Lightning Ridge is the renowned home of the elusive Black Opal, which has put the small mining town on the map. Many believe that this rare gem is the perfect symbol of the town, as the exact nature of Lightning Ridge and its inhabitants remain as mysterious as the Black Opal itself.
Black Opal was first discovered in the 1870’s, however it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that word spread about the discovery of a new form of Opal in the area. Many miners from nearby Opal town White Cliffs, undertook the 700km trek on foot to Lightning Ridge, convinced that their fortunes lay there waiting. Charlie Nettleton, who has since been recognised as one of the key developers within the industry, also undertook the trek during the drought of 1902 and returned to White Cliffs one year later to develop a market for the Black Opal.
Mining proved to be incredibly hard work during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, as miners used simply hand picks and shovels to dig square-sided shafts, which the climbed in with their backs and legs precariously braced against the sides. Today miners use steel ladders and mechanical pulleys underground to hoist excess earth from the mine to the surface.
Lightning Ridge has had a tumultuous history, from syndicates forming and consequently breaking-up, miners being impounded, drinking water getting poisoned to a bitter fight against two large Sydney pastoral companies, who owned a lot of the land and wanted to prevent opal mining from succeeding in the area. However, it is from this turbulent history that Lightning Ridge developed into the successful mining town it is today.
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO MINE OPAL?
Gone are the days when all a miner needed was a $20 claim and pick and shovel to mine the area. Today, a deposit of over $250,000 is required to operate a typical open cut mine and at least double that to operate an open cut Opal mine. Due to this, several claims are required to join together, which often proves difficult.
Furthermore, new regulations require miners to undertake a $2,000 Opal mining course, which teaches them about first aid, electrical problems and technical safety procedures. Miners must also apply for an Opal mining claim from the ‘Department of Minerals’ and must abide to strict environmental contentions, which include replanting vegetation on the site following the claim expiration date. Over the years, the price of this claim has staggered from $435 to an astounding $1230. In 2013, ABC News released an article that detailed the harsh reality and costs associated with living in Lightning Ridge as a miner, which you can read here.
It is not easy for ‘outsiders’ to purchase and establish an Opal mine in the area, as Opal mines for sale are rare and usually sold within the community. Many of the best Opal mines are purchased under a profit share, rather than being sold entirely. This means that the owner can still receive a percentage of profit from the Opals mined by local workers.
Even life in Lightning Ridge itself comes at a high price. Everyday luxuries are rarities and petrol is almost double the city price. Many miners have had to take up another job at local coal mines, to ensure a steady cash flow. Yet even though the life of a Lightning Ridge miner can be difficult, it can also prove to be rewarding, with many miners returning year after year.
Prospecting is the term used to describe opal mining. Potential miners need to apply for an “Opal Prospecting License” or Mineral Claim before they can begin prospecting. It is important that potential miners remember that prospecting is quite different from mining.
Prospecting licenses are allowed over larger areas and are quite easy to obtain in comparison to mineral claims, which often require bonds. Generally, there are 50 to 100 Opal Prospecting Licenses that are approved annually. There are four defined prospecting areas in the Narran-Warrambool reserve, which were set aside to help preserve the tradition of small prospectors rather than continuing to grant large mineral claims. It is important to note that prospecting cannot be undertaken in national parks or wildlife areas.
OPAL PROSPECTING METHODS
Opal prospecting can be a tiring job, with lots of drilling and picking in underground mines, which are held up by shafts. Today, there are a number of different ways prospectors can recover Opals:
Shaft Sinking: Prior to the establishment of the drill in 1987, shaft sinking was the most popular method for prospecting opal fields. Unfortunately, sinking shafts by hand was expensive and time consuming.
Auger Drilling: The introduction of the drill not only quickened the mining process but also offered a more cost-effective technique to sink shafts. The nine-inch diameter auger drill helped miners test for sandstone prior to sinking a shaft, rather than working blindly in an area.
Percussion Drilling: Percussion drilling is similar to Auger drilling, however it is much more precise because it creates smaller holes and is consequently a more efficient way of finding and testing samples.
Sirotem: This modern mining technique is by far the most efficient means of testing a large area of ground. By using electrical currents to measure the rock’s electric resistance, miners can find where faults or sandstone could exist in the area.
LIGHTNING RIDGE POPULATION
The population of Lightning Ridge floats in and out seasonally. It is estimated that there is a population of 1200, which is supplemented by over 80, 000 visitors each year. Because of this, the population sign on the main road has a question mark on it, which exemplifies the towns’ witty humour.
Many people visit Lightning Ridge in the cooler months and leave in Summer due to the extreme heat. Even locals leave during this time. Winter is the best time for fossickers to go ‘specking’ on the Opal dumps, as the rainy season cleans the dirt away and uncovers Opal specks. However, fossickers must be quick, as the dusty winds the follow make it increasingly difficult to discover these forgotten treasures. Interestingly, fossickers do not require permission to go on miners’ camps or dump sites and can often have a lucky Opal find.
OPAL MINING FIELDS AT LIGHTNING RIDGE
There are over 200 Opal mining fields in Lightning Ridge, however the most popular fields are listed below:
- Bald Hill: One of the only ‘Walk-In’ mines at Lightning Ridge, most of the precious Opal found in this area was recovered from the main workings over an area of only 120 metres by 30 metres! Visitors can walk through the mine from 9am to 5pm daily with self-guided tours or coach tours.
- Deep-Four Mile: In the 1930’s, miners extracted good quality Opal from five claims at Deep-Four Mile, with the deepest shaft spanning over 28.5 metres.
- Hawks Nest: Sinking at this site ranged from 1.2 metres to 12 metres, with lenses up to 2.7 metres thick still present, producing good quality precious Opal. In some of the shafts three Opal bearing lenses at 3.6 metres, 6.9 metres and 12 metres were intersected.
- Nebea Hill: Discovered in 1973, this mine is thought to be one of the most productive mines in the area. It was estimated that eight claims produced over $3,000,000 worth of Opal over two years. Mining techniques used on site over the years began with large-scale open-cut mining, followed by underground mining.
- New Chum and Old Chum: A Opal stone of 100 carats was recovered from the New Chum area of this site and Opal float was found in gravel on the side of the hill in the Old Chum area.
- New Rush (New Nobby): Mined in the 1960’s with a maximum shaft depth of 12 metres, this site returned precious Opal, which resulted in a rush to the area and the sinking of about 100 shafts.
- Nine Mile: One of the most worked fields still being worked today, shafts stretch to 12 metres deep on the crest of the hill. Potch was found interspersed with Opal in this area.
- Rouses-Six Mile: The exact location of this area is uncertain; however, it is known to be closed to McDonald’s Six Mile. Only two claims produced significant quantities of Opal in this area and much of the Opal was in the form of big Black Nobbies.
- Shallow Belars: As the name suggests, this field is quite shallow, with a depth of 0.3 metres to 3.6 metres. Good quality Opal has been recovered at this site and consisted of opalised bivalves.
- The Old Nobby: One of the first shafts on the Lightning Ridge field was sunk at Nobbys and Opal was initially found in the gravel at the foot of the ridge. Although the rocks are extremely difficult and hard to work, a considerable amount of Opal has been recovered from a lens depth of 6 metres.
- The Three Mile: One of the most famous and overworked mines, this field has peaked at over 1,000 people engaged in Opal mining there at one time. By far one of the most productive areas on the field, large-scale open cut mining has been carried out in recent years.
- The Six Mile: Also known as McDonald’s Six Mile, the depth to the Finch clay facies ranges from 9 metres to 12 metres on the crest of the hill and 1.8 metres at the base of the hill, with the best Opal found deeper in the ground.
- Thorley’s Six Mile: This field was first mined in 1902 from a range of 6 to 12 metres and then rediscovered by miners in the 1970’s, as the field continue to produce high quality Black Opal.
SHOP LIGHTNING RIDGE CRYSTAL OPAL STONES
A Lightning Ridge Opal Mine
Richard and Paul, mining mates from Lightning Ridge NSW Australia, take Al down stairs and show him around their working Opal mine, just remember ya hard hat. Plus cutting and polishing Opal.