After months of continuous travel through WA, NT and SA we were reluctant to give up the gentle hospitality of the coastal NSW landscape. But within a couple of hours driving inland, that old familiar outback feeling was restored. The creased edges of the country quickly iron out as you travel west. Monuments to pineapples and lobsters give way to golden guitars and, no joke, horizontal oil drills. The landscape opens up and the sky stretches across the horizon. As we pushed deeper into the flatlands we were immersed once again in vivid stillness.
We are drawn to the Great Artesian Basin, and the contradiction that is this vast, parched land sitting on an underground sea. The basin underlies a fifth of Australia, stretching from Cape York, to Dubbo, to Alice Springs, down to SA. Best estimates suggest that this aquifer takes about two million years to recharge – a very slow trickle from the tropical north to the continent’s interior. If you sink a well deep enough though, there’s plentiful water to grow cotton in the desert (just because you can, does it mean that you should?), which is what you see on the road to Lightning Ridge. But the water there promises to heal ailments, from arthritis to sciatica.
Bore baths are abundant in this region, but Lightning Ridge is in a class of its own. The giant circular spa is a brilliant public space, free to enter. The mineralised water is an intersection for weary travellers and eccentric locals, a de facto town square. It’s a welcoming place and you can’t help but relax in the 40 degree spa pool – perhaps the result of the water’s magnesium and lithium content. Whatever the reason, it feels great.
We visited a lot of towns in western NSW, spiraling from pool to pool, but none pulled us in quite like that at Lightning Ridge, the birthplace of Paul Hogan. Sincere in its kitsch, the town’s identity as the black opal capital of the world adorns every sign, wall and facade. It’s a tea-towel-worthy piece of Australiana that unapologetically rides the line between junkyard and artist colony. People spend their lives looking for precious stones here, but the biggest gem boils up from the ground every day.
189 Shermans Way, Lightning Ridge. Open 24 hours.
This is an edited extract from Places We Swim by Dillon Seitchik-Reardon and Caroline Clements, out on November 1, 2018. Places We Swim is available for pre-order.