Holiday Portraits – A Trip to Lightning Ridge, NSW

A bit of a personal post here…

I recently took a much-needed break, and drove up north to Lightning Ridge, a remote opal mining town in Northern NSW. I was visiting an old friend, Graeme, who I’ve been in contact with since I was about 10 or 11. It had been two long since I had seen him, and honestly this is a trip I had been meaning to do for years.

How did I meet Graeme?

Initially, Graeme and I were pen-pals writing letters through the old snail-mail. He was an old school friend of my Nana’s, and she had kept in touch with him her whole life. When I began taking pottery classes, I discovered a beautiful handmade pot at her home. It was one of Graeme’s. I remember it perfectly: vibrant and blue, smooth on the bottom, beautifully shaped – perfect in every way to a budding potter like me. It made sense – Graeme was professional potter, and so my nana put me in touch with him so he could give me tips and help me along my journey. And thus, I met Graeme through the old fashioned pen and paper, and later on: email.

This wasn’t my first trip to Lightning Ridge, however, it was my first trip in my own car. I brought my partner along, and together we met many great people and got to enjoy so many things. Both of us being photographers enjoyed the scenery along the way.

I was primarily there to visit Graeme, and I was lucky enough to learn some pottery from him too. It’s been two years since I jumped on the wheel, so was fortunate to give it a go up there, and watch his techniques too. Graeme whips up pots in a matter of minutes, each one unique, but seemingly flawless. That’s what happens when you’re a professional!

Raku Firing:

We were also lucky to experience one of Graeme’s Raku pottery nights. This is an experience in itself, and while I’d done it before, it’s just as exciting as the first time.

With a set of pots bisque fired and dipped in a white glaze, his guests are invited to decorate a pot using various oxides. From illustrations of dinosaurs, to dots and splashes – every design is unique, and the results are always a little quirky and unpredictable. The raku kiln was built by Graeme, and runs off gas. The pots are taken out of the kiln and placed into tins of newspaper, which quickly catch alight and are covered, allowing the pots to cool within smoke, and turn any exposed clay black.

We saw some old faces and some new faces at the raku firing. We enjoyed beautiful home-cooked dinners and interesting conversation. I snapped away at the night, and there was a glorious sunset too. All in all, it was a fabulous welcome to the Ridge, which has to be one of the most inviting towns in Australia. Lightning Ridge is simply filled with locals who just want to share their passions, their town and their love for the country.

The West Fields:

A few other things we did in the Ridge included a trip out to Grawin, Glengarry and the Sheepyard fields. We spent the day out here (about 70km west of Lightning Ridge) visiting outback pubs and searching for opals in the publically-accessible dump heaps from the local miners. The three pubs had great food, surprisingly good coffee & hot chocolate, and friendly locals. Out here we got to see a little more outback and meet some lovely people too. Absolutely no luck on finding any opal in the heaps, but it was good fun regardless.

Mel & Susie:

While we were at the raku firing night, we were incredibly lucky to meet Mel & Susie, from Mel & Susie On Tour. They’re based in Lightning Ridge now, but previously spent 12 years travelling on their very own tour bus, performing across Australia (and other places, like the Edinburgh Film Festival).

Mel & Susie are bush poets who perform every evening at the Lightning Ridge Opal Caravan Park. They also run tours of their home – which was the original camp of local artist John Murray. They have a comedic flair and are talented performers in their own right. Every story has their audience captivated.

While we didn’t have a chance to make it to one of their shows, Mel and Susie were kind enough to invite us to their home and give us a tour (and some pretty amazing home-made scones!).

John Murray built the original home himself, using a vast array of recycled materials. The result is unique and so incredibly beautiful and inspiring. From cracked skyscraper windows to rustic beams and bottle-windows. The house is full of character and is complete with a performance hall, a beautiful backyard, and the old touring bus. It’s amazing that this beautiful property was found by two generous souls who are so excited to share it with guests and tell John’s story.

You can follow along with Mel & Susie on Facebook and visit John Murray’s art gallery in Lightning Ridge (or view his website online).

Down To Earth Opals:

Down To Earth Opals is a local opal store that was opened by a talented woman named Vicky. I’ve always loved this store. Not only does it have incredibly beautiful, tasteful opal jewellery, but a range of various indigenous artworks, local pottery and beautiful homewares too.

Vicky’s partner Andrew cuts and polishes all the opal, and Vicky designs all the finished jewellery. They are both so talented at what they do.

Fortunately for us, Andrew showed us a behind the scenes look at cutting and polishing opal – from when it’s rough out of the ground, and the process until it’s a polished stone, ready for setting. Of course, it’s a time-consuming process so we didn’t see the final result of one stone, but were shown the various stages throughout the process.

The colours of opal are so brilliant and unique. Each stone is different, and it is such an amazing natural phenomenon. Watching Andrew work was fascinating. You can view the Down To Earth Opals website at

Here are a few more snaps:

All in all, Lightning Ridge is an amazing place. Four days isn’t long enough to see and do everything, and we left eager to stay longer and see more. It’s easy to understand why many of the locals fell in love with the town and never left – like Graeme.  I’ll be back one day soon – hopefully with some more skills in pottery, and to stay a little longer. For now, here are a few portraits and snapshots from my time here: