Fifteen years ago, I spent six months learning to be a prospector in the deserts north of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. I lived in a tent. I had a dog. And I found gold.
Recently, I’ve started getting calls from people who’ve been watching reality-TV shows about chasing the yellow stuff. They sound excited and begin the conversation by saying things like: “Hey, I was wondering if I could buy you lunch…”
Of course they want to make their fortune by unearthing a gold nugget the size of their head. But they’ve been misled about a few things – including the idea that they have to give up their job and invest huge sums of money to get started.
The truth is, it’s possible to have a good stab at prospecting during a one- or two-week holiday. So for all those gold-diggers out there, here’s a simple 10-step guide to finding the nugget you’ve always dreamed about.
#1 Know what you’re up against
Start at The Perth Mint to learn what makes gold at once beautiful, bankable and baffling. At the entrance to the terrific museum, you’ll find a one-tonne gold coin rotating on a dais with audiovisuals exploding overhead. “Boom!” goes the video before showing that, like all of Earth’s metal elements, gold comes from the stars.
The difference, however, is that gold looks celestial, which is why we can’t stop admiring the stuff. It’s also very difficult to find. That’s why the rotating coin has a gold value of more than $50 million, even though the metal isn’t terribly useful. Had it been cast in infinitely more utilitarian iron, it would be worth about 500 bucks.
If you’re bamboozled, don’t worry, because that’s the point. As the desert diggers of the 19th-century knew full well, gold is as silly as a two-bob watch.
#2 Say hello to Kalgoorlie
An hour’s flight from Perth and still one of the world’s most fabulous frontier towns, “Kal” has gold in its veins. Though home to only about 30,000 people, it’s said to have surrendered about $95 billion worth of gold since the first nugget was discovered in 1893.
This has supported some extravagant architecture and more pubs than you can poke a silver-topped cane at. It has also helped underpin the economic wellbeing of a grateful nation.
Like thousands of hopefuls before you, you’ll gather provisions and intelligence in Kalgoorlie before heading over the horizon, into the glowing red dirt and mulga bushland.
While the original diggers pushed a wheelbarrow or rode a bicycle, you might be better off hiring a four-wheel drive. If you plan to do the camping thing, get your gear from All Extreme Hire. Still on practicalities, spring and autumn are Goldilocks seasons temperature-wise; avoid the summer months, when the heat and flies can be punishing.
#3 Learn the business
There are a few tour operators in Kalgoorlie who can teach you everything you need to know about detecting. Gold Prospecting Kalgoorlie will take you on a daytrip to a lease and show you how to use a detector. You’ll be fixed up with a $25 Miner’s Right permit, which makes you legal, and told where you can and can’t detect. And of course, if you find any gold, it’s yours.
Next, seek out Matt Cook of Finders Keepers on Hannan Street. This amiable and super-knowledgeable bloke will rent you a suitable machine for a day, a week or longer. Beginners are well advised to go with the simple, light and basically idiot-proof Minelab SDC 2300 ($75 for a day, $250 for a week, plus a $1000 bond). These machines are good at mopping up tiny and not-so-tiny nuggets in fields thought to be totally exhausted.
#4 Follow the original diggers
Why? Because they’ll show you the way. Modern prospectors have vehicles that can traverse harsh country, satellite technology that can pinpoint remote locations and detectors that can sense gold buried half a metre below the surface. Yet professional prospectors will shake their head in admiration for “the old boys” who were equipped with just a shovel and a pan and were so damned good at finding gold.
Look at a map of the Goldfields region and every town – both thriving and abandoned – started life as a cluster of tents where men ate “tinned dog” (canned beef), worried about water and tried to locate where gold was shedding from reefs of quartz and ironstone. The point is, all of those towns are located on or near auriferous ground. Which is also known as paydirt.
#5 Take the easy way out
Follow the Golden Quest Discovery Trail out of Kalgoorlie. This 965-kilometre journey is suitably signposted and sticks to sealed and well-graded dirt roads. It stops at the largish towns of Leonora, Menzies, Laverton and Coolgardie; tiny relic towns including Kookynie and Ora Banda; and the ghost town Gwalia. Populated villages (even the smallest ones) have fuel, food and basic overnight accommodation. And don’t overlook the caravan parks – they’re great places to glean local knowledge from fellow spangle-eyed hopefuls.
