LIGHTNING RIDGE, IN FAR northern NSW, sits at the southern end of a belt of black opal deposits that extends up across southwest Queensland, but is by far the richest of them all.
Superficially it is like any small country town, with a supermarket, a number of specialist stores, a bowling club and the usual community facilities, but straight away you notice something different. Opals are for sale everywhere, there are a number of motels and, uniquely for a town of its size, five caravan parks.
It's not until you deviate off the sealed main roads that you discover the real Lightning Ridge, the eccentric opal mines which justify the steady flow of tourists, keeping the town alive.
This is a place where train carriages, trams, cement mixers, buses,caravans, car doors, and tin cans come to die. Scattered amongst the scrub around the town are numerous small mines and a few exhausted large ones.
Unlike the southern opal centres of White Cliffs and Coober Pedy few of the miners at Lightning Ridge live below ground, and most have taken up residence in all manner of discarded dwellings. There are shacks of all shapes and size, from vast castles (that wouldn't look out of place on the shores of the Mediterranean), to tumbled heaps of scrap tin, boards and fibro. Amongst the trees are buildings erected from empty bottles and soft drink cans. Their owners announce their presence, and warn off unwanted intruders on their closely guarded mining leases, on old car doors hung on trees along the road.
And everywhere the discarded waste from mining operations lies in mullock heaps, white mounds littering the countryside as far as the eye can see.
If you can find anywhere not on a lease you are welcome to speck-fossick for a touch of the colour which might have been missed by the original miner.
Some areas are blasted moonscapes of churned over claystone and sandstone with the remnants of old mining operations projecting from the ground; some are more discreet holes in the earth.
You can pick up guides to the coloured car door and tours around town from the information centre. These take you along interesting side routes to many of the town's sights, or you can join a guided group that will gain you access to some places otherwise closed to the general public. Or spend a unique night at the Black Queen, for an outback theatre experience you won't find anywhere else.
Lightning Ridge has to be one of the great "must sees" of Australia.
We based ourselves in the new Opal Caravan Park. Located across the road and a couple of hundred metres up from the town's thermal spring baths it's ideally located for a refreshing dip (after you've adjusted your body to the 40°C temperature).
The park has 70 drive-through sites, all powered and 10 with ensuite, plus a huge powered and unpowered general camping area.All the sites are large (up to 20m long), which for many means you don't even have to unhitch, and all have sullage and mains water.
At the moment there are 13 cabins but more are being added. The park has free wireless internet, a large camp kitchen, outdoor fireplace where a happy hour frequently develops and local entertainers occasionally perform. When we were there it was the weekend of the AFL Grand Final and half the park's members were gathered in their chairs enjoying dinner while they watched the game on the big screen at the back of the kitchen.
The park also has the best finished shower facilities I've seen in a caravan park, and they are reflective of the classy fit-out throughout.
The park is pet friendly, has a car wash bay, caravan dump point and - just in case you forget you're in Lightning Ridge - its own fossicking area where you can find your own opal!
Lightning Ridge is 720km northwest of Sydney and 750km southwestof Brisbane.
Black Queen, www.blackqueen.com.au,(02) 6829 0980.
Visitor Information Centre, Morilla Street, (02) 6829 1670.
Opal Caravan Park, www.opalcaravanpark.com.au,(02) 6829 4884.
Source: Camper Trailer Australia #47