When we arrived in outback Queensland we couldn’t wait to go sapphire fossicking. But, as we discovered, finding a jewellery worthy stone is trickier than just turning up in the township of Sapphire! .
It had always been Nat’s intention to pay for our lap of Australia by finding precious gems. Our first attempt to make this happen didn’t go so well. Our fossicking in the Mount Surprise gem fields was, not surprisingly, less than successful. We found a couple of pieces of topaz and a slither or two of smoky quartz. Nat’s hoped for discovery of a trip-financing aquamarine managed to allude us.
Since Mount Surprise, there had been less talk of finding our fortune. I thought Nat had moved on from the idea but as we drove towards Sapphire and Rubyvale the gleam in her eye returned. And to be fair, what jewellery loving person wouldn’t get excited by towns with such glittering names.
Finally, her excitement bubbled to the surface.
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Sapphire fossicking or wearing
‘You know, I’ve been thinking. We’re going to be home soon. Let’s try to find a nice souvenir here instead of worrying too much about fossicking.’
Uh oh. This sounded expensive. If you’re travelling through gem country and your wife mentions ‘souvenirs’, you know she isn’t thinking tea towels or stubby holders.
‘What happened to making money from fossicking and paying for our trip?’
I tried not to sound too panicked. Nat doesn’t wear a lot of jewellery. Perhaps I was jumping to conclusions.
‘I’d love a sapphire necklace or ring from Sapphire. How cool would that be?’
I started to wish we had bypassed Sapphire and instead gone to the township of Banana. There, the name-sake souvenirs would be cheaper, albeit not as sparkly. It was a relief the pressure to find our fortune had lifted as we were dealing with some other challenges.
With two weeks of our trip to go, homesickness had struck and managing the kids was becoming hard work. So, getting them excited about fossicking after Mount Surprise would be tricky.
Now, with our fossicking priorities changed, we looked at how to find the gems Nat hoped to be wearing.
Sapphire fossicking – the hard way
Like we did in Mount Surprise, we could hire all the gear and head to the prospecting grounds. There we could spend hours getting covered in mud while looking for sapphires and rubies.
At the end of the day we’d sit around the camp fire with other prospectors and join in the tales of toil and success. While this might be rewarding, Mount Surprise style disappointment was a strong possibility.
Another option was to fossick without getting your hands dirty. The local gem shop sold bags of wash. This is the gravel you dig out of a hole that could contain gems. You strain and sieve the wash to remove the rubble, then pick through the fines for valuables.
This was an appealing option on a few fronts. We didn’t have to figure out where to dig. Better yet, the shop had already gone to the trouble of digging the hole and bagging up the gravel. Adding to the authenticity, the bags of wash come with no guarantee of success – just like the real gem fields.
We decided that this was the way to go. Yes, it was a bit of a cop out. But with the kids on a labour strike and Nat’s goals changing it was the best compromise.
Before committing, one other option presented itself. On our first morning in Sapphire, the local markets were on right across the road from our caravan park.
We walked past stall after stall selling jewellery made from local gems. Nat stopped at every one and picked out her favourite piece. The chance of Sapphire turning from a fossicking stop to a shopping spree grew by the minute.
Forgo the physical labour…, support the local community…, guaranteed happiness…. If you could get over never looking a genuine fossicker in the eye again, the market wasn’t a bad way to go. Lacking endeavour and effort perhaps, but still a decent option.
We completed a circuit of the stalls. Nat grappled with the temptation of taking the easy way out and just buying some jewellery. I asked which piece it was going to be – the blue sapphire necklace or the sterling silver ruby ring.
‘No, I can’t do it. I want to actually find something. Let’s get out of here before I change my mind’.
A discovery of sorts
And wouldn’t you know it, on the way out we did find something. One of our kids, Caitlin, has always possessed a knack for finding lost things. This time she spotted a couple of tiny gems lying on the ground. I thought if fossicking in Sapphire was going to be this easy, we might be in with a chance.
Unfortunately, we soon realised they had fallen from a nearby table. To our surprise, when we handed them in, the stallholder let Caitlin keep them. It seemed like a very generous thing to do and made me wonder again – how easy is it to find these things?
I asked Nat if this counted as a find but it didn’t. That afternoon we opted for the compromise strategy.
Finding gems – it’s a wash!
We went to Pat’s Gems Tourist Fossicking Park and bought a bag of wash. After cleaning our wash, we dumped it on a piece of hessian and started to examine it.
With both kids hovering over the same pile of wash, we soon realised sharing wasn’t going to work. Caitlin has the eyesight of an eagle. If a field mouse was hiding under a clump of grass she’d spot it from three kilometres away. Liam would struggle to find a golf ball in a bowl of porridge.
Divide and conquer
Caitlin swooped in, and started plucking out pieces or garnet and parti sapphires. Liam, desperate to keep up, grabbed any bit of rock he could get his fingers on and hoped it was something desirable. Unfortunately, he grabbed nothing more interesting than a chunk of quartz.
In his defence, for him, finding something to make into a ring wasn’t a high priority. But with his older sister grabbing everything of interest we invoked the mercy rule. Soon, a second bag of wash was set up to work on.
In the end we found half a dozen colourful, if not valuable, parti sapphires. Even Liam, when left to search in his own methodical way found a couple of little gems. When we took them to the counter they confirmed some could be made into jewellery.
We placed orders for rings and necklaces. I looked across at Nat as she made arrangements to have them posted home. The grin on her face shone more brightly than a polished zircon.
Our fossicking mission had been a success. Sure, we hadn’t chosen the spot or even bothered to dig a hole. And the plan to fund our trip with precious gems hadn’t quite worked out either.
But for now, those failures were forgotten – put to one side like a worthless pile wash.
Nat had her sapphires from Sapphire and, as far as our travel stories would go, that’s what anyone who would listen was going to hear about.
Includes the townships of Rubyvale, Sapphire, Anakie & Willow Gemfields.
The area covers almost 900 square kilometres
A fossicking licence is required and is inexpensive and can be purchased online.
Tag along tours, bags of wash or diy maps are available.
Plenty of 4WDing, geo-caching and camping in the area.
We stayed in the heart of the Gemfields at Sapphire Caravan Park. The kids loved the park with Rainbow Lorikeets coming in each morning to be fed and an old go-cart was put to great use around and around the campsite. After a hard day of fossicking relax in the big BBQ Hut by the pool.
Emerald hosts the Central Highlands Easter Sunflower Festival.
Artist Cameron Cross select Emerald as one of 7 sites around the world to feature one of his giant Sunflower murals on a giant easel.
The Big Easel was unveiled in 1999.
The easel stands 25m tall and weighs 17,000 kilograms.