Sapphire safari

Gordon and Edna Wilson have been fossicking for sapphires in central Queensland for years.

Our fossicking guide demonstrates the proper way to wield a pick and showed which layer of earth to search for sapphires. Keith said there wasn’t much else to do in Rubyvale

Gordon and Edna Wilson have been fossicking for sapphires in central Queensland for years.

They have spent many vacation breaks searching for the colourful gems and have discovered that even though the sapphire fields near Rubyvale aren’t your typical Australian tourist destination, they have their own unique kind of appeal.

“We’re not quitting until we find the big one,” said Edna, as she sat outside their mining tent. “We’re going to need it to pay for petrol now that we’re retired.”

The gemfields area of central Queensland encompasses more than 9,000 square km and supplies about 60 per cent of the world’s sapphires. The area is not only the world’s largest and most productive sapphire field; it also contains rich deposits of other gems including rubies, zircons, jasper and diamonds. Some say there’s even gold in them thar’ fields.

Gem and gold fields have a way of attracting unusual people — especially when a fossicking licence can be purchased for under $10. From the comfort of their tent, the Wilsons have observed a lot of interesting characters trying to strike it rich and find the big one. If you stop for a visit, they can spin a pretty good yarn.

“You should have seen the woman who came by here last week,” said Gordon. “She was dressed to the nines. You’d think she was going to a ball — not digging in the dirt.”

Several weeks earlier, the couple said they helped a German fellow in a rented Winnebago avoid almost certain disaster.

“He was going to drive that thing right out here into the mining area,” explained Gordon. “If we hadn’t run out to tell him that it wasn’t safe, there’d be a big old Winnebago stuck right here.”

The Wilsons are just a few of the interesting folk we met on a recent sapphire safari in Australia. As novice fossickers, we didn’t know how to go about finding a sapphire so we joined a tour group that supplied all of the equipment and took us out to a mining area not far from where the Wilsons were camped. It was here that we were trained in the fine art of surface mining.

Our guide Keith explained that the most important fossicking step is to identify the layer of earth that is most likely to contain gemstones. Below the topsoil and the subsoil is a friable layer of earth that contains iron stones, small pebbles and medium-sized rocks. This layer is known to fossickers as the “wash,” because it is the remnant of an ancient creek or riverbed. It is in the wash that sapphires and other gemstones are found.

The first step is to dig a hole with shovels and picks and to collect the wash layer in a large bucket. This takes quite a bit of effort and is not the kind of work that should be attempted in evening attire.

Once the wash is separated, it is poured into a large rotating sieve to remove dust and larger stones. The filtered wash layer is then poured into another sieve called a Willoughby and repeatedly dipped in a water bath. The sieve is then flipped upside down onto a hessian bag and the washed stone is carefully examined.

Gemstones stand out when they are wet and look like shiny bits of glass.

For added motivation, Keith took out several large sapphires he had collected in the same area we were mining. “This one is my retirement fund,” he said as he held a large uncut yellow sapphire up to the light. “I figure it’s worth at least $50,000. Yellow and pink sapphires are actually worth more than blue ones.”

That was all the motivation our teenage boys needed. Before long, they had an assembly line going. The older children did the digging and sieving and the younger children were in charge of looking for sapphires amongst the wet stones. The adults filled in wherever they were required.

When the kids found their first sapphire, there was no doubt that gem fever had hit.

Unfortunately, it gets very hot in the central Queensland outback and by early afternoon the younger children were tiring. After about three hours of steady work, the kids had collected about 14 gemstones — four of which were of high enough quality to be cut. Our gems were all under one caret in size, so as we passed the Wilsons’ tent on our way back to the car we let them know that the big one was still out there somewhere.

If you go:

• The gemfields area of central Queensland encompasses the towns of Anakie, Sapphire, Rubyvale and Willows. We found that Rubyvale made a good home base and stayed at Bedford Gardens Caravan Park. Rates start at $50 per night for a cabin. For more information, visit www.bedfordgardens.com.au

• It’s a good idea to arrange a fossicking tour if you are unfamiliar with the process of surface mining. We arranged our self-drive tour with Keith at Fascination Gem Fossicking by phoning 4985-4675 while in Rubyvale. It will cost about $40 per person for a fossicking tour, including all training and equipment and use of their mining licence. Group and family rates can be negotiated.

• While in Rubyvale, be sure to visit the Miner’s Heritage Museum, where you can take a tour of Australia’s largest underground walk-in sapphire mine. There is also an onsite fossicking park and a store with a wide array of sapphire jewelry. At the store, they can examine any gems you find, arrange to have them cut for about $30 per stone and mail them back to your home. The museum and store are open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

• If you want to spend longer than a day fossicking, consider getting a one-month fossicking licence at $8.20 per couple or $5.80 per individual. Equipment can be rented in Rubyvale for a small charge. All fossicking areas set aside by DNR Mines for visitors are easily accessed in conventional vehicles.

• If you are less adventurous, you can try your luck with a bucket of wash from a fossicking park for about $7. There are several fossicking parks in Rubyvale and the surrounding area and they provide all the equipment you will need.

Sapphire Gem Quiz

1) What colour are sapphires?

2) What do you call a red sapphire?

3) Which famous gem was once used as a doorstop?

4) What is a star sapphire?

Answers: 1. blue, yellow, pink, purple, orange, brown, black, green or colourless. 2. Red sapphires are called rubies. Sapphires and rubies are different shades of the same mineral — corundum. 3. The Black Star Sapphire of Queensland was used as a doorstop by someone in the Rubyvale area. Its original uncut weight was 1,156 carats and its estimated value in 2002 was $100 million. 4. Star sapphires contain intersecting needle-like inclusions that cause the appearance of a six-rayed star-shaped pattern when viewed with an overhead light source.

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, T4R 1M9.

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