The galahs chitter away in their high pitched voices and in the distance the cockatoos draw their screeches out as long as they can. The distinctive crimson rosella chit chat has died away as the sun has shifted into its peach sheets. A pup yips and the other two or three dogs in Black Springs pipe up in reply. Then go silent. The faintest chorus of frogs has started up, so faint I have to strain to make sure of what I am hearing. We are in the Black Springs camping area which is propped between the road to Oberon (24km away) and the state forest. There are a few others here as well given it is Easter. More than a few in fact, though fortunately unseen – there are quite a few hundred scouts (some say as many as 1000) here on some sort of regional activity. We drove past their campsite – a sea of tents so the large number is plausible. They have been invisible today but we saw quite a few dishevelled, dusty, strung out kids on the forest roads yesterday.
We came out to the back of Oberon to revisit the fossicking I tried on occasions as a kid in NZ. There we would scratch around in creeks on or near the old gold fields and be able to glean a fleck or two if we were lucky. On other occasions we would pan in the Shag River with one of Mum’s enamel pie dishes – it had a rim which in theory might catch something. It never did but lighting a fire and cooking a can of beans was part of the allure of that sort of activity. The most gold I ever saw as in an old horizontal mine shaft when I was poking around in there with Uncle Wayne. We unearthed a rich seam at the end of the shaft, he quickly swore me to secrecy and hustled me out. I’m sure he went back there later. I never did. That shaft has now vanished into the vast open pit which is now the Macraes Flat goldmine, which has yielded more than four million ounces since it opened in 1990. We were clearly onto something!
We joined thousands fleeing Sydney on Good Friday. Flee is not the right word since we crept at a snails pace to Blackheath before picking up the pace to Oberon. The slow drive gave us time to realise that, while we had tent, food and water, along with picks and shovels, we had forgotten our sleeping bags. So Plan B, evolved on the run, was to book into a local hotel and then go and try some fossicking. Enter the Big Trout Hotel. We fronted there to be told they were booked out. “Big wedding in town this weekend you know.”
We didn’t but we explained our predicament – the prospect of sleeping in a cold tent with an overnight low of 11 forecast. He hemmed and hawed then called for his wife. Turns out some wedding guests had booked and paid for a room but then rang and said they wouldn’t make it to town until 9am the next morning. “If you are planning on leaving early you can have their room’. Done!
We cleared town a few minutes later with a motel room key in our pockets and a restaurant booking for 7.30. “Don’t try before then, there’s a wedding in town.’ We drove down to Sapphire Bend. That makes it sound like a distinctive place in a map. It’s actually an obscure piece of rumpled up earth lost down a gravel road in a state forest. But its’ yielded sapphires since forever and the place was and truly dug over. As we felt our way into the forest, creeping into the dust left by other vehicles, frazzled scouts appeared coming the other way, covered in dust and making hard work of the hot day – it was over 30 degrees. Suddenly the fossicking area, handily signposted just as the hand drawn map we were using predicted it would. We drove into the forest just behind another couple who had just pulled in. This was their first time fossicking they said and promptly picked up their gear and disappeared up the track and out of sight behind a clump of blackberry, giving the impression they knew exactly where they were going. We did bit of a recce first. Where to dig? What to look for? What is the process? We found a Chinese lass in a hole in the ground not far from the track, her partner a bit further back in a similar hole partially hidden by the pines. “No idea what I am doing’ she confessed. “First time I have done this. It seems everyone is here for the first time. That she was scratching at hard clay with a garden trowel and lacked a sieve means she was indeed likely here for the first time. We walked further into the forest. An old station wagon parked off the track. No owner. A Pajero in a clearing, behind which two young men vigorously sieved a pile of clay. They were open and forthcoming. Refreshingly generous with their advice. They explained the ‘wash’ that sits above the yellow clay base in which the gemstones are found. That the ‘wash’ is still caught in dense clay but that the clay readily and quickly dissolves in water. And the magic of sieving. These lads chase gems in a semi professional manner they explained, and said they generally come away from their favourite sites with 30+ gemstones. But ‘right now a thousand scouts are swarming over our regular digs and we don’t feel comfortable being there when the kids are there.’ Sign of our times, even in the bush.
