“Water is the soul of the earth” – W H Auden
The Great Artesian Basin (GAB) is one of the miraculous contradictions of Australia, we are the driest inhabited continent on earth, only Antarctica is drier, and yet our dry inland sits atop the largest and deepest subterranean water resource in the world. The GAB is one of eleven artesian basins in Australia, but it is our largest and most significant artesian aquifer. We should remember that while this resource is large, an estimated 64900 million megalitres or enough water to fill Sydney Harbour 130 000 times, it is still a finite resource only refilling at a glacially slow rate and in recent years our continuous and caviller sinking of bores has resulted in stopping or decreasing the flow from some of those sources. Currently NSW and QLD governments are leading attempts to rehabilitate and cap bores to preserve the resource into the future. Our even more caviller attitude to fracking for gas further threatens this precious and remarkable resource. Our inland agriculture is dependent on the basin, our ability to feed ourselves and other nations makes this a resource of inestimable value. Our underground water is the lifeblood of Australian agriculture in our dry interior. The Great artesian basin is also the source of most of the world’s precious opal.
The water that bubbles up to the surface can be as much 2 million years old, itself a relic of the ancient Eromanga sea that once covered much of inland Australia, it is deep time water, so old it is hard to hold that age in your mind and really comprehend its magnitude, it is an amazing and humbling thing to contemplate. If you bath in a thermal artesian pool you are swimming in water that graced the earth when diprotodons( giant wombats) and carnivorous kangaroos wandered this land or even earlier when instead of emus you had raptor type dinosaurs like Lightning claw, who was identified by remains found at the ridge.
Lightning Ridge is one location taking advantage of the artesian system and it is one of the best locations in Australia to experience the thermal, mineral rich waters of the GAB. The ridge has a free communal bore bath, located on the edge of town. It is very conveniently located just across the road from the Opal caravan park, where we stayed, a short stroll over the road and up a couple of hundred metres. The baths are open effectively 24 hours a day, with the bathroom facilities closed every day between 10am and 12 for cleaning. The facilities are basic and starting to show their age but are clean and well kept. You have access to flushing toilets and hot and cold showers.
There is a small overflow pool which is slightly cooler and suitable for children and the main pool which has multiple points of entry which allow for gradual immersion. Gradual immersion is advisable as this is a hot pool, on average the water is about 41degrees Celsius so a great opportunity to find out how a poached egg feels. Without question the best times to experience the pool are at dawn or in the evening when the air temperature is cooler and you can wallow in the warmth of the water while watching the sun rise or the stars at night, while the steam also rises from the pool.
The pool has a town square vibe, where people sit and chat, you can’t get much more informal than sitting in your bathers and sharing a hot pool with strangers, a good place to meet locals. It is not an experience to be taken in a hurry, it is a slow, relaxed experience best done in short periods of gradual immersion alternated with sitting in the cooler air or having a cool shower before re-entering. After all the water has taken thousands if not millions of years to get to you, the least you can do is slow down and enjoy the experience.
The Lightning Ridge bore bath was probably my favourite thing about the Ridge but I love water whether it is in the ocean, an icy stream or steaming artesian pool. Although I will confess the pool was definitely on the hot side for me but incredibly relaxing. We left the pool feeling warm, skin silky smooth and ready for sleep. Not sure how much of that deep relaxation was due to the heat and how much due to the mineral content of the water. I spoke to several locals who make Lightning Ridge their home through the cooler months if not all year and a common attraction was the bore bath. I spoke to one local who swore blind the bore had bought him relief from chronic pain and was the reason he moved to the ridge.
Europeans seem to have a much more entrenched attraction to the mineral spa experience than most Australians and I affectionately refer to Moree (Australia’s artesian spa capital), as little Budapest for that reason. We have stayed at the Gwydir caravan park in Moree for the artesian water, and the first thing you will notice is the preponderance of European languages and accents in the pools. The pools at Gwydir are a more comfortable temperature, they have a 34 degree, a 35, a 37 and a 39 degree Celsius pool and a slightly cooler pool for lap swimming, but I think I preferred the hotter and more rustic experience of Lightning Ridge to the heavily chlorinated and very white, wealthy, middle class experience of Moree. We stopped at Moree on the way home and after the relaxed space of the Opal caravan park at Lightning Ridge and the friendly informality of the bore bath at the Ridge, Moree felt crowded and geriatric and oozing a kind of complacent middle class comfort. After visiting Lightning Ridge it is now my first choice for an artesian thermal experience.