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.

Just Posted

Men posing as repo men attempt to steal vehicle in Red Deer County

Two men attempted to steal a utility vehicle from a Red Deer… Continue reading

Red Deerian spreads kindness with one card at a time

One Red Deerian wants to combat bullying by spreading kindness in the… Continue reading

Bowden baby in need of surgery

“Help for Alexis” Go Fund Me account

PHOTO: First Rider bus safety in Red Deer

Central Alberta students learned bus safety in the Notre Dame High School… Continue reading

WATCH: Annual Family Picnic at Central Spray and Play

Blue Grass Sod Farms Ltd. held the Annual Family Picnic at the… Continue reading

Woman has finger ripped off at West Edmonton Mall waterslide

SASKATOON — A Saskatchewan woman says she lost a finger after her… Continue reading

Uncertainty looms over Canada’s cannabis tourism, but ambitions are high

TORONTO — Longtime marijuana advocate Neev Tapiero is ready for the cannabis-driven… Continue reading

Feds mulling safeguards to prevent ‘surge’ of cheap steel imports into Canada

OTTAWA — The federal government extended an olive branch of sorts to… Continue reading

Ontario govt caps off summer session by passing bill to cut Toronto council size

TORONTO — The Ontario government passed a controversial bill to slash the… Continue reading

Updated:Italian bridge collapse sends cars plunging, killing 26

MILAN — A 51-year-old highway bridge in the Italian port city of… Continue reading

Saudi Arabia spat affecting Canadians embarking on hajj, community members say

TORONTO — Members of Canada’s Muslim community say recent tensions between Ottawa… Continue reading

Tug carrying up to 22,000 litres of fuel capsizes in Fraser River off Vancouver

VANCOUVER — The smell of diesel filled the air as crews worked… Continue reading

Nebraska executes first inmate using fentanyl

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska carried out its first execution in more than… Continue reading

Most Read


Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month