FOSSICKING IN AUSTRALIA'S OUTBACK...Into the Gem Fields of Sapphire
Here's a gem (so to speak) of a little adventure from my friend James Postell, taken from his travel guidebook Daytrips Eastern Australia, which I had the pleasure of editing and producing. This one needs no map, and is easy to take from a base in or near Emerald in Queensland's Outback. Jim is actually an American from Pennsylvania who moved to Oz (that's Australia to you, mates) several years ago and now lives with his wife near Brisbane. He has the rare gift of seeing a foreign land through American eyes, and for this book has explored the eastern part of the country, selecting 60 great destinations to describe.
What's Fossicking, You Ask? Read On.
Beware — this trip has addicting features — and you may not come back from the gem fields until you find the big one. But before we go there you will need the description of what you will be doing for the next 2-3 days. To fossick, as defined in The Australian Macquarie Dictionary, is "to search unsystematically or in a small way for mineral deposits, usually over ground previously worked by others." But you still need to get a permit to hunt around the area, and it is best not to wander into unknown territory. Claim jumpers are known to get shot at from time to time — seriously.
The chances are that you will be lucky enough to find a few memorable stones to have cut. In 1993 a couple of novices found a sapphire worth AU$300,000. Now do you have the fever? Also found was a 202 ct. Stonebridge part-colored sapphire, and the famous Heads of Presidents that were cut into busts of Lincoln, Washington, Eisenhower, and Jefferson. They now rest in the Smithsonian Institution. To top it off, this area has the largest producing commercial fields of sapphire in the Southern Hemisphere.
It is backbreaking work, and you will probably walk away with blisters to prove it. It's also great fun to get out in the middle of nowhere and scratch the dry riverbeds looking for that gleaming stone. There are also rubies and a six-sided crystal called a Tomahawk Tiger to be found. You need not be fit to pan for jewels, though. There are plenty of parks that provide the wash. You just have to stand and sift the materials. But, rumor has it that the dirt is screened first and any big valuable stones are removed.
The area around Sapphire, Rubyvale, and Anakie will appear as true frontier towns. You will see piles of rubble stacked in great mounds along the road, abandoned equipment rusting next to huge mining holes, and horses calmly strutting in the middle of the street with not a care in the world. It is a barren part of the planet with few shade trees, and even fewer gardens. But it has an appeal that is undeniable.
By Car, it is only about 40 miles from Emerald, just off the Capricorn Highway. Turn right at the crossroads of Capricorn Highway and Anakie Road that marks the way to Sapphire and Rubyvale. It's only a 10-minute trip to Sapphire and about 15 minutes to Rubyvale.
By Train, take the train to Emerald or Longreach and then transfer to a coach line.
By Plane, contact Qantas, T: 13-13-13 for schedules and prices. Try Planet Aviation, T: (07) 4922-7255, to compare pricing. The local airport can be contacted on T: (07) 4982-1133. It has been announced recently that Virgin Blue, T: 13-67-89, will be providing service to selected town in the Outback.
There are heaps of tour organizations that will pick you up from your accommodation or at the Big Sapphire & Gemfields Information Centre at Anakie Road and the Capricorn Highway, T: (07) 4985-4525. A listing of the major tour groups is in the free magazine called Queensland's Central Highlands & Sapphire Gemfields, and a few include: Rubyvale Gem Gallery, T: (07) 4985-4388; Miner's Heritage Walk-In Mine, T: (07) 4985-4571; Pat's Gems, T: (07) 4985-4544; and Fascination Gems & Crystals, T: (07) 4985-4675. The best option is the combined B&B and tour offered by Sapphire Tours & Fossickers Rest Accommodation, T: (07) 4981-0076. Other operators include Central Queensland Day Tours, T: (07) 4982-1399.
The first thing you need to know is if you see a sign that says "KEEP OUT," heed the warning. If you want to go out on your own (I would not recommend it), you need a license, tools, and maps. Sorry, no dynamite. Fees start at AU$5.10 for 1 month (family is AU$7.20/month) and AU$30.90 for a year. If you take one of the tours, the license, tools, and insider tips are included. Another option is to buy a sack of gem-bearing soil and sift a selected bag for AU$7, or buy a gem for half-price at one of the many outlets in the area.
It is a very hot, dry and forbidding territory, so water and sun protection is extremely important. Eye protection is also a good idea, and do not dig underground unless you are with a licensed tour operator.
For an educating read before you start in the area try: The Queensland Fossicking Guide by the Queensland Government (AU$12), The Central Queensland Sapphire Experience (AU$6), and the free Gemsfields Gazette. All are found in the stores, tour centres or the Information Centre.
In the middle weekend of June the Iron Man Wheelbarrow Derby is held in the area. It's a 50-person, 11-mile race pushing a wheelbarrow filled with a pick, a shovel, and a "Billy boulder" weighing 22 pounds. In the second week of August, the Gemfest— Festival of Gems celebrates the sapphire industry. Held in Anakie, it is the largest display of gems in Australia; you can have a glimpse of it by clicking here.