We thank them (did I mention they were fabulously generous with their advice), retrieve our shovels and (garden) sieves, walk past the Chinese wombats and start excavating. We dig and sieve and eventually end up with a load of clay which we take 300m down the road to wash. But before we do so we fall in with the couple we first chatted with. They had moved directly to a hole they knew and gave it an energetic attack with their shovels. They were now visible from our own digging so as they packed up they wandered over to see how we were doing. It was obvious this was not their first shot at this, confirmed by them showing us a shard of blue sapphire, which until it was held up to the sun appeared black. That was a helpful insight. So too the pond where everyone took their clay. It’s true that the clay dissolved almost instantly despite having the nature of mortar when dry. But if there were any small gems in our collection they were lost through our coarse sieve. We were shown a ruby, which showed up as such when a torch was put behind it. But until then it appeared as a small dark chip of stone. Another lesson. Yet another was to see that small ruby caught in the fine mesh of the sieve. How much did we just wash into the dam we wonder?
The next day we leave our Big Trout room by 8am (keeping covenant with the owner) and stumble over Monkey Bean Café which serves up a hot coffee and wakes us up. We leave just as the place fills with Sydney folk, most of whom seem to announce their presence by the clumsy reverse parking they attempt as they butt the rear of their vehicles into the kerb – de rigeur parking in most country NSW towns but not too familiar to city folk. We cook up some bacon and eggs in a local reserve then pick up, on a rental basis, some sieves of the right calibre from the very helpful information centre who point us back to Sapphire Bend and also Porters Retreat. Given this is a recce weekend we aim for Porters Retreat via St Vinnies where we pick up some blankets for $22, driving into a clearing day past tidy farms and placid stock. It’s gorgeous farming country.
Porters Retreat is a fossicking site on the south bank of a creek that is popular for its sapphires and zircons. There are two other groups in the obvious fossicking area of the stream but they are not forthcoming in any way and will not be drawn into conversation. Very different to the folk we met yesterday. We walk up and down the creek which, apart from where the others were fossicking is a series of stagnant pools wrapped in the roots of rank willow trees which are resisting whatever poison has been dosed to them. The ground along the immediate creek line has been thoroughly dug over (I later read that in 1971 at least, there were fossickers there using water sluices to blast the ground apart) though it is covered now in tussock and grass and blackberry – which has also been poisoned. Mostly. We settle on a previously excavated hole, find the ‘wash’ and start digging and sieving. We do that for a couple of hours then cook up lunch. While sitting back enjoying sausage and onions it occurred to me that the rocks between the stagnant pools would for a natural trap for gold and gems flooded down by the stream. So I pushed the shovel in there and after moving some largish rocks was able to remove shovel loads of gravel. Suddenly we had tripled our production and so we persisted for a couple more hours. If you think, while pushing the shovel half a metre into the creek bed, that you might be touching something untrammelled, you are sorely mistaken – from out of those muddy depths the sieve yielded a copper jacketed bullet of about .25 calibre! By mid afternoon we dragged ourselves away from the creek and headed up to the Black Springs camping ground where the galahs and cockatoos herald the evening. While writing this they have fallen silent but those pesky scouts somewhere out there in the state forest have their music turned up and the beats throb their way through the pines to our tent. Another glass of Pinot Gris will help attenuate their din.
The next morning we rise with the sun given we pretty much went to bed with it as well. We are on the road early, driving into a warm morning, enjoying what might be described as an Indian summer. We drive out to the Campbells River Bridge Reserve which is apparently good for sapphires and gold. But we have learned our lessons already. The creek is dry and any fossicking here would be painful without water. We walk around the reserve which has recently been bulldozed and cleared of willow but it’s still overgrown and dry. The best we got out of this site was a collection of photos of crimson rozellas that just couldn’t stay out of the apple tree that was giving up its worm infested fruit to them. Red and blue gems of a feathered kind. We then drove across to the Brisbane Valley Creek Causeway. That was a little more interesting. Fetid water but there had been a recent flood through there, which had ripped the soil off the rock above the stream. It’s clear the schist type base was good for alluvial panning and we took some gravel trapped in its folds down to the pool and tried some panning. This area is overgrown as well, and sported a rotting kangaroo carcass which made for an unpleasant work environment. Given our time frame we figured we should then head back to Porters Retreat where we landed about 0930. This time there was no one around and although tempted to go back to the hole we worked yesterday figured it would be worth digging around in the stream proper.
And what of it all? The first two sieves that final morning at Porters Retreat gave us two small red gems. Rubies? Not sure. Translucent when held to the sun but not as dark as the one we saw on our first afternoon. A pale blue gem which we figure is a sapphire of sorts. A .25 calibre piece of copper! And an unusual translucent piece which might be quartz but if it is it’s not like any quartz I have ever seen. Ten gems in all. Enough to have us want to go back. And the beginning of some identification homework to understand exactly what we have pulled out of there.