Slowly descending the wide ladders into the main pool is a claustrophobic experience: you loose all sensation as each limb is immersed in the above body-temperature water. Piece by piece your body is taken: your legs, your stomach, your chest, your arms, your neck - until you are just a head bobbing on the surface, and that too slips into warm oblivion as you slowly inhale the surface steam.
Your limbs leaden, the warm water dragging against your body, you slowly walk from the edge. The base of the bath gently slopes inwards, so only the tallest can walk all the way across without descending completely below the surface. Out near the middle your reddening head is sport for the tiny swallows that swoop and dive over the surface of the water, your arms and legs too slow to wave them away or dodge yourself aside. But they just drink and play, chasing each other and daring themselves ever closer to the surface of the water and the red heads bobbing on it, never making contact with either as they snap their wings and rocket off again at impossible angles.
Just close your eyes, and breathe it in.
There's nothing so peaceful, so relaxing, so all encompassing. It's not like having a bath at all, its like surrendering your body for a while, letting it drain of all residual energy knowing it will come back fully charged.
The baths are open 24 hours a day every day and are free to enter, so whenever you have the slightest ache or pain or simply feel the need to relax - head down to the baths for a luxurious soak under the sun or under the stars.
The Artesian Baths in Lightning Ridge are a natural resource - the mineral-rich water is naturally hot, forced up from a kilometer underground from the Great Artesian Basin - a massive artesian groundwater basin covering one-fifth of Australia, one of the largest in the world.
Although the water is gradually replenished by rainfall, the water rising up is incredibly old, having been forced slowly through layers of permeable and impermeable stone. The water arrives on the surface at around 50°C, and is allowed to cool to a more comfortable 42°C before entering the main bath.
Our first visit to Lightning Ridge's artesian baths came after a long night of drinking, the morning mercifully overcast and cooler than normal for November. We made our way to the far east end of town, not quite sure what we were looking for: a bath house, a swimming pool complex, a sign on a building - and wondering if they'd be open so early. It seemed like everyone in town had been at the pub that night - surely they were all as tired and weary as we were.
Just past an impressive Serbian Orthodox church - Lightning Ridge has few such large buildings - we spotted two circular shapes just off the road, surrounded by no more than an ankle-high stone fence. The baths were there in the open air: cemented holes in the ground with a few wrinkled pudgy heads bobbing in the water. A group of old serbian women sat half in the water on the stone steps, letting their thighs soak - all hoping the minerals would ease their arthritis and replenish their vitality. No permanent staff, no entry fee - just park up, shower off and climb in. Any time of the day or night, as long as you like.
We were already in our swimmers, so didn't use the changing rooms - just left our towels and thongs on one of the roofed picnic tables dotted around the graveled square. The only other shade comes from a few large trees packed with swallows - the pool itself is uncovered, so don't forget your sunnies, and maybe a hat.
Open 24 hours a day
Shower and toilet facilities (do shower before getting in)
Shaded picnic tables
Located on Ernie Sherman Way in the West of Lightning Ridge (Pandora Street becomes Ernie Sherman Way)
2.4 kms from the center of town
It had taken some persuasion for Emma to get me out of bed, I was in a world of alcohol-induced pain. As I slowly got into the water I started to feel zoned out, light-headed. Once I was up to my neck the warmth of the water began to clutch me tightly, a weight on my chest making it hard to breathe comfortably, the warm steamy air giving me little oxygen - hard to inhale, hard to process. Still, my body adjusted in time, and I made my way out into the pool, my legs slowly dragging against the water, moving ponderously like some stone giant wading through the ocean.
I stomped around for a while, the water up to my chin, turning on the spot, lifting my arms through the water, circling back. Time passed strangely. Eventually the heat was too much - I was still light headed, the pressure on my chest uncomfortable again. My headache began to pound all the worse, so I made my way back to the ladder, and dragged my heavy body half out. Perversely the air seemed too cool, so we staggered round the large bath to the smaller pool, and slid in.
The small pool is much cooler - it's fed by the surface water of the main pool and itself constantly drains off. It's only about a foot deep, so to immerse yourself you sit on the bottom and stretch your body out, resting your head on the concrete lip. In the shallows the water seems somehow less dense, although this was probably all part of my sensitive hungover imagination.
Relaxing though it was, still my headache was getting worse - I could see it was an idyllic spot - peaceful, simple, sensual. But there are few things a hangover can't spoil.
Out we got, our bodies coated up to the neck in a fine grey shadow - the water so mineral rich it had stained our bodies. Near the small pool stood some outdoor showers to rinse yourself off, cold unlike the ones inside the block. I stood to one side and turned mine on at full blast, took a breath and stepped straight under, the water ice cold as it cascaded down on my head and off my shoulders.
Magically, instantly, my hangover was completely gone - washed away. My head was clear, my stomach at peace, my body invigorated but still relaxed and limber. It was as if the hot baths had bought the poison to the surface to be blasted away by the cold water. A better, more effective hangover cure I have never known.