Queensland: What lies beneath

Deep under the wide, dry plains of Northern Queensland lies a dazzling haul of gold, sapphires, opals and dinosaur fossils. So grab your pickaxe, choose your spot and get digging

By Max Anderson
Published 21 Oct 2015, 09:00 BST, Updated 5 Jul 2021, 11:56 BST

In 1964, Sydney academic Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country. He meant the title ironically, believing that Australians — in contrast to clever, hard-working Asians — had simply ridden a tide of providence. But the irony was lost and the moniker has been worn like a twinkling brooch ever since.

Fortune continues to favour the Aussies, mainly because they're sitting on one. Such are the treasures beneath Australia's crust that, in 2017, it could become the first nation on the planet to enjoy 27 years of uninterrupted economic growth (the previous record was set by the Netherlands; its 26-year run was stalled by the global recession in 2008).

Mineral maps of this enormous landmass swirl with acid-coloured resources, like the continent is on a Seventies psychedelic trip. Do they dig it? Hell yes, generating some of the biggest mining booms the world has ever seen. Australia still has some of the world's largest deposits of gold and silver. It's the third-largest diamond producer and the biggest supplier of opal.

It's enough to leave a man wondering: what are the chances of striking it rich?

Flying into Townsville in northern Queensland, I see that this place, too, is charmed — a small city with ancient red escarpments, white sand beaches and a well-heeled marina. But there's no time to languish.

"Excuse me," I say to a young man at a hardware superstore on the way out of town. "Do you sell picks?"

Going for gold

"That's not a pick!" laughs Peter Cragg, discarding my superstore implement. He hands me a thing suited to medieval combat. "That's a pick."

'Craggie' is the genial owner of Gold City Detecting in Charters Towers, 80 miles southwest of Townsville. Buy a metal detector from him — prices start at £2,000 — and he'll teach you how to use it on a prospecting lease.

I find myself in open, fragrant bushland under a warm, winter sun. Heavy-skinned Brahman cattle move through the bloodwood trees and eagles cry overhead. A few old mine shafts pimple the red earth.

"These new detectors go deep," says Craggie, harnessing me with the latest model: a Minelab GPZ 7000. "Even old ground that's been worked for decades is giving up nuggets. I thought one patch was flogged to death — then I went over it with one of these and got 6oz in two days."

I'm sceptical. It's said that if you want to make money from gold, you don't use a shovel, you sell a shovel, and the new GPZ costs more than £5,000.

But 6oz? That's £4,000.

Craggie consults with mates Ross and JP, who also carry new machines. They size up the scrub, discuss geologies and sites of previous finds. And then a final chorus: "Good luck!"

The blood pounds in my ears as I strain to interpret the flutey signals coming from the detector's speaker. And there's my cue: 'Wee-oooh! Weee-oooh!'

I drive the pick hard and dig 6in… for a horseshoe nail.

Within an hour, Craggie is first to get 'on gold'. He digs down a foot and pulls up a 5g nugget. It's a grubby, reddish peanut — yet so wondrous that we crowd round.

Ross strikes next. Then JP finds a 'spessy' of quartz shot through with gold. And before long I'm watching a small patch of ground being punched with holes and gold amassing in tiny increments. I'm astonished: it can't be this easy!

JP senses my frustration. "Right," he says, "let's get this bloke blooded."

Jonathan 'JP' Porter has 25 years' prospecting under his belt. He coaches me in 'swinging the coil': "Slowly, slowly," he says. "Give the machine time to lock on to a target. Listen for a disturbance to the force…"

His Jedi coaching works — indeed it's distinctly yogic. And then it comes. Gold — one, two, three nuggets — match heads, beads, buttons — seven, eight, nine…

That night I take Craggie for a drink in Charters Towers. The town is beautiful, not much changed from the 1880s when over seven million oz of gold transformed a canvas shanty into a town with 35 pubs and a stock exchange. 'I was so rich, I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming,' wrote Frank Stubley, a blacksmith who made £100,000 in 12 years. Stubley blew all his money but the town is testament to the madness — a far-flung outpost embellished with towers, pediments and Greco-Roman pillars.

I pick up my jar and rattle the tiny nuggets with deep satisfaction.

"That's not bad for a day," says Craggie over his glass of beer. "Ten grams is 500 bucks."

Fossil fuel

I do a hard day's drive to reach the next 'X' on my treasure map, a place where opals are said to lie at your feet. But after 200 miles, the country flattens into epic horizons that need a country and western soundtrack — and I discover there's a different prize waiting to be unearthed…

'Northern Queensland is Australia's dinosaur graveyard,' reads a display in the outback town of Hughenden. A small museum houses the skeleton of a handsome iguanodon called a muttaburrasaurus, excavated from lands little altered since drifting from Gondwanaland. "It used to be an ancient sea," says Susan at the information desk. "You can find fossils of prehistoric squid not far from here."

I don't need telling twice. With directions ringing in my head, I find a dirt track signed 'No petrol for 153km' and locate three gum trees on a dry creek. Under dusk light, I kick at yellowish dirt and within minutes find smooth, 3in bullets of rock — the remains of animals that last swam 90 million years ago. They're belemnites, to be exact. Squids with skeletons.

The delight from my discovery is probably nothing to that felt by the Wilson family in July 2014 when they stumbled on a one-metre jawbone of an ichthyosaur. The news went global: "I was completely stunned," a local academic was reported as saying. "A professional palaeontologist might search their entire career to find a fossil of this quality. It only took the Wilson family a few hours."

It was discovered in a public fossil prospecting site 100 miles west in Richmond. Next morning I'm looking into the same quarry — 20 acres of biscuit-coloured rock gouged and scraped into heaps.

Unsure where to begin, I shoulder my superstore pick and get chatting to the only person here.

Peter Stephan is from Townsville. He's sat scratching at vertebrae, gills and fins, bringing them into sunny relief. "There's a whole fish here, which is unusual," he says.

Peter is utterly content beside his fossil in the hot sun, and delighted to help a newbie. "This layer I'm on seems pretty rich," he says. "Follow that. There are lots of prehistoric shark's teeth around, but you might only see a tooth's tip, so take your time. And I'll loan you a better pick."

I begin prising layers of soft sediment which open like the pages of a book, revealing gorgeous imprints of prehistory — scales, shells, worm casts. We chat as we work. "I'm really after the big marine reptiles," says Peter. "Ichthyosaur, plesiosaur. When I first came here, I found a kronosaur tooth in an hour…" Kronosaurus was the largest marine predator on the planet, its skull twice that of T-rex.

After five hours of digging, I've got sunburn, a stiff back and a lot of new-found knowledge. But my luck is not in, so I thank Peter for his generous company in the echoing quarry before saying goodbye.

"Wait," he says. "Take this."

Opal country

"Plesiosaur, I reckon. Cretaceous period," Paul Nielsen is squinting through his geologist's eyepiece at the fossilised tooth given to me by Peter. "The dinosaur associated with the Loch Ness monster."

Paul is no geologist, he's the publican of Tattersalls Hotel in Winton. When I arrive, his 1885 pub is deep into a raucous outback night — big beers, big talk, big hats. But he knows about the biggest game in town. And that's apex dinosaurs.

Next day I'm meant to be in the opal fields, but Paul insists on taking my sore head to the Australian Age of Dinosaurs. This astonishing museum is isolated high on an escarpment overlooking sunburnt country, and houses the world's largest collection of Australian dinosaur fossils. It was established by local grazier David Elliott who, in 1999, chanced upon the nation's most significant cache of dinosaur bones.

Within a low-lit, temperature-controlled theatre, I view the remains of a 20-ton sauropod and its attacker, a raptor called australovenator. "These are not replica casts, like most museums," says Paul in a low voice. "These are the real thing."

Alas, I have to push on to see another deposition from the Jurassic period — a highly unusual opal. After 70 miles on a dirt road, I reach Opalton. Though ostensibly a town, the population of 20 is scattered through the thick bush in crude camps.

I locate a leviathan 100-ton truck parked outside a camp of sheds, fuel drums and a mobile home. A sign warns of guard dogs; another reads, 'Stay the f**k out'. Paul has told me to look up Daryl Bonham but I'm not sure it's a good idea.

"Hello? Anybody home?"

Daryl is surprised to be visited, but perfectly welcoming. "Come in, mate," he says. "Happy to be interrupted! I'm cutting stone — and I hate cutting stone."

He shows me into a vast shed, its workbenches covered with screes of cut rock. He picks a square-inch tile he's been polishing and holds it to a lamp: the chocolate rock burns with a fire of red, yellow and green.

"I've never seen anything like that," I say.

"It's unique to here. The best opals are red. This piece is worth about two grand."

Daryl and his two partners have mined their lease for 16 years. "We've dug up so much, we've had to rebury it again," he chuckles. "We've got a shipping container buried out in the bush filled with all our good stuff."

"What's that worth?"

"Who knows? You don't know what's in a rock 'til you cut it. But somewhere between a million and five million dollars." He lights a cigarette. "So — y'want to try to find some opal?"

I'm handed yet another pick — a 'geo hammer' — and driven to piles of discarded rock near Opalton's first mineshafts, dug in the 1930s.

"Drag your pick through the heap and listen for a slightly hollow sound, like a 'clonk'." He pulls a nodule from the warm pile. "Then crack it with y'hammer… nope, nothing."

