The story of Lightning Ridge is etched in its black opals.

Story + Photos Navin Sam Regi and Max Rowley

“No-one moves out to Lightning Ridge to get an office job,” opal miner Petar Borkovic says. “It’s a special place and it attracts a special type of person. We’re all adventurers, we’re all addicted to opal. There’s no other reason you’d be here.”

 More than 700km north-west of Sydney, just shy of the Queensland border, ‘The Ridge’ was the child of an opal rush. The gemstone was discovered there in the 1880s, but it wasn’t until 1905 that the town saw its first rush of prospectors.

By the 1940s, Australia had become the world’s major producer of opals and Lightning Ridge had established a reputation for its rare black opal, including one of the most valuable to date — the Aurora Australis, valued at $1 million today. 

But it isn’t as easy to find opals as it once was. Petar likens it to winning the lottery. “Look, it is a hard job; it’s very boring, monotonous, physically hard. But on the other hand, you can go to work poor today and be rich tomorrow. That’s why we’ve just got to keep plodding along. Because my next hole could be the one.”

Lightning Ridge attracts all sorts of characters. Gamblers, adventurers, hobbyists and those looking for a fresh start are among the town’s official population of 2284 (although nearly 5000 people collect mail from the local post office). It’s quirks like this that lure more than 80,000 people each year to try their luck at the opal fields or soak up the character of the place. Petar himself has spent bouts away, but always comes back for the adrenaline rush he gets from catching a glimpse of colour in the red earth. 

“It’s been asleep there for millions of years and you’re the first person to see this beautiful colourful thing come to life — to show its magic, its brilliance. It’s just sending shivers through me. I wanna go digging!”

This story excerpt is from Issue #131

Outback Magazine: June/July 2020