This thermal pool in the middle of country NSW sits at a steamy 40°c like a giant outdoor bathtub.
After months of continuous travel through WA, NT and SA we were reluctant to give up the gentle hospitality of the coastal NSW landscape. Within a couple of hours’ driving, however, 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 breathes a sigh of relief, stretching itself from horizon to horizon like a dancer after a long flight. As we pushed deeper into the flatlands we were immersed once again in vivid stillness.
We are intractably drawn to the Great Artesian Basin and the contradiction of this vast parched land sitting on an underground sea. The basin underlies a fifth of Australia, stretching from Cape Yorke, to Dubbo, to Alice Springs, down to SA. Best estimates suggest that this aquifer takes about 2 million years to recharge – a very slow trickle from the tropical north to the continent’s interior. If you sink a well deep enough, however, 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. More to the point, the water promises to heal all ailments, from arthritis to sciatica.
Bore baths are abundant in this region, but this is in a class all to itself. 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 find yourself relaxing in the 40°C spa pool – no doubt the result of the magnesium, lithium and dehydration. Whatever the reason, it feels great.
We visited a lot of towns in western NSW, spiralling from pool to pool, but none of them pulled us in quite like Lightning Ridge. Sincere in its kitsch, its identity as the black opal capital of the world adorns every sign, wall and face. It’s a masterpiece of tea-towel Australiana that unapologetically rides the line between junkyard and artist colony. People spend their lives looking for precious stones here, but the biggest gem of all boils up from the ground every day.
189 Shermans Way, Lightning Ridge, NSW.
Best time to visit
Winter, when the outside temperature is cool and mist forms on the water’s surface.
Easy. The pool is at the edge of town and there is abundant parking.
Cost of entry
Yes (but don’t let them cook)
24 hours; cleaning from 10am–12pm
Toilets, showers, covered picnic tables
Need to know
You should only stay in the bath for a few minutes at a time because of the high temperature; it’ll make you woozy. Local pros alternate between cold showers and hot plunges. Apparently this is the secret to eternal life.
Not for the first time, the spectre of Crocodile Dundee emerged while writing this book – this town is the birthplace of Paul Hogan.
This is an edited extract from Places We Swim by Caroline Clements and Dillion Seitchick-Reardon, published by Hardie Grant Travel RRP $39.99 and is available in stores nationally.
Photography by Dillion Seitchick-Reardon.