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Opals of the Outback

Have you ever wanted to hunt for buried treasure?

Australian opals
Photo by Brian Wangenheim

Two seemingly ordinary towns in New South Wales, Australia, hold reserves of some of the rarest opals hidden in the earth. In White Cliffs and Lightning Ridge, you can become a treasure hunter for a day by searching—or fossicking, as it’s called in Australia—for one-of-a-kind opals.

White Cliffs

White Cliffs, Australia, has a population of 156 people and happens to be the only place in the world where opal “pineapples” are found. These spiked opals can be as large as a fist and sell for up to $100,000 each. If you schedule an underground tour, the guides will show you how to find these precious gemstones and let you dig for one too! If you manage to unearth an opal, they’ll even name it after you when they sell it—just ask Brian.

You can also do a nighttime black light tour that includes borrowing an ultraviolet flashlight and sifting through sections of earth. Spotting opals is much easier with a black light because you just look for reflective stones that shine back at you. These opals will be smaller than what professional miners can extract, but you can keep any opals you find.

If you don’t want to do a guided tour, White Cliffs is perfect for fossicking on your own. There are miles of minefields by Old Tom’s Hut to explore, though this activity may not be suitable for children because there are potentially dangerous holes in the ground to avoid. But if you’re looking for a secluded place to find larger opals, then White Cliffs is the best place to fossick in New South Wales.

Lightning Ridge

Lightning Ridge is home to the black opal, a dark shining stone found in only a few locations on Earth. While White Cliffs has dirt roads, Lightning Ridge is a bustling hub of tourism for opal hunting, so there are many more tours to choose from.

As for independent fossicking in Lightning Ridge, your options are much more limited. There are a few places designated for visitors to fossick, but these ten-square-foot sections of earth have been sifted through a dozen times over. Although the sections are replaced every couple of weeks, the largest opal you are likely to find here would be smaller than a dime. That said, this environment is much safer for children than the rough terrain of White Cliffs, so feel free to let them loose in these areas.

One great feature of Lightning Ridge is its abundance of opal shops, though the prices are comparable to those in White Cliffs. You may especially enjoy Marg’s Carvings, where you can buy opals carved into tiny pianos and elephants or simply admire those beautiful creations.

So, are you ready to be a treasure hunter? If so, White Cliffs and Lightning Ridge offer a chance to search the earth for rare opals that can’t be found anywhere else.