives of miners of long ago. The locals at the Ridge wink knowingly when we ask whether they’ve brought some colour to the surface over the years, and they talk up the chances of someone else uncovering the mother load any day now. Would we like a dig? No thanks, we'd like a drink though ... the sun's about to go down.

Sometimes, you can stay just that little bit too long at the Ridge ...

From the cheeky bus driver to the barmaid at the Bowlo, the Ridge locals are all quietly proud of their reputation as the quirky capital of an untamed west, and cheerily share anecdotes of ex-husbands, ex-crims and mad eccentrics who make up the town’s over-supply of dodgy characters. Some residents live out on the stark landscape of the mines full time, in caravans mainly, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s all about peace and quiet and minding your own business, we’re told. There’s a whole other story on its own, I’m thinking.

A few of us stop off for a beverage at the pub on the way to dinner only to find it has been recently renovated. We’d first called in in 1997 when the old wooden bar and the world-weary locals that propped it up gave the pub a character we’ve never forgotten. Back then, one bloke’s name carved into the beam above a bar stool meant sit there at your peril, but you’re taking the risk of Bluey or Jock turning up at any moment for a beer, and you know where they’ll be expecting to sit.

If you've tried Piccolo's, and there's a few of you, you'll get a predictable feed at the bowling club. One time we were there, there was an interclub bowls tournament going on. As you can imagine, the place was going off. Til well past 8 actually.  As we all wandered home along the main street, the stars kept us company and clear skies beckoned us for the next day’s flying over to Bourke for a quick refuel before a low and slow cruise overhead that meandering old Darling River and all her iconic homesteads and stations.