FOOD AND DRINK:
The B&Bs supply a great breakfast spread to prepare you for the trek into the bush, and some home-baked goodies are usually included in the package. Otherwise, there's not a whole lot to choose from, but here are a few recommended spots to pull up a chair. Rubyvale Hotel ($-$$) gets the best ratings. In addition to pub-style counter meals, they serve tea in their gardens, and the stone building is cool. Pub meals can also be found at the Anakie Hotel Motel ($-$$). Other cafés, takeaways, and grocery supplies can be located at Andrea's ($-$$) in Sapphire, the Big Sapphire Information Centre ($) on the Capricorn Highway, the Blue Gem Van Park ($) in Sapphire, Muggachinnos Internet Café Lounge ($-$$) in Sapphire, Rubyvale Gem Gallery ($-$$), Rubyvale News and Main Street Café ($), the Sapphire Trading Post ($), and the Thai and Chinese Take Away ($-$$) in Sapphire.
The Fossicker's Rest, T: (07) 4981-0076, (04) 0905-0742, or (07) 4985-4566, is a great place to stay. This B&B also runs a fissicking tour. The choices include a huge cabin that will sleep a small army of 8, or a more intimate cabin for 2. The prices range from AU$75-$85 per double and $15 for each person over. The place is a fantastic value with lots of room in a custom-built cabin with features like stained-glass windows, polished timber floors, and a wide porch to sit and watch the world go by. The next-best option is the Rubyvale Hotel & Cabins, T: (07) 4985-4154, for AU$32-67.
*SAPPHIRE SAFARI TOURS, P.O. Box 345, Sapphire, QLD 4702, T: (07) 4981-0076, (04) 0905-0742, (07) 4985-4566. Three-hour Sight Seeing Tour (9:15 pickup) AU$38 adult, AU$19 child. Half-day Digging Tour (1-5) AU$58 adult, AU$54 child, with all food and equipment. Full-day Digging Tour (9:15-4:30) AU$96 adult, AU$54 child. All but the sightseeing tour are not handicap accessible.
Since most people are not used to the heat and pick & shovel work, I'll recommend a half-day tour to give you a taste of fossicking without too much stress. Hopping aboard the Range Rover, the ride will show you the black-barked trees and struggling shrubs eking out an existence. It's amazing that anything grows in the red dirt and tan gravel soil. About half of the trip will be on sealed tar roads, but then the fun begins. The road abruptly ends and you will be on a rumble-strip, one-lane, dirt road. Then it gets even starker. The trees crowd out the path, and you will bounce off the seat as you ford dry creek beds. The driver will be giving you the history of the area and answers questions as you creep along the trail. When you reach Sapphire Safari's claim, everyone (usually 4-6 persons) pile out into the gully full of hidden treasures.
The pans, sieves, picks, shovels, water drums, and marked areas are awaiting you as instructions on how to properly dig are recited. The trick is to pick a spot near the creek bed, clear away 4-6 inches of the topsoil, then pick away at the "Billy boulders." These are the rocks about 8 inches in diameter that are mixed with fist-sized or smaller rubble. This is where the gems are deposited. "Billy boulders" refer to the rocks used to create a campfire to boil water for your Billy tea. When you create enough of a pile, you throw shovel loads onto the screens that are set up in strategic areas. As the bucket underneath the screen fills up, it's over to the sieving area. After the dust is sorted out, you place the sieve into a dunking contraption and wash your dirt. Then dump the remaining contents onto an overturned barrel and start the hand search. If the sun is up, the gems should pop right out at you. The guide usually seeds each pan with one sapphire (that you get to keep) to show you what to look for. A sapphire is the second-hardest natural substance, comes in blue, green, gray, yellow, gold, pale pink, orange, violet, brown, and even clear.
It's wise to fossick in a shaded area, but the guide will actually point out the best spots to work where they have mining rights. When you do find your rubies or sapphires, slip them into the small bag provided and the leader will sift through your find and tell you what is a real "cutter," and what is just quartz. Halfway through the tour, it's Billy teatime with homemade pasta, sandwiches, and sweets. You will sit around the campfire and share the excitement of this adventure with your fossicking comrades.
At the end of the day you will drive back to town, and if you're lucky enough to have found some good gems, there are several places to get them cut. One of the preferred places is Pat's Gems, T: (07) 4985-4544 in Rybyvale — right next to the Fossicker's Rest B&B. They charge about AU$25 to cut each gem and can either mail them to you or you can pick them up in a day or two.
On the second day you can trudge back into the fields or check out some of the sights in the three towns. Here are a few to choose from:
- Pat's Gems in Rubyvale has a section to buy a bucket of wash and try your hand at the gems under shaded areas.
- Bobby Dazzler Fossicking Park, T: (07) 4985-4170, in Rubyvale has an underground mine to tour — just look for the giant statue of a miner kneeling and holding a large rock.
- The Rubyvale Gem Gallery, T: (07) 4985-4388, has some of the best quality gems in the area, and if you don't mind the price, they are precious.
- Miner's Heritage, T: (07) 4985-4444, in Rubyvale boasts the largest underground sapphire mine in Australia.
- Fascination Gem Fossicking, T: (07) 4985-4675, in Sapphire offers self-drive day tours and will rent you all the equipment you need.
Copyright © 2004 James Postell.
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