Mineral collecting Down Under

I got the collecting bug at about eight years of age, collecting (or ‘fossicking’ as it is called in Australia!) fossilised sharks’ teeth and ancient whalebones eroding out of beach cliffs in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia. Some forty plus years later, I’ve still got the bug. However, nowadays, I tend to be more interested in collecting crystallised mineral treasures (although, my sharks’ teeth still hold pride of place in my showcase) and it is the mineral wealth of Australia that I will discuss in this article.

mapaustralia
Map of Australia showing locations mentioned and an inset map comparing relative size of Australia and continental USA.

In 1996, I started a website called The Australian Mineral Collector (www.mineral.org.au). After dabbling in web design, I saw the Internet as a great way to convey information about my hobby. Since that time, I have had countless thousands of visitors to the site, as well as countless emails from fellow collectors, many asking the same sort of question, for example, ‘Where can I go to find minerals in Australia? I’ve got three days to kill in Sydney and two days in Melbourne, and I want to find some nice specimens.’ Unfortunately, in many cases, I have had to tell them that it’s not at all easy.

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The author and an old Cornish boiler at the Atlunga Gold Field, Central Australia.

Firstly, let me draw you a picture of Australia. It is a very big country and, for those of you used to tripping around Europe or the UK, it may seem daunting at first. Australia is approximately the same size as continental United States, but with only 21 million people. Most Aussies live within 200km of the almost 60,000km of coastline, in large cities. We are also a very urbanised group and, perhaps surprisingly, most Australians don’t actually venture too far inland. Huge swaths of the Australian continent consist of desolate and arid country (the ‘Outback’). Therefore, if you are serious about collecting in Australia, you will definitely need some local help.

At this point, you may have to do a bit of swatting up in your local library. There are a number of publications on Aussie minerals such as the Australian Journal of Mineralogy, Australian Gold, Gem and Treasure magazine and quite a few books, although none are that up to date. Make sure you use these as a rough guide only as to where to go or what you want to search for. For many localities, access and conditions can vary from year to year and you will most probably require detailed, local ‘mud maps’ to find deposits once you arrive at a destination. So, use the Internet and try searching out clubs or dealers closer to where you want to visit, and try contacting them via email. Fellow collectors are usually only too glad to lend a helping hand and give you good directions. The local pub in mining towns is also often a great place to glean some useful information.

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Outback drivers have to contend with 60m long road trains.

Most travellers will fly to Australia via the capital city gateways such as Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney or Brisbane on the east coast, or Perth in the west, but even these are 1,000km or more apart. So, a car is mandatory, as is having more than a few days free, because there are very few places to fossick close to our major capital cities. Although a four-wheel drive vehicle is not necessary for all places, it will be a benefit in many cases and allow you more options with your travel plans. For instance, when hiring a vehicle in the Northern Territory, you are not covered by insurance if you venture onto a gravel road.

4wd
A four-wheel drive vehicle is useful for Outback travel.

Regulations regarding fossicking vary between our states but, by-and-large, they are easily complied with. Details of the legal requirements and fossicking areas can be found on the state mines’ department’s websites. There are laws regarding the export of Australian vertebrate fossils and meteorites, so allow time to expedite paperwork if you intend collecting them.

Obviously, those places closest to our cities have been tramped and looked over the most, but new places regularly come to light. If you haven’t the time or the resources to travel too far to collect, then think about contacting Australian dealers via the web and arranging to meet. Gem and mineral club shows are also held regularly around Australia and these are a good source of Australian material. Our largest gem, mineral and fossil show, the ‘Gemboree’, is held at Easter each year in a different Aussie state, and this is where you are likely to see the greatest range of material for sale. In 2008, it will be held between 21 and 24 March at Murray Bridge, South Australia, only 80km from Adelaide. A hundred or so dealers and some hundreds of tailgaters gather to buy and sell material over the four-day period.

For those who want to try their hand at finding their own specimens, the more remotely you are prepared to travel, the more you will increase your chances of finding good material.

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Warning signs at Lightning Ridge opal field, NSW.

You must also plan your travels to coincide with our cooler seasons, as summertime shade temperatures can push 500C in the Outback. (Remember that seasons are the reverse of the Northern Hemisphere and so the best times to fossick are April to October.) Be aware that road conditions can also vary greatly, with gravel roads common in Outback areas. Travel after dark inland is very dangerous, due to the likelihood of hitting headlight-dazzled kangaroos and stray livestock, so plan your travel to daylight hours unless on major highways. Road trains, which can stretch to over 60m in length, can make overtaking manoeuvres tricky as well! Most highways have 100km to 110km speed limits in force.

Opals

Famously, Australia is synonymous with opals, being the world’s largest producer and home to the most valuable opals ever discovered. South Australia (Coober Pedy, Andamooka), New South Wales (Lightning Ridge, White Cliffs) and many places in Western Queensland (Yowah, Duck Creek, Opalton) produce fine gem opals. You may not find a fortune, but at most places you can be guaranteed to find at least some ‘colour’ and there a plenty of places to purchase and cut your stones.

opal
A lovely crystal opal from South Australia.

The town of Lightning Ridge, some 800km north-west of Sydney, is especially famous for its black opals and it also caters for the casual tourist. An underground mine tour shows where the opal occurs and how it is mined, and there are guided tours to many sites. I recently spent a couple of days at ‘the Ridge’ and managed to fossick one decent stone that will cut into a nice memento of the trip.

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My wife and daughter on an underground tour of an opal mine at Lightning Ridge, NSW.

The main street of the town has many shops buying and selling both rough and cut stones, with the best pieces running to many hundreds of thousands of Australian dollars. Even if you don’t buy, the incredible variety and quality of these stones is wonderful to see. It is very important, when visiting opal fields, to find out where you can and can’t fossick, as miners tend to get a bit nasty if they find tourists, local or otherwise, on their patch of dirt! The local tourist information centres will help you here.

Meteors

Australia is probably the best place in the world to view large meteorite impact craters and over 25 of these features exist in Australia. As a result of the low rainfall in much of central Australia, many crater features have escaped serious weathering even after millions of years. Those, such as Wolf Creek crater and Gosses Bluff, are many kilometres across and a number still contain remnants of meteorite material. However, you should refer to the relevant states’ collecting laws when you visit.

gossebluff
Gosses Bluff – a weathered impact crater of Jurassic age looms on the horizon west of Alice Springs, NT.

Other gems, minerals and metals

Casual fossicking for gem material is especially well catered for in Australia and many areas are set aside for hand mining. For example, Queensland is the world’s largest producer of sapphires and there are many areas set aside for sapphire digging in central Queensland. Other special reserves in Queensland include those for opal, peridot, topaz and agate. Far north and western Queensland have huge mining areas that still produce lovely specimen material (the Mt Isa and Cloncurry districts especially), but local knowledge is a must in these areas. (Visit: http://nrw.qld.gov.au/mines/fossicking for information and maps on Queensland fossicking.)

In New South Wales (or NSW), the New England region in the north-east is especially rich in material. The old mining towns of Glen Innes, Emmavile and Torrington, and the dumps surrounding them, regularly produce fine quality specimens of quartz, beryl and molybdenum, tin and tungsten minerals. Emmavile has a mining museum with many high quality specimens from local mines. In the far west of NSW, the town of Broken Hill also has many lovely displays of minerals and information on the town’s rich mining history. There are a number of places around town where specimens may be collected and there are also underground tours.

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Magnificent 30cm specimen of crocoite on display in the Zeehan, Museum, Tasmania.

The discovery of gold in NSW and Victoria in the 1850s freed Australia from financial worry and built cities such as Melbourne, Bendigo, Ballarat and Bathhurst. These incredible golden riches financed our country for much of the next century. Australia still has huge gold reserves but, nowadays, these mining enterprises tend to be huge multinationals mining tiny percentages of gold for each tonne of ore. However, gold can still be found as nuggets and, again, Australia has produced the largest ever found (the ‘Welcome Stranger’ nugget at 2,284oz at Moliagul in central Victoria in 1869). Prospecting for gold and gold nuggets has become very popular in the past few years (and profitable!) with new technology allowing even the tiniest of nuggets to be detected by the latest model detectors.

bunyipnugget
My wife, Judy, cradles the ‘Bunyip’ nugget, weighing over 50oz found near Bendigo, Vic in 1971 and housed at the Museum of Victoria.

In 1980, a fossiker discovered the ‘Hand of Faith’ nugget (over 27kg) in Kingower, central Victoria. It now resides in the Golden Nugget Casino in Nevada USA. Gold detecting trips are offered by a number of companies and these tend to concentrate on the West Australian and Victorian goldfields, where nuggets are more common. A trip to Ballarat, 110km north of Melbourne, is well worth a visit. Here, a recreated gold mining town from the 1850s (Sovereign Hill) and a gold museum have excellent displays (see: www.sovereignhill.com.au). Ballarat was also the site of a violent miner uprising in 1854, when miners protested against the fees and conditions under which they were expected to fossick (the Miners Right). The ‘Eureka’ flag was flown above a hilltop stockade and miners and soldiers clashed, with many dead before the Crown quelled the uprising.

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A miner, from the Adelaide Mine, Zeehan, Tas, shows off a newly mined crocoite specimen.

The southernmost state of Australia is the island of Tasmania and, although smallest in size, it makes up for it by its natural beauty and mineral riches. Here, my advice on the seasons is reversed, as the best time to visit is the summer (December to February) when you may get some good weather. (The west coast of Tasmania averages some 5,000mm of rain a year, mostly during winter. However, snow can fall at any time of the year on the higher peaks.) To reach Tasmania, airlines have daily flights from most capital cities or an overnight ferry from Melbourne can take you and your vehicle on a more leisurely trip. Tasmania is also home to the brilliant, orange-red mineral crocoite, and the town of Zeehan on the west coast has mines selling specimens of this very beautiful mineral. In the past, it was crushed for its lead content, but now it is considered amongst the most collectible of mineral specimens.

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A bag of newly dug smoky quartzes from Torrington, NSW.

Nearby, the mining town of Queenstown has a copper mine that has operated for over 100 years. Underground tours of the mine can be taken. A steam railway has also been restored that follows the old ore train route over a spectacular rainforest-covered range and down to the port of Strahan on Macquarie Harbour. A tiny tank engine uses cogged rails and gearing to haul its carriages over the steep range with 1 : 10 inclines in parts. (Visit: http://mrt.gov.tas.au and follow links to exploration and mining, then fossicking for information and maps on Tasmanian fossicking.)

So, if you were thinking of a somewhere to visit to collect something a bit out of the ordinary, why not try Oz? Australia has enormous potential for the mineral and gem collector, as well as a healthy dose of tourism. Spend a bit of time on your research before you leave and you will be rewarded by an enjoyable and fruitful trip ‘Down Under’.

Useful references

Australian Gemstones

Sutherland, F.L., 1991. Gemstones of the Southern Continents. Reed Books, Sydney, 256pp.

Sutherland, F.L., and Webb, G.B., 2000. Gemstones and Minerals of Australia. Reed New Holland, Sydney, 128pp.

Webb, G.B. and Sutherland, F.L., 2002. Gemstones of New England, New South Wales. The Mineralogical Society of New South Wales, Sydney, 23pp.

Fossicking

Myatt, W., 1991. How and Where to Find Gemstones in Australia and New Zealand. Revised 1987 ed., reprinted 1991, 486pp.

Northern Territory Department of Mines and Energy (Northern Territory Geological Survey), 1982. A Fossickers Guide to the Northern Territory, 61pp.

Mineralogy

The Australian Journal of Mineralogy

http://www.mineral.org.au/pubs/ajm.html


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