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Searching for gemstones in the Australian Outback

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Guest post by Michaela from Travel Intense

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On my last trip to Australia I suddenly found myself in the famed, dry outback, with a pick-axe and shovel, digging holes in the ground in the unrelenting hot sun. Surrounded by towns with names like Emerald, Rubyvale, and Sapphire, guess what I was doing… searching for gemstones of course!

How did I get into this?

My companion and I got outfitted for this rather arduous work of digging dirt, sifting it, and searching for precious stones (something called “fossicking”) in a little middle-of-nowhere town called Anakie. To be honest, we stumbled on this purely by accident. After we had just finished an epic 4×4 adventure on Fraser Island, we had been driving along the wonderful green lush east coast of Queensland and decided to get off the beaten path and see what we could discover. So, at the town of Rockhampton, we made a left turn onto the Capricorn Highway towards Australia’s “Red Center”.

When the landscape turned from lush and fertile to dry and dusty, and all we saw were huge trucks and freight trains, we were not sure we had made the right decision. After a couple of hours driving, we hit Anakie and started to see loads of signs and shops indicating that this region was a gemstone hotspot. So we decided to take break, and went into the tourism office to learn more.

A nice woman behind the counter started telling us about the gemstone history of this area. She said that the famous and nearby Willows gemfields have produced some of the most famous sapphires ever found, like the 332 carat (1 carat = 1/5 gram) rough stone “Golden Willow”. She went on to explain that it’s common for the few tourists passing through this area to buy a bucket of dirt from nearby gemfields from her to search for hidden treasures.

While my companion and I were discussing if we should do the boring and touristy “bucket-fossicking”, she grabbed a pick, a shovel, and two screens from a shelf, put them in front of us and said “You guys are young, have plenty of time, and nothing to lose. So go out there and try your luck!”

One side glimpse to my companion, and we were in. Five minutes later we left the place with a pick, a shovel, two screens, a little container for collecting possible treasures, a fossicking license, a camping permit, and a hand-drawn map. The map showed the nearby fossicking area of Glen Alva, one of five fossicking areas in the Gemfield district that have been set aside for recreational and tourist fossicking. Generally, gemstones can be found fairly deep in the ground, however, in some of the areas, like Glen Alva, they are close to the surface.

Staking our claim

It was late afternoon when we arrived in the area that was covered with thin, dry bush land. We had only a little bit of sunlight left, which we used to search for a claim that would make us rich the next day and set up camp. We chose a spot where others had already done quite a bit of excavating, with the idea that something must had been found there, otherwise they would have stopped earlier. However, we also were running the risk that whatever was there had already been removed.

Edelsteine Australien / Gemstones Australia

We were told by the women in the tourist office that there are some retirees out here that spend up to half a year digging (and the other half drinking their hard earned fortune), but we didn’t see any other person in the area. This place was definitely not touristy! After having a simple dinner in front of a roaring fire, we went to sleep and dreamed of our upcoming riches that we might find with the coming day.

The highs and lows of a gemstone digger

Early the next morning, we started to dig. We shoveled the dirt we collected into the two sieves that we had stacked on top of each other, as they were different sizes (one coarse, one fine). Then it was all about picking, shoveling and sifting; picking, shoveling and sifting; …

Edelsteine Australien / Gemstones Australia

After almost half an hour of picking through dry dirt, I suddenly saw a sparkle. Almost invisible, but it was there! I put the little, almost black, dirty stone in some water and voila: I had found my first dark blue sapphire! This discovery fueled our eagerness, and we kept on working through the whole day with only a short lunch break. We seemed to have picked a lucky claim, as we found a few more small blue, green, and black star sapphires, and a zircon. (Of course we didn’t know the exact names at this time—for us, they were just stones that looked a little more “special” than other stones.)

When the blazing hot sun finally dipped low in the horizon, we gave our blistered hands a rest. Though tempted to add another day, the heat was too much for us, as the thin tree cover offered no proper shade. Also our backs were aching, and as we were so lucky on our first day, we didn’t want to tempt fate and spend a second day digging and finding nothing. So we washed of the day’s dust (which took a couple of showers), and had a good night’s rest.

Edelsteine Australien / Gemstones Australia

Rocks to gems

The next morning we returned our gear with a big smile, thanked the woman in the tourist office for having suggested we “give it a go”, and went to a local gem cutter that was specialized in small stones. He weighed our treasures (a total of 7.23 ct) and chose two blue sapphirs, two black star sapphires, and a zircon to cut. They were the only ones big enough and of high enough quality to be worth processing. And while he kindly promised us to mail the refined gems to a post office that we knew we would pass later on our journey, it was hard to leave our hard earned treasures behind.

But no less emotional was the amazing reunion with our stones a few weeks later: the cut had brought out the colors, and the zircon looked like a small diamond. OK, the sapphires have tiny quality flaws inside them, and the blue color is best seen when held in front of a light, so I don’t think we could sell from for a good price. But hey, that’s not what this was about. I now have gemstones with a history! And when I get some jewelry made with them, I will not only be carrying around something beautiful, but also a great memory.

Edelsteine Australien / Gemstones Australia

Go “specking” if you don’t like to get dirty

For those who aren’t keen on digging and sifting through dirt, you can also just wander through certain parts of this region looking for gemstones that are on the surface, an activity called “specking”—very popular with the locals here when they go shopping or visiting their neighbors. This is especially successful after heavy rains, when the water washes out rough stones and takes the dirt of to let them sparkle in the sunshine. The most promising areas are along little creeks and on the edge of the tops of gullies that drain off the central wash-capped ridge. This method proved can be very successful—only a year ago a huge stone was found this way.

If I got you infected with the gem fever now as well, I highly recommend going fossicking yourself next time you find yourself in Queensland. For For a full list of possible fossicking places, including a description, how to get there, maps, facilities, and fossicking notes, check out the official site of the Central Queensland gemfields.

Have you ever done a gemstone or gold hunt, and were you lucky? Let me know about it in the comments section!

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Michaela Urban is the co-founder of the English-language eco-travel and outdoor adventures blog Travel Intense. In addition, she is working as a professional travel photographer and publishes in newspapers and magazines all over the USA. Based out of her home country Germany, she is traveling all over the world to explore the most exciting and natural places on Earth. Travel Intense’s goal is to make people aware of the unspoiled beauty of our planet, and how to enjoy it best in a sustainable way. Constantly on the prowl for finding great eco-lodges and unique outdoor adventures, she has recently been to the island paradise of Panama, sailing the Tobago Cays and hiking the lush green, volcanic interior of Dominica.

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2 comments on “Searching for gemstones in the Australian Outback

  1. michaelaurban on

    To be honest, I believe it would not have been disappointing at all if I hadn’t found any gemstones. I didn’t expect anything, and I think that’s how you have to approach this adventure. The feel of the place and the work you are doing itself are so rewarding and leave great memories, that the sapphires where actually just a bonus on top of a great day.

    Reply