The sapphire gem fields of Queensland is the largest area in the Southern Hemisphere where you can grab a pick and a shovel and go out and fossick on your own. There are several large tracts of land that are set aside as designated fossicking areas. These are areas where anyone can come and fossick, but there are a few restrictions. You will need a license, and you are only allowed to use hand tools. Luckily, most of the sapphires in this area are pretty close to the surface, so it doesn’t take much digging to find a sapphire.
It isn’t expensive to grab a license, only just over $7 for an individual for a month, or just over $10 for a family for a month. You can even buy longer time frames as well if you are keen, and camping is allowed. If you don’t have your own gear, you can rent some from Little House of Gems for $30 per day. But if you are new to fossicking then I recommend a tag along tour, where you go out with a local expert who will teach you all you need to know about fossicking.
I went out with Mick from Little House of Gems, and without his guidance I’m certain I would have come home sapphire-less. The full day tour costs $90 for up to two adults, and $10 for children. After your full day tour, if you have caught fossicking fever, then just simply the rent the equipment the next day and head back out on your own.
Specking is the practice of searching for sapphires that are just simply lying there on top of the ground. Yes, there is no digging, no sweat, and no dirt involved, but it isn’t that easy. You need to know what you are looking for. Most people who go specking will walk through areas where the ground has recently been turned up – dry stream beds are a great place. The best time to go specking as well is after a rain – which isn’t all that often in the gem fields. When rough sapphires are wet, they have a particular shine and sheen to them. If you know what you are looking for, this sheen really sets the sapphire apart. When they are dry though, its almost impossible to pick a sapphire.
Buckets of wash
The easiest way to try your hand at finding a gem is by buying a bucket of wash. There are dozens of places in town where you can buy a “bucket of wash” for anywhere from $8 to $20. The buckets consist of unwashed and unprocessed gravel which comes from a commercial operation. Basically it is fossicking but without the digging.
And it certainly is possibly to find a real treasure in one of these buckets. In our last post we introduced John who found a yellow sapphire work $10,000.00 in an $8 bucket of wash!
Staking a Claim
If your really keen, you can even stake a claim. You will be required to work your claim for a certain amount of months each year, but you will be allowed to use mechanical equipment, greatly increasing the amount of dirt you can shift through.
Ian, a grey nomad from Sydney, comes out to show us his mining rig. What looks like a random collection of rusted old metal, on top of an even older and more rusted truck, turns out to be a finely tuned piece of machinery, vital for commercial mining. The machine is positioned over the mine shaft (hence the reason it is on wheels, so it can be easily moved), and buckets of dirt get pulled out of the shaft and dumped into the thresher. This slowly moves the dirt into the hopper which spins around, removing all the larger chunks of rock. Ian explains, it is unlikely to find a sapphire that big, but we always check just in case.
Sand and finer dirt is filtered out as well, and eventually all of the target rocks falls into a special catchment area. Water is pumped up and down, causing the rocks to bounce up and down rapidly. Sapphires are much heavier than other rocks, and quickly sink to the bottom while the lighter rocks get bounced right out and to the ground. At the end of the day, the miners clean out the catchment area, and there at the bottom, will hopefully be some sapphires.
We followed local miner, jewellery maker and hotel owner Peter Brown down the dusty outback roads to his claim, where his two sons were underground digging. As the day wound down we watched the last bucket make its way up the ladder of the giant washing machine, and pour in its contents. A plume of dust exploded into the air. I wonder if somewhere in that bucket of dirt, dust and gravel are precious sapphires waiting to be discovered after millions of years underground.
The noisy machine bounced, jiggled and swirled its contents until the entire bucket had been processed. Peter then shut down the machine and invited us up to have a look. The catchment area was full of rocks. On top were the lighter stones which have no value, underneath them would be a layer of heavier iron stone, and then at the bottom the heaviest of all – the sapphires and zircons would hopefully be patiently waiting.
Peter scraped off the top layers, using a keen eye to watch for any flashes and shines. “Here’s one…. here’s one…. and here’s another one.” Sapphires of all sizes, mostly blue ones today were hiding underneath all the other rocks. After carefully rummaging through all the stones, Peter left with a handful of good quality sapphires. Peter will save some of the best ones for himself, where he creates beautiful and imaginative jewellery to sell in his shop. Some of the others will be sold to Thailand, one of the biggest buyers of uncut stones in the gem fields.