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I have a strange fondness for quirky frontier towns. So when I first read about the eccentric opal mining community in Lightening Ridge, out in the desert of New South Wales, I knew I had to visit. We like to take one or two road trips per year, so this became our Easter road trip destination.
Why Visit Lightening Ridge?
Lightening Ridge is an eccentric little town where you can get your fill of outback vibes, while still being reasonably close to civilization. I had not heard of Lightening Ridge until recently, and for years I have wanted to visit the opal mining center of Coober Pedy. However, being so remote, we would have to do a lot of organizing and spend a bit of time to get there. So when I learned that there was an opal mining town in the NSW outback, accessible from Sydney, I knew that we would have to visit.
If you want to learn about Opal mining, visit off the grid bush mining communities, and experience the outback and the desert, then Lightening Ridge is a destination you should definitely consider.
Where is Lightening Ridge?
Lightening Ridge is located in the New South Wales outback and isn’t particularly close to anything – but its not so far away as to be impossible to reach. It’s located 700 km’s from Sydney (about a 9 hour drive) or 730 km’s from Brisbane (about an 8 hour drive). It is possible to head there in a day, but there are lots of great places to visit on the way, so why not make a road trip of it?
What to do in Lightening Ridge
Lightening Ridge is all about opals and outback, as you will see from our following list of 6 reasons to visit Lightening Ridge.
Fossick for Opals
To ‘fossick’ means to search, and the word is most commonly used in the context of searching for something precious in the ground. But first, what are opals? An opal is a precious gemstone formed from silica. It’s shiny and can be full of different colours, or even sort of pearl like. Lightening Ridge is the only place in the world where you can find black opals. Black opals is where the silica gemstone has adhered itself to a black substance as its base. I asked a few people in Lightening Ridge why those kinds of opals are only found here, and no one really had a definitive answer.
Fossicking for opals is actually pretty easy. You don’t need any special equipment, just dig through some dirt. There are a few places around town where they have dug up great piles of dirt where you can have a go searching for opals. We didn’t find any, but we also didn’t apply ourselves that hard either.
Car Door Tours
The best way to great a great feel for the lay of the land is by doing on the car door tours. These are little mini driving tours where you essentially follow a trail of numbered car doors through the outback landscape to different points of interest. You can get a self driving tour guide from the tourist information office for a gold coin donation. There are several car door tours and we did a couple of them. They definitely help you to get a little off the beaten path and let you discover another facet of this interesting little town.
Visit a Mine
There are a couple different walk in mines in town where you can descend into an old mine to see what the work would have been like for the early miners. While it was interesting, there wasn’t much information (and it was self guided) so we left feeling like we hadn’t really taken in all that much. If you want to visit a mine I would recommend one where you have a guide who can tell you some stories and really bring the place to life.
Bush pubs in the middle of nowhere
Have you ever gone on a pub crawl in the middle of nowhere? Well about 70km’s from Lightening Ridge, in the middle of the mining camps, are three extremely unique bush pubs. The club in the scrub, the Glengarry Hilton, and the Sheepyard Inn. Your GPS may not be able to tell you how to get there, but the tourist information office in Lightening Ridge can give you directions. You will need to do a bit of off roading to get to these pubs, but while rough, the roads are fairly decent, and we did it in a Peugeot station wagon.
This whole area is incredibly interesting to visit. Here you will find real active mining camps (just be careful if walking around as there may be unmarked mining pits).
Enjoy the desert sunsets
Sunsets in the desert just seem to be more epic than anywhere else, and I’m not sure why. Maybe its because the flat landscape with no trees just gives you more sky to look at. Either way, there is a car door tour which will take you to the best place in Lightening Ridge to watch the sunset.
Artesian Bore Baths
The water in the Artesian Bore Baths is said to be approximately two million years old, and is forced into the baths due to great pressure from the Great Artesian Basin. The water maintains a natural temperature of about 40 – 50 degrees celcius, and entry to the baths is free.
Where to stay in Lightening Ridge
Lightening Ridge is a small town, but despite that, there are quite a few options regarding accommodation, from hotels to motels to camping grounds. We had all of our camping gear with us so we stayed at one of the two local camp grounds.
