Why experts believe there is still gold in Victoria
Victoria is in the midst of a gold fever and hobby fossickers are hoping to strike it lucky.
All that glisters is not gold, as Shakespeare wrote, and not everything that makes a metal detector go “ping” is either. Quite the opposite. You’ll quickly realise when hunting for the elusive precious metal that lead shot, rusty cans and twisted bits of junk metal – mostly historical junk metal, but junk nonetheless – hugely outnumber their precious yellow cousin. Chalk it up to the thrill of the chase.
We’re tramping the bushland out back of Amherst, a blip on the map near Talbot in Central Victoria. Armed with a metal detector and the expertise of Darren Kamp of Gold and Relics Gold Prospecting Adventures, I’m looking to strike it rich. The modern iteration of the Welcome Stranger, the 72-kilogram golden behemoth found in Moliagul in 1869, has to be out there somewhere – doesn’t it? Although I’d be satisfied with something like the two-kilogram nugget dubbed ‘You wouldn’t believe it’ by its anonymous finder near Ballarat in July, or even the 20-ounce mini version valued at around $35,000 found by a family walking on Bendigo’s outskirts on Mother’s Day.
“Gold prospecting isn’t a hobby, it’s a fever,” says Darren, who picked up the habit at 12, and turned it into a full-blown obsession on finding his first proper nugget as a young adult. His biggest find was a 24-ounce nugget 10 years ago, worth a cool $53,000 in today’s gold money. “It’s also a fever that’s highly contagious.”
We’re in Victoria’s so-called ‘golden triangle’: a wedge bounded roughly by Ballarat, Wedderburn, Dunolly and Bendigo, where massive finds in the 1800s brought prospectors pouring into the area, setting up tent cities and, at its peak, sending 1000 kilograms of gold every week to the bank vaults of Melbourne.
But did they leave any gold in the ground? You bet they did. Just look at a recent episode of the Discovery Channel’s Aussie Gold Hunters in which two prospectors discovered a 2.4-kilogram nugget worth about $150,000 near Dunolly.
“Gold prospecting isn’t a hobby, it’s a fever,” says Darren.
“It’s believed there’s still the same amount of gold in the ground here as has been unearthed since the 1850s,” says Jason Cornish, a geologist and secretary of Victoria’s Prospectors and Miners Association.
Maybe we could change Victoria’s moniker to the Golden State. Victoria has accounted for a staggering 90 per cent of the world’s largest nugget finds, thanks to the “perfect storm”, Jason says, referring to the geological conditions going back to volcanic activity hundreds of millions of years ago. Victoria accounts for 1.3 per cent of total all-time world gold production, from only 0.15 per cent of global land area.
“This is where it all came together,” says Jason. “A one in a million chance. I have land in Dunolly in an area they used to call ‘the potato field’ because you could pull nuggets up like potatoes.”
Major finds are still big news and with gold prices at near-record highs of around $2200 an ounce, each discovery prompts a new wave of recreational fossickers to descend on central Victoria. “You do see a spike when there’s been a find in the news,” says Darren, who unlike many other prospectors is happy to lead people to places he’s had luck. “I really enjoy seeing people get that same thrill that I do.”
But fossicking is about more than finding gold. Anyone thinking only about cold hard cash will find it a dispiriting experience to pull up endless amounts of lead shot with only occasional glimmers of the gold stuff, often the size of a match head. But there’s serenity to be found in the task.
The privately owned bushland where we’re fossicking (Darren has permission to work here) was an 1860s miners’ claim pockmarked with old dig sites. While sweeping the detector over the old clay and gravel tailings there’s plenty of time to notice the kangaroos bounding through the red gums and the kookaburras cackling overhead, quite possibly at my lack of luck.
“Prospectors are people who enjoy the bush,” says Darren. “Even if you don’t find something, you get exercise, you get fresh air and you can explore some beautiful little goldrush towns that really need us for their economy.”
None but the most optimistic 21st-century prospectors really believe they’ll find the fabled Lasseter’s Reef or another Welcome Stranger. But you can’t stop a person dreaming.
“Everyone’s after the retirement nugget,” says Ricky Pitts, a self-employed painter from Phillip Island who the previous day with Darren had dug up a 17-ounce nugget near Avoca (worth around $1200). Not bad for 10 minutes’ work with the pick.
“It’s a bit like fishing in the bush,” he says. “If you catch something it’s really exciting but it doesn’t matter if you come away empty handed. The camaraderie of the bush is enough for us.”
“Even if you don’t find something, you get exercise, you get fresh air and you can explore some beautiful little goldrush towns that really need us for their economy.”
- You’ll need a 10-year Miner’s Right licence. They’re $25.20 from the Earth Resources section of the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions.
- You’ll also need a metal detector. They cost from around $60 a day to hire; to buy, they cost from about $1000. Add a hand-pick, a trowel, and tea-making equipment.
- Detailed goldfields maps can be found online at parkweb.vic.gov.au or at prospecting stores. Focus on areas where prospectors worked in the 1800s on Crown land and in state forests. Get permission to fossick on private land.
- Good mining manners mean filling in holes you’ve dug. Using machinery is not permitted, it’s hand tools only. Work slowly and methodically with overlapping sweeps so you cover every inch of ground (it takes around six hours to cover the size of a tennis court). Keep your eyes peeled. Rain can wash away soil to leave gold sitting unassumingly on the surface.
Five bases for a fossicking foray
One of the richest cities in the world at the height of the gold rushes, Ballarat’s legacy of wealth lives on in its grand Victorian streetscapes as well as the family favourite recreated gold town at Sovereign Hill. Ballarat also has a burgeoning foodie and bar scene, and is an arts hub hosting the Ballarat International Foto Biennale every two years.
Eighty kilometres north of Ballarat, Maldon was declared ‘Australia’s first notable town’ by the National Trust in 1966 thanks to its gold-rush architectural legacy and preserved 19th-century feel. This beautiful town has a thriving artistic community and boasts a full events calendar including an annual folk festival on the weekend before the Melbourne Cup.
In the Central Highlands, 71 kilometres north of Ballarat, Avoca is these days better known for its wine industry. Considered the gateway to the Pyrenees wine region, it’s well and truly on the tasting trail.
This little town is a favourite of filmmakers thanks to its perfectly preserved streetscapes. Home of a nationally significant annual book