We set off in late Jan/Feb when Bundaberg bore the brunt of the 2013 Queensland floods. At the time we witnessed the destruction via non-stop media coverage. At the time we realised that it was difficult to get an idea of the scale of the flood damage and we knew that our impending visit en route north would make it much more tangible. Well, having just visited ‘Bundy’, we got an inkling of what it must have been like for the people there. The magnitude of the floods is simply incomprehensible.
We caught up and stayed with friends, Jim and Jen, who did an awesome job of being our personal tour guides – they showed us the flood ravaged areas along with the beautiful historic centre of town, and picture-postcard-perfect seaside suburbs and beaches.
Having spent six years travelling around Australia in their caravan, they’re quite an inspiration and obviously share our enthusiasm for the roaming lifestyle. Needless to say, we picked up various tips for life on the road. Among the tips was an alternative route to the Gemfields where we were headed next. We took their advice and were rewarded with lovely back-country roads and tremendous scenery on the route via Gin Gin, Monto and Springvale, towards Emerald.
As an area rich in mineral resources (like much of Australia), the beautiful landscape is also dotted with fairly intense mining activity. While it’s an inherent aspect of the nation’s wealth, it’s also blindingly obvious that the mining industry is a blot on the landscape, to put it bluntly.
All the same, it felt good to be moving away from the more populated coastal areas and into the vastness that skirts the Queensland Outback.
The night-time temperatures, however, reminded us of more of chilly NZ climes, with the mercury almost reaching freezing point. The duvet sure came in handy, as did hot showers. (I probably shouldn’t mention that we hadn’t as yet used our hot water system, for entirely unfathomable reasons. Rest assured I’m making up for it now!)
Weird, wonderful and bizarre encounters in the Gemfields
With names like Rubyvale, Emerald and Sapphire, there’s little left to the imagination as to what might be hiding under the soil. The so-called Gemfields near Emerald are in fact world-renowned as the biggest and richest sapphire deposit in the southern hemisphere. And while the area has been extensively mined, both commercially and by hand, there are still a few small commercial operators in the area, as well as an abundance of private individuals who own mining claims and spend countless weeks, months and years digging for the highly desirable yet somewhat elusive colourful stones. Many were lured by the prospect of finding “the big one”, and the local gem history has ample evidence of amazing finds, including a 733 carat (that’s about the size of a plum!) super rare black sapphire. It’s known as The Black Star of Queensland and is incidentally for sale, if you’re interested. Bear in mind though, that you need in the vicinity of $100 million to call it your own. More recently, a 220 carat yellow sapphire was found by a couple who’d come here for a two week fossicking holiday. As you’d expect, there are also heaps of stories about individuals that made vast fortunes here, often arriving with little more than a wheelbarrow and a pick.
It’s easy to see why folks get hooked. We’ve met a fair few people who only came up here for a spot of fossicking and basically never left. Mind you, if you think you’ve just finally found a “get rich quick scheme” you’d better reconsider. It pays to bear in mind that in several instances a part-time job is needed to help pay the bills.
Having been into underground mine shafts (not advisable if you’re even remotely claustrophobic, or don’t like being up close and personal with the local microbat population), and having chatted with private mining claim owners, and casual fossickers alike, we soon got an appreciation for what’s involved, and what it takes.
As an aside, we must have had romantic notions of what the Gemfields would look like, because one of the most startling surprises was the hotch-potch look of the many tenements. They typically comprise a 30×30 metre claim site where the mining work is done – up to 20 metres underground or in shallow pits – with an array of innovative hand tools, many of which look like they’ve been adapted from junkyard pieces. When you add the temporary accommodation often comprising old caravans and/or tin sheds (because permanent dwellings attract much higher fees), most plots look extremely unkempt with a look and feel rather reminiscent of a third-world country.
After a bit of digging, excuse the pun, we learned that a number of people have started to move onto mining claims because it is a very cheap form of accommodation. Roughly $1500/year, buys you the right to have temporary accommodation on the plot, provided some mining activity takes place. The latter, so I’m told, is fairly loosely interpreted. As a result, some of the areas around Sapphire look decidedly uninviting and some of them downright unsanitary. More shanty-town than mining back water.
As for the people around here, they’re equally colourful. There’s a rich tapestry of all types – plenty of retirees, part-time fossickers, sea-changers, an extraordinary number of gnarly looking men with long beards, all manner of eccentric individuals, and everything in between; all of them seem to share a treasure hunter gene. It’s the most eclectic mix of people we’ve encountered anywhere by far and with them has been entertaining, insightful and sometimes humbling.
A shovel, a pick and a fossicking license
It’ll come as no surprise that we had to go fossicking for gems ourselves. After all, how often do you get to hang out in an area that is pretty much littered with precious stones not too far below ground. So, having done a crash course in the local geology, digging, washing and gem identification, we got ourselves a license from the Department of Mining, hired some equipment and headed off into the wild blue yonder with greenhorn enthusiasm.
It had bucketed down the night before, so the track to the claim area where we were to dig, further up in the hills, was a slippery mud-fest. Getting there was already an adventure in itself, made possible only by our trusted 4WD truckie who kept chugging along.
We eventually got ourselves set up. This basically means finding a hole that somebody had already dug where the geology looked promising, and continue digging, then sieving, washing and inspecting likely contenders to see if they’re gem quality sapphires, zircons or any of the other desirable sparklies.
The first thing we discovered was the noticeable chasm between theory and practice. In theory we could easily tell the appearance of the different soil layers, and knew what the ‘sapphire bearing wash’ looked like. In practice, on the other hand, it all just looked like dirt with lots of stones throughout. Prospecting, we decided, is a bit like buying a lotto ticket, albeit with a serious physical component.
Do you recall the last time you used a pick and a shovel?
Well, memories came rushing back to us, as did the rugged realisation that we’re not in our 30s any more. I for one was most pleased that the bloke manned the manly tools. He picked and shovelled; I sieved, washed and sorted and ended up with a bunch of stones that looked like … well, really clean stones.
Dare I say it, the whole process looked infinitely more exciting and rewarding in the instructional video we watched where they kept finding sapphires in every wash! We, on the other hand, were digging up, sieving and washing gravel which, as you’d expect, wasn’t terribly satisfying – unless of course you have an unfulfilled passion for washed gravel. Before too long, our aching bodies reminded us that we preferred a Gin & Tonic to the prospect of digging up yet another bucket of ‘wash’.
It goes without saying that we returned without any precious sparkly souvenirs – only an awareness that our genetic makeup clearly doesn’t include that treasure hunting gene.
Concrete surprise in Sapphire
In one of the Sapphire backstreets (don’t be fooled, there really isn’t any other sort) we came across a dilapidated shack that had its floor literally covered in empty red beer cans … to a depth of about half a metre – visible through the open front door and broken windows.
Right next door was an abandoned property that featured a bizarre work of art in its front yard, created by its previous owner who was evidently a dab hand with concrete. According to a neighbour, the owner had been an old Yugoslav man who was consumed by war atrocities and other social injustices as evidenced by some of the messages embossed on the various elements of his work. The piece, however, didn’t exactly strike the right chord with locals, and I dare say it was probably not on account of the dodgy spelling. All the same, it reached a level of notoriety so I’m told.
He passed away a couple of years ago and bequeathed his property to the local Council and the RSL, who subsequently sold it.
Now we get to the really sad part of the story: the new owner wants nothing to do with the “concrete monstrosity”. Quite unbelievably, this substantial and highly unique work of art is now being demolished. This weekend!
The good, the bat and the ugly