Hamilton island is well known for many things. It’s known for luxury, weddings, honeymoons, and romance. It’s known for it’s beauty, it’s access to the Great Barrier Reef, and it’s position among the Whitsunday Islands. But there were a few things I didn’t known about Hamilton Island. I didn’t know that it is an epic destination for families. I also didn’t know that it has some amazing short day hikes available. Needless to say, I was very happy with these surprises.
We visited Hamilton island during the January school holidays for just under one week. During this time it was an absolute kid heaven. Full disclaimer, I haven’t been to the island when school is in session, but I would assume the proportion of families would drop considerably and the proportion of honeymooners and wedding parties would rise sharply, so keep that in mind when planning your holiday.
Getting to and from Hamilton Island
Hamilton Island is the only island in the Whitsundays with it’s own commercial airport. Flights operate daily from most every major airport around Australia. Multiple airlines service the Whitsundays, including some of the more budget options. You can also reach Hamilton Island by ferry from Airlie Beach. There are regular flight sales to Hamilton Island, so you should be able to find a great deal if you keep a watch on prices.
The airport at Hamilton Island is rather small. Upon exiting the airport, you will find the baggage carousel, and information desks run by the various hotels. There are not many hotel options on the island considering, so you should be able to locate yours fairly easily. Most of the hotels offer a free shuttle service, but an island public bus does also service the airport as well.
Where to stay on Hamilton Island
There are several great options on Hamilton Island. The main resort on the island is the Reef View Resort, which is where we stayed. We opted for the resort as we were only staying for 4 nights and I got a discounted rate through my day job. The rooms at the resort were very spacious, they provided free baby equipment (a baby jogger pram, high chair, and cot, among other things), and we had free breakfast at four different restaurants (including one with koalas!). For us, the ease of staying at the resort worked well for us.
If you are traveling with a larger group, or staying for a longer time, you might want to consider some of the holiday apartments on the island. That way you will have a bit more space, and access to a kitchen. There is an IGA on the island, so you can self cater if you want.
What to do on Hamilton Island
The first thing that struck me about the Hamilton Island experience is that it reminded me of being on a cruise ship. Although, a cruise ship which doesn’t move. The reason for this? The entire island is pretty much set up to maximize the experience and enjoyment of the visitors. The little town is lined with cute boutiques and restaurants – one restaurant for each food type. There is a tapas place, a seafood place, a Mexican place, a pizza place, and ice cream place, etc,etc. The island has a weekly activity guide and app which constant daily activities (both free and with a small cost) that you can join if you want. Do you want to join a painting class? A kids cupcake decorating class? Basketball? Pub quiz? The activity guide has something for everyone. But the thing that most made the Island feel like a cruise ship was that no matter where you go, whether it be in the resort or in the town, you can charge all your purchases to your room.
Daily Activities from the Activity Guide
As I mentioned above, like on a cruise, each day on Hamilton Island can be filled with a variety of different activities. Since we were there over the school holidays, we had lots of free options available for Jacob. There were art classes, basketball games, cupcake and pizza making (small cost), and face painting. As much as my kids could happily play in the pools all day, every day, these activities gave us a bit of variety, and also gave me the opportunity to give them a break from being out in the hot tropical sun all day.
There are also quite a few adult specific activities, like pub quizzes, so even big kids will be happy.
You’re on an island, so of course the beach is going to make the list. The main beach across from the resort, Catseyebeach, is a lazy and long stretch of sand with lots of shallow areas for kids. There is an activity shack where you can rent paddle boards, catamarans and snorkel equipment as well. While we did see lots of people in the water, we decided to stay out, since we were visiting in January, and that is the season where there is a higher change of encountering Irukandji jellyfish. The stings of this jellyfish can be lethal, and also the jellyfish is tiny and almost impossible to see in the water. Our resort recommended that children and those with health conditions stick to the pools, and I decided to follow their advice. We did however enjoy daily evening walks on the beach after dinner.
Relax by the pool
As I mentioned above, we decided to play it safe, and stick to pools instead of the ocean. Our resort had four main pools (which are open to all island guests), one of which was a kid oasis. We were only there for four days, and didn’t even get a change to try out all the pools! The main pool even has a swim up bar! We spend most of our time at the kids pool, which was nice and shallow, and had plenty of shade.
Go for a hike
Did you know that Hamilton Island has some pretty amazing hikes? This was one of the things that surprised me, but luckily I did bring my hiking shoes. There are several trail options which go to various lookouts and secluded beaches. All the hikes leave from just down the road from the resort, and there is a water bottle filling station at the entry to the hikes.
The closest and easiest hike is to Hideaway Bay beach, which is only a very short walk from the resort. This walk is great if you want to escape the business of Catseye beach, but don’t want to go for a long walk. However, if you do want to walk for a longer period (and really be the only person on the beach) then you should opt for either Escape beach or Coral Cove beach. These beaches are not excessively far, but they are far enough that you will want decent walking shoes and some water.
If you are looking for an amazing viewpoint, then you absolutely can not miss Passage Peak. The top of the lookout is only an hour and a half walk from the trail entrance, but the rather steep gradient will leave you more than a bit sweaty. Although it is definitely not impossible. We hiked up with a 5 year old (on foot), and a 1.5 year old (in a baby carrier), so its definitely doable. You will want a good supply of water, especially if you are doing in while its hot. The views are absolutely worth it though.
Our favourite of all the bush walks however was the one around South East Head. This walk links up to Passage Peak, so if you are not tired out from our ascent, you can do what we did and loop around South East head and Escape Beach, before heading back to the resort. All up it is about 10 km, but it is incredible. We did not see a single other person on the South East head walk, and yet we thought it was the most beautiful out of all the walks we did.
Visit the Great Barrier Reef
If you are visiting the Whitsundays, then going out to the Great Barrier reef is a no brainer. There are a couple operators who offer tours to the reef and you can either snorkel or scuba dive. I had been out to the reed before, but Simon had never had that experience, so this time it was his turn. He went out on a full day snorkeling tour and absolutely loved it.
Explore the Whitsundays
The chain of Whitsunday islands is composed of 74 islands, and they are a dream to sail around. You can’t miss the famous Whitehaven beach – you will probably recognize it from postcards all over Australia. This 7 km long beach has sand made up of 98% white silica, making it one of the whitest and squeakiest white sand beaches you will ever see.
Visit some native wildlife
Those with kids will love the fact that Hamilton Island has a mini wild life zoo, located half way between the main resort center and the marina. If you buy a ticket to the zoo, it will be valid for your entire stay, which definitely makes it excellent value if you are staying for a few days. We didn’t buy this ticket, but we did attend for breakfast with koalas, which was included as one of the breakfast options with our resort. The breakfast here is a little more simple than the massive (and amazing) buffets at the other resort restaurants, but here you get to eat your breakfast surrounded by trees with sleepy koala bears. Definitely a unique experience!
A couple weeks ago we spent a week camping, hiking, and road tripping. Our ultimate destination was Kosciuszko National Park. It’s currently summer in Australia, so the area is much quieter and calmer than it would be during the snow season.
Despite the lack of snow, Kosciuszko is magical in the summer off season. As a family, we are more into hiking anyways, and the low season (summer season) is absolutely perfect for this.
We stayed in the small town of Cooma at a local camp ground. Other towns with plentiful accommodation options are Thredbo or Jindabyne. Coooma is further away from the trail heads than the other spots, and we will probably stay closer next time we visit. We chose Cooma simply because it was the busy school holiday period and they had availability for the type of camping set up we wanted and for the entire time frame.
Because we were staying in Cooma, all the hikes I am going to talk about are in the Thredbo – Perisher area. Kosciuszko National Park is actually huge, and there are tons of other areas to explore, but we just have not gotten to them yet.
So without further adieu, and in no particular order:
Snow Gums Boardwalk – 0.4 km return
Follow the road all the way to the end to Charlottes pass, and you will find the starts of several walks. Many of them were a little too long (or steep) for our children to tolerate, so instead we just spent some time sightseeing on the Snow Gums Boardwalk. As you can see, this “walk” is probably a little too short to even call a walk. It’s more of a collection of two viewpoints. But this is where you will get the most clear views of Mount Kosciuszko and that alone makes it worthwhile making your way here.
Porcupine Rocks – 6 km return
As you are driving into the park, away from the ticket booth, turn left at the Man from Snowy River hotel. From there you will see signs which direct you to the parking area for this walk.
The trail itself is well marked and well formed, however you are climbing to a height of around 1900 m, so expect the trail to be mostly uphill the entire way. However, despite being uphill, its not overly challenging.
As you ascend, you can see the vegetation start to change, and the whole area is filled with beautiful snow gums.
You will know you have reached the end of the walk when you enter a very rocky area filled with large boulders. These are porcupine rocks. From here, you can enjoy spectacular views to Thredbo River Valley and Bullocks Flat below and back to Perisher and the Main Range.
A post shared by Jade Johnston (@ouroyster) on Jan 8, 2019 at 11:21pm PST
Waterfall Walk – 6 km loop
This walk is one of the closest to Jindabyne and is also the most sheltered of all the walks. If it is a hot and sunny day, then this is the hike to do, as the tree cover offers great protection from the elements.
This trail is also one of the few which is a loop, so you don’t need to backtrack either. The path is relatively flat. There is a bit of up and down, but its definitely suitable for people of all fitness levels.
Of course, as the name implies, you will pass by a waterfall while on this walk.
Rainbow Lake – 2.5 km return
If you are only up for a short hike, then Rainbow Lake is a very good option. This walk is not very technically difficult, and can be completed by most anyone. It’s a great hike to take a picnic on, or for those of you who like fishing, you can actually fish for trout in the lake.
Illawong Walk – 5 km return
This was our favourite walk out of all the walks we did. The area here is simply stunning. The Illawong walk starts in the tiny village of Guthega – follow the signs which depart from the main road. The village is just a small handful of buildings, and it is very easy to find the start of this walk.
The area here is simply stunning and it was here that was saw some of the best examples of alpine wildflowers. During our visit, there was an immense amount of native mint near the path, making the whole area smell subtlety of mint.
The highlight of this walk is, without a doubt, the opportunity to swim in the snowy river.
Because of the off the beaten track location of this walk, we thought it would be relatively quiet. However the swimming hole here must be well known, as when we arrived we found several other families enjoying a relaxing dip in the waters.
Summer is here in Australia, and the holidays are almost upon us. Which means it’s time for one of the great Australian rituals, the road/ camping trip. But Australia is unique, and whether you are going for a day, or a month, there are a few things you should have on your packing list.
The Great Australian Packing Guide
Its time to road trip! Just don’t forget these things…..
Sand proof towel
Australia is all about beaches, so the first thing you want to pack is all your beach gear. And one indispensable piece of beach gear, in my opinion, is the sand proof towel. There are lots of sand proof towels on the market these days, and I own a few of them, but my favourite is the one from Tesalate. I love this towel for its bright and funky reversible patterns (my favourite is the toucans!), but mostly for how lightweight and compact it is. My other sand proof towel is quite bulky, so this one is much easier to just throw in my bag and go. And the best part is…. sand does not stick to it. So no matter how much sand these two naughty monkeys heap on to it, all I have to do is pick it up, and all the sand just falls away. Now if only it was that easy to get the sand off these kids….
Plenty of sunscreen
If you plan to spend any time outdoors in Australia then you need to slather in sunscreen. And I mean it. The sun is so much more intense here than in other parts of the world, and if you don’t reapply often you will most certainly burn.
I also recommend buying a sunscreen without harmful oxybenzone and octinoxate and protect the oceans as well as your skin.
A good first aid kit
Australia is full of creepy crawlies, and wide open spaces. Not a good combination if you injure yourself. I think everyone everywhere should have a decent first aid kit in their car, no matter where you are. But it is an especially good idea in Australia where the distances between towns can sometimes be long.
Keeping your beers (or chardonnay) cool is important. So it’s integral to have a good and portable cooler. For day trips we have this excellent little collapsible dry bag style cooler from Ice Mule. Its awesome because it takes up no space at all when you are not using it. For longer trips we have a small portable fridge which can plug into the car to keep everything cool for multi day journeys. It’s pretty bulky though, so I still prefer to use my Ice Mule cooler bag.
A parks pass
If you are traveling through NSW and you want to spend some time enjoying the great outdoors, then I highly recommend getting a parks pass. To enter any national or state park in a vehicle you need to pay a fee, usually around $8, and some parks do not have kiosks so you need to have exact change. Exact change is something that I never, ever, ever have, so a parks pass works best. The pass costs $65 and lasts for a year, so if you are planning to visit a bunch, then this is definitely a good investment.