Lightning Ridge, famous as the world’s major source of gem quality black opal, is situated approximately 770 kilometres north-west of Sydney and 50km due south of the Queensland border. Lightning Ridge’s economy is based primarily on opal mining and secondarily on tourism.
Opal was first discovered at Lightning Ridge, by boundary rider Jack Murray in 1900, and has been mined since 1903, although it was not until the late 1950s with the introduction of mechanised mining methods that substantial production occurred.
Currently the vast majority of opal mining occurs in an area defined as the Narran-Warrambool Reserve contained within the Lightning Ridge Mineral Claims District.
Several major opal fields are located in the Reserve, Lightning Ridge, the Coocoran (17km west of Lightning Ridge), Grawin, Glengarry, Sheepyards, Carter’s Rush and Mulga Rush (80km south-west of Lightning Ridge) and New Angledool or Mehi (50km north of Lightning Ridge).
Opal occurs sporadically and special conditions apply to prospecting and mining within the Reserve. 28 day, or in some circumstances three month Opal Prospecting Licences are available to prospect designated Opal Prospecting Blocks. There is a restriction of two mineral claims per person and the claims are 50m by 50m. The industry is made up of independent miners.
It is difficult to estimate the production value of Lightning Ridge opal as no accurate records are kept. The majority of black opal is sold as cut and polished stones.
As Lightning Ridge is mainly made up of self employed people a diverse and individualistic culture has evolved.
Many residents are semi-permanent, leaving town over the hot summer months, which may explain why there are only approximately 2,500 people on the electoral roll while over 5,000 collect their mail from the Post Office.
The township of Lightning Ridge is not very large but many miners live in “camps” which are semi-permanent dwellings situated on a mineral claim. There are over 1,000 camps surrounding the township.
Lightning Ridge has a multi-cultural population. Approximately 50 per cent of the population was born overseas.