#6 Whet your whistle
The old pubs of the Goldfields are jewels of the desert – places such as the Ora Banda Historical Inn (08 9024 2444), Broad Arrow Tavern (08 9024 2058) and Grand Hotel Kookynie (08 9031 3010). Outposts of life and colour, they were gussied up in times of boom, beaten up in times of bust and, in a way, are still living their history.
They’re also your gateway to workable fields. The publicans have heard it all and seen it all. If you’ve got any sense, you’ll put some money behind the bar and listen. Don’t be in a hurry, do show some humility and you might be told where you can safely swing your detector.
#7 Know your limits
In order of severity – with the least dangerous first – there are three very real perils to be mindful of: Mine shafts. They’re old, they’re unstable and they’re everywhere. (They’re also strewn with rusted metal, which makes for miserable detecting.)
Going on someone’s lease. Hell hath no fury like a prospector finding a tourist on their lease. If you haven’t got permission, stick to publicly accessible areas.
Getting lost. That faint bush track might look like a path to adventure but it’s probably a one-way ticket to a world of hurt. Have you ever been caught in an ocean rip? Well, being lost in the bush is similar. Only there’s less water. And there’s no surf lifesaver to come and get you.
#8 Hit the jackpot
I could describe the euphoria of finding your first nugget but that would be to spoil one of life’s greatest pleasures. I can, however, share some advice a prospector gave me: always put something back. After digging a nugget out of the rich red earth, you should say thank you, find a similar-sized stone, place it in the hole then cover it up.
#9 Get down to business
If – as is most likely – you’ve found skerricks of gold, take them to The Prospectors Patch in Kalgoorlie, where they’ll assay it for purity and give you roughly 80 to 90 per cent of the gold price.
Nuggets that are larger than a third of an ounce can be sold online for the gold price plus a premium of 30 to 100 per cent, depending on the size. If you’ve scored yourself a jackpot nugget of multiple ounces, be sure to get advice.
There is a corollary to all this, however, because chances are that no amount of money will tempt you to part with your nuggets. This is the clinical test for gold fever, a condition that behaves much like malaria.
#10 Return to the Perth Mint
In a glass case next to the one-tonne coin, you’ll find the Normandy Nugget, a slug weighing 25.5 kilos. It’s the biggest nugget on display in Australia, the second-largest intact nugget in the world and no doubt worth an amount completely out of proportion to its metal price.
As you stare at that nugget, try to imagine how the prospector felt when he lifted it out of a dry Kalgoorlie creek bed in 1995. And if you feel slightly cheated that it wasn’t you, remember this: Australia’s largest nugget could still be out there. Somewhere in the red earth. Waiting to be found.
Before you go home...
Make sure to explore the Goldfields capital, Kalgoorlie-Boulder. Rich with history, the regional city caters for miners in the central Goldfields region and has plenty to offer travellers who are prepared to invest a little time. Here are five ways to get a feel for the frontier town.
Take a walk down Hannan Street
The main thoroughfare is a showcase of what has come to be called “Goldfields architecture”, an ostentatious show of cupolas, elaborate rooflines and iron lacework. Be sure to check out the shops and cafés since many of the interiors are little changed, plus the fabulous Town Hall (08 9021 9600), which was once a theatre. Another must, the Museum of the Goldfields, is home to precious and rather evocative union flags and a great nugget collection.
Have a punt at Two-Up School
Two-up can be played legally year-round in Kalgoorlie thanks to a 1980s concession that acknowledges the town’s legacy of bored diggers who’d lay odds on absolutely anything that moved. Two-Up School (0428 053 344) is housed in a 59-year-old ring-shaped shed in the bush, a 10-minute drive from town. Made of corrugated iron, it resembles traditional structures, which could be moved in a hurry to avoid police. Games are played on Sunday afternoons.
Spend an afternoon at the Palace
The Balcony Bar and Restaurant at the Palace Hotel is a good spot to watch the happenings on Hannan Street. Downstairs you’ll find a mirror with a poem written by a mine manager to a barmaid; the manager was Herbert Hoover, who would go on to become president of the United States.
Get a taste of the good old days
Hannans North Tourist Mine is a museum that tells the story of local goldmining, past and present. You can see what life was like in a shantytown, pan for gold and climb into a 113-tonne Caterpillar 793C haul truck.
Don’t miss the Super Pit Lookout
At 570 metres deep, the Super Pit is Australia’s largest gold-producing mine. Look for the tiny black dots around the upper reaches – they’re drives tunnelled by 19th-century miners. You can venture into the pit with Kalgoorlie Tours & Charters.