Working through the late afternoon, I learn Daryl's richest finds were two 'king stones' worth £230,000. But he says he's invested time in learning how to read the landscape for deposits. "Took me 18 months to learn it," he said. "And I've invested in the right machinery. Some miners get trapped in a cycle of finding it then spending it. I do six months in the opal fields then have six months off. I have a 50ft boat in Mackay, so I live on that over summer, do a lot of fishing."

I crack a nodule and a bright eye of opal peeps out.

"Oh wow!" says Daryl. "That's a killer!"

Sifting for sapphires

"Do you want some opal? I've got loads!"

The sapphire miners turn over the rocks. Some chunks are dusted with 'fairy opal', others show discreet marblings.

"Thanks, we might cut some of that," says Greg Graham of Armfest. "But I think we'll stick with sapphires…" He pulls a stone the size of a quail's egg from a filthy pocket and holds it up to the sun. It's like a bubble of Mediterranean Sea. "That's 85.6 carats," says Greg. "Isn't she a beauty?"

Greg's son, Billy-Joe, is a gem cutter. "I could spend a week cutting a stone like that," says BJ. "It might end up worth A$20,000 (£9,200). But anything over 100 carats is worth more in the rough — sold in its natural state."

Greg and BJ are at the end of a tradition that began in 1875 when sapphires were found by a surveyor and the pell-mell town of Sapphire was born. The Grahams are 'machine miners', using dozers and diggers to gouge 'wash' from an ancient riverbed before sifting the alluvial for the precious volcanic-formed crystals. "People associate sapphires with blue but they come in a range of colours," explains BJ. "Blue, green, yellow and mixed 'parti' colours. The rarest of them all is a red-orange-apricot colour called a 'padparadscha'. It's a once-in-a-lifetime stone — Dad's only got two or three. They sell for A$10,000 (£4,600) a carat."

Next morning I join Keith Bezett, an ornery New Zealander who leads 'tagalong' tours into the gem fields. I'm not quite prepared for the sight: a dozen happy, filthy holidaymakers swinging picks in deep holes along a narrow creek. "They've all got the fever," growls Keith. "See those two blokes? They only came for five days. Four weeks later and I still haven't got rid of the bastards…"

Once again I'm handed a pick — plus a shovel and a bucket. With other novice miners, I'm instructed on how to dig wash from the valley floor, reduce the gravels in a 'trommel', then wash the fines in a dunking bucket called a 'Willoughby'. The final skill is upending a fine sieve and carefully inspecting for glassy beads of sapphire winking in the sunlight.

Keith watches our efforts like Marco Pierre White inspecting apprentice chefs: "Dig higher! Wash y'dirt harder! That's not sapphire, it's leverite — leave 'er right there."

Within an hour I'm sweaty, spattered with mud and squinting at a suspiciously clear stone. "Y'got lucky," growls Keith. "Hold it up to the sun, inspect it for imperfections. That's the gem fields salute."

At the end of the day, I have a dozen sapphires. Four of them are 'cutters'.

Dave Bezett cuts gems. Unlike his brother Keith, he's clean and softly spoken. "These four we can do something with," he says in the cool gloom of his workshop. "Generally, 70 to 80% won't be gem quality. But this," he says, holding up a stone between his tweezers, "is a parti blue-and-yellow with clarity. It's around three carats. When it's cut we should have a one-carat sapphire."

After eight days, I return to Townsville hauling my treasures: £230 of gold, three prehistoric squids, a 90 million-year-old plesiosaur tooth, a bag of opal and a cut sapphire that would cost me £200 to buy. I'm tanned, a few pounds lighter (from swinging picks) and I'm richer for having met some of the most generous, interesting people I've ever encountered. Diamonds, every one of them.


Getting there
Emirates, Etihad, Qantas Airways, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines all fly to Brisbane from the UK via their respective hubs. British Airways and Qantas codeshare, flying via a choice of Singapore or Hong Kong.
Connect to Townsville with airlines such as Qantas, Virgin Australia or Jetstar.
Average flight time: 23h.

Getting around
Hiring a car is your best bet. You don't need a 4WD to do this journey but it's great on dirt roads. 

When to go
The ideal time to visit is between April to September, when there's warm days (25-30C) and cool nights.

Need to know
Currency: Australian dollar (A$). £1 = A$2.20.
International dialling code: 00 61.
Time difference: GMT +10.

More info
Lonely Planet's Queensland & The Great Barrier Reef. RRP: £15.99.
Digger by Max Anderson. RRP: £7.99 (Picador)

How to do it
Austravel has a 14-night trip to Queensland from £1,349 per person, including motorhome hire and return international flights.

Published in the November 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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