Get a taste of country Australia as you've never experienced it before on a weekend adventure to Lightning Ridge. Visit charming restaurants and historic hotels, take adventure tours or simply sit back and admire the wide brown land on this road trip of a lifetime.
Lightning Ridge – renowned as the world’s black opal capital – is one of those tiny towns in northwestern NSW that exemplifies the spirit of the outback. There’s a reason Paul Hogan claimed he was born here; it’s one of those classic country places, 65 kilometres from the Queensland border, that appeared to shoot out of obscurity in the late 1800s when the first opals were found. All that cinnamon dust, all those blue gum trees and wide open spaces hold an almost mystical charm, beyond the iconic gemstone. Named after a rumoured lightning strike back in the 1870s, the idea that nature has the final say in this town still lingers in the air, and in the mouths of locals, who are only too happy to share their histories. And while it may seem remote, “the Ridge” is actually an easy road trip from Sydney. In nine hours of drive time, best broken up across two days, you’ll pass first-class restaurants, charming boutique accommodation and unique art spaces in the heart of outback Australia. Here’s your guide to a journey that’s as memorable as the destination.
Dine at Darley’s
Make your first stop a satisfying one with dinner at Darley’s Restaurant in Katoomba, just 90 minutes west of Sydney. The fine dining champion of the Blue Mountains is set in historic real estate, occupying the grand, late 19th-century homestead of NSW chief justice Sir Frederick Matthew Darley. From the dining room you’ll enjoy views of the property’s manicured English gardens while inside, twin fireplaces and crystal chandeliers add to the restaurant’s old world charm.
The menu, however, is a masterclass in modern Australian cuisine: think pine-smoked beetroot pastrami, followed by butter-poached Murray cod with clams, wakame and charred lettuce. Don’t leave town without seeing the Three Sisters, a ten-minute walk down the road.
Pull up stumps in Mudgee
Road trip accommodation is more than just motels: another two hours up the highway from Katoomba and you’ll hit Mudgee, home to the boutique Perry Street Hotel. Here you can retire for the night in one of 13 luxury suites set in a converted Victorian building and decked out with deep bathtubs, plush robes and king beds. It’s the ideal place to relax and recharge after a day on the road.
Do the zoo
Lions, elephants and cheetahs all live in the NSW outback – at Taronga Western Plains Zoo, that is. The Dubbo destination, 100 minutes from Mudgee, is home to over 700 species of animals including those that need more space to roam than Taronga’s Sydney site can offer. Hungry? Fuel up with petit fours, pastries, scones and sandwiches at the on-site high tea (bookings essential a day ahead), or BYO snacks and spread out at one of the spacious picnic grounds.
Between Dubbo and Lightning Ridge there are two unique ways to see art off the beaten track. First, stop off at Gulargambone, population 500, where a contingent of Australian artists congregated in 2018 to adorn 12 buildings, two footpaths and a water tower with colourful murals.
Thirty minutes up the road in the town of Coonamble you can visit the Outback Arts Centre, a small gallery displaying locally made ceramics, sculpture, photography and installation works. Check out the Outback Archies, a showcase of the brightest artists in regional NSW, running from September 12 until October 28. From here you’re just a little more than two hours from Lightning Ridge.
Arriving at Lightning Ridge
Stop in at the Australian Opal Centre to marvel at the world’s leading collection of opalised fossils, along with a jaw-dropping collection of precious opals, glimmering with shades of iridescent sapphire and purple as they catch the light. Try your hand at fossicking on one of the underground adventure tours, or go back in time to one of the original miner’s camps.
Next, it’s on to the Chambers of the Black Hand, where, 11 metres underground, you can view a fascinating array of figures and imagery painted on, and carved into, the sandstone rock by local artist Ron Canlin. After something a little more traditional? Try the John Murray Art Gallery, where the friendly local artist (who painted Gulargambone’s bus stop mural) displays his striking photo-realistic works.
After a day touring, relax at one of Lightning Ridge’s iconic Bore Baths. Piped directly from the Great Artesian Basin, this mineral-filled hot water is as therapeutic as any day spa. Soaking is free, and a year-round event, thanks to the naturally heated water that consistently hovers between 40 and 50 degrees Celsius.
After a restorative soak, wander down to Lucky Brasserie for a refreshing beer and a chat with the locals. Located within the expansive, air-conditioned Bowling Club, Lucky’s serves both Australian and Chinese cuisine. If you’re after something a little more low key, The Gourmet Gecko cafe makes everything, from fresh pasta to pork roast and veggies. And if you’re lucky, you might run into Hephner the Alpaca, who visits remote communities in the region to spread joy and raise funds on behalf of Beyond Blue.
You’ll need a good night’s sleep to recharge before driving home, and Kigwigil Country Escape is a working sheep and cropping farm that’s almost too quaint to be real. Located in Cumborah, just half an hour south of Lightning Ridge, the homestead’s self-contained Cottage sleeps six and comes with a deep verandah, large country kitchen, outdoor bath tub and fire pit. You’ll feel like you’re living the Paul Hogan outback dream, if only for one night.