Evocative names such as the Gemfields, Rubyvale, Sapphire and Willows conjured up visions of a picturesque and magical landscape. Instead I found the quintessential Australian bush, a terrain of wild grasses burnt to a crisp gold by the relentless sun and gentle hills covered in scrub and eucalypts. Dazzling splashes of bougainvillea provided the only colour and it was hard to believe that beneath this dry and parched earth lay the largest sapphire deposits in the southern hemisphere.
The Central Queensland Gemfields are comprised of nine hundred square kilometres and straddle the Tropic of Capricorn, about 300 kilometres west of Rockhampton. Life here revolves around the finding, faceting and selling of gems. Although conditions have improved, there is a sense that little else has changed over the last hundred years, this is frontier country and the pioneering spirit remains strong. Life on the fields and in the underground mines is tough and attracts those of a fiercely independent character. Increasing numbers of recreational fossickers are also being lured to the fields in search of a new experience. In theory anyone with a shovel and a bit of luck can find gemstones.
Gems were first discovered here in 1875 and while diamonds, jasper and fossils are found it is best known for yielding large and unusually coloured sapphires, ranging from dark blue to green, black, yellow and red. According to The Guinness Book of Records, the worlds largest sapphire, weighing in at 2300 carats, was discovered here in 1935, it was subsequently carved into the shape of Abraham Lincolns head and is on display at the White House. In 1938 a local boy discovered the Black Star of Queensland, the largest black sapphire in the world, not recognizing its value his father used it as a doorstop for many years. It is now encircled with diamonds and was recently put up for sale at 88 million dollars.
The towns of Rubyvale and Sapphire are the main commercial centres and are charming in a kind of weird and quirky way. They feature a couple of general stores, a smattering of caravan parks and motels and a plethora of fossicking parks, jewellery stores and gem cutters. Like mining towns anywhere there is an air of neglect and transience with derelict buildings, rusty caravans, shanties of corrugated iron, and abandoned cars and bits of machinery scattered about. The ten kilometres that separate the two towns were opened to large scale machine mining in the 1960’s and these days the scarred, turned over earth resembles a moonscape.
Commensurate to their claim to have the worlds biggest sapphires, and in keeping with a strange Australia wide obsession, the Gemfields boast a number of large inanimate objects. Apart from The Big Sapphire (weighing in at five million carats), there is The Big Pick and Shovel, The Big Sapphire Ring, The Big Miner, and oddly enough The Big Spanner. Rubyvale even has its own Buckingham Palace, although its hard to imagine a more inappropriately named one room shack. The street names are far more suitable and include, Quartzite Road, Desperado Road, Rubble Road and my favourite, Tellum-Buggar-em Close.
There are a number of ways to enjoy the Gemfields; four-wheel drive scenic tours visit places such as Policeman’s Knob, Reward and Mount Pleasant; there are tag-a-long tours where you spend the day with an experienced miner; you can explore the underground mines at Bobby Dazzler’s or Blue Hollow; or try your luck at a fossicking park where you buy a bag of wash and then use their equipment to sift for gems. For those in search of a more authentic experience and the chance to strike it rich, there are six public areas set aside for casual fossicking. Recent success stories include a Swiss couple who found a 300 carat yellow sapphire on their second day on the fields.
A giant plastic sapphire flanks the entrance of The Gemfields Information Centre where I went to purchase my fossicking licence. As I admired the collection of gems and jewels on display the owner said, “Don’t think you can just go off in an afternoon and find sapphires – this stuff took me years to collect”, but I did think that, already I had been gripped by sapphire fever. So, armed with my licence, a couple of buckets, a sieve, a shovel and a boyfriend to do the heavy work, I headed out into the bush.
The Big Bessie fossicking area provides a true blue Aussie panorama, this is the bush of folklore and poetry, thick with the smell of eucalyptus, the silence broken only by the screech of cockatoos, the rustle of leaves in the wind and the sound of shovels hitting the dirt. After heavy rain, the ground is apparently littered with sapphires so you can just wander along and pick them up, unfortunately the on-going drought precluded this option. A few other fossickers were camped nearby in an assortment of lean-tos, buses and caravans, most of them had a range of shiny buckets and equipment that made ours look a bit pathetic. There were even a couple of swagmen – old guys with wizened faces, long beards and crazy eyes – who looked like they had stepped straight out of legend. We camped under the shade of two big gums, cockatoos and galahs filled the trees, pesky lorikeets joined us for breakfast and in the evenings we would sit by a campfire and try to identify the visiting nocturnal wildlife.
In a way, fossicking provides an opportunity to recreate the past, we woke with the sun, toiled on the land, made tea in a billy and even baked damper. Like all those who came before me I badly wanted the thrill of unearthing something sparkling, but digging under the harsh sun was gruelling work and I soon admitted defeat. At least I had a car to drive away in, unlike the original prospectors who mostly arrived (and usually left) pushing wheelbarrows filled with their possessions. Until 2000, the annual Wheelbarrow Derby saw local participants pay tribute to this legend by pushing wheelbarrows over a sixteen kilometre course.
Life here is pretty quiet, not a lot happens apart from extracting gems, beer drinking and the odd skirmish between miners, but every August the Gemfields are imbued with a carnival like atmosphere as traders, merchants, miners and tourists from all over Australia arrive for Gemfest. The festival lasts for four days and is quite a surreal experience with lots of cowboys, country music, an array of stalls and gimmicks and a giant marquee showcasing millions of dollars worth of glittering gems. There are rough gems, faceted gems, crystals, fossils and some exquisite jewellery. I spotted a gorgeous sapphire and diamond necklace valued at $60,000, which was about the same price as a local house.
The Gemfields provide a unique insight into history and to a very different way of life. A visit might make you rich, at the very least it will be an enriching experience.