Fossicking in Central Queensland

Central Queensland

Central Queensland is not quite the outback, but it’s a stark difference from the towns of the coast. Wikipedia describes it as ‘an ambiguous geographical division of Queensland,’ which seems dismissive but is technically accurate.

The blues of the seemingly endless ocean were gone, swallowed up by dusty browns and greens as we moved inland. There, in the ambiguous middle of Queensland, the ocean is replaced by new points of interest, including over 900 square kilometers of gemfields.

There are five fossicking areas open to the public, but to access them you’ll need a fossicking license. It’s also critical that you stick to the designated fossicking areas—private landowners are not shy about posting signs threatening to shoot people who stray onto their property.

The towns of the Gemfields are appropriately named: Emerald, Rubyvale, Sapphire, and Anakie. (OK you got me on Anakie.) We chose Sapphire for its caravan park—the Sapphire Caravan Park had great reviews—but really I wanted to stay there because the sapphire is my birthstone.

Queensland Caravan Park
Bonus fossicking station at the caravan park.

The caravan park was exceptional. Our site was large, flat and private (the camping trifecta), plus it was close to the amenities and well-stocked camp kitchen. We arrived without much of a plan besides the desire to uncover a giant gem and travel indefinitely on its proceeds, so we asked the owners for advice on where to start.

That’s how we learned that the tourist season was over (it winds down after the October long weekend) so most of the fossicking companies were closed to visitors. You don’t have to go through a company to fossick, but when you’re a complete novice it’s a good idea.

“Go to Armfest,” the woman suggested. “They’re the best ones because they walk you through the process, and they may still be open for the season.”

I had misguided visions of myself standing knee-deep in a stream, gently shaking a sieve for glimpses of something shiny, then shouting with excitement as a giant glittering sapphire emerged from the rough. This was going to be awesome.

As we drove to Armfest the next morning, I realized that there were no streams, just swathes of dry, cracked earth that had been systematically harassed for years on end. People don’t just happen upon precious gems (unless you’re very very lucky); you have to physically extract them from the ground.

Armfest was also closed for the season, so no tutelage on start-to-finish fossicking was available. However, the guy we spoke to offered us a gembag for $20. It’s essentially a lucky dip, a cotton bag of ‘wash’—gravel that could potentially contain gems.

Fossicking set up
Off-season fossicking station at Armfest.

We took the bag back to the caravan park, where there was a small fossicking station for guest use. Hunting for gems was like doing a puzzle; hours passed without me realizing it, until my neck was sore and sunburn crept across my exposed skin as the shadows shifted away.

The process was simple: dump some rocks into a sieve, rinse the rocks, tip the clean rocks on to a square of carpet covering a table, and search. We were looking for pops of color, because sapphires come in a range of colors: blue, green, yellow, orange, red, and pink. (In fact, rubies are actually red sapphires.)

Gembag Queensland
Behold my pile of riches.

We got faster, separating the potential gems into colored piles and discarding the rest. When the bag was empty we tipped our gems into tiny ziploc bags we’d been given at Armfest, and returned for some professional advice on our finds.

The man we’d spoken to before was happy to help, and pulled out his sorting equipment: tweezers and a tiny mirror. He got to work separating the gems on the mirror, instantly able to tell which were worth something and which weren’t. The big, beautiful stones that we’d been excited about got shunted to the ‘show and tell’ pile, which meant they were pretty but essentially worthless.

Within minutes, he’d examined every jewel.

“You got some pretty good ones here,” he said.

I felt like I’d won a gold star, even though most of the ‘good ones’ were the ones I’d figured were too small to be worth anything. We left with four bags of gems:

Fossicking Queensland
The final product.

The ‘show and tell’ bag was the heaviest, full of low-grade gems that look nice but hold no market value. There was also one sapphire to ‘skin polish,’ a technique that turns a middle-grade ugly duckling gem into a beautiful swan.

The last two bags were the zircons and sapphires set aside for cutting. These are gems that, after being cut and polished by a professional, can be set into earrings or necklaces. We apparently have several gems that, once set, could retail for over $100.

It’s a catch-22, because even though they could retail for that amount, we probably wouldn’t have much luck selling them, nor would we bother. For now, the sapphires live in their plastic baggies (which now that I think about it, I’m not sure where those baggies are) but will hopefully one day be shaped up into a shiny pair of earrings, a souvenir of Sapphire.

Have you ever been fossicking? What did you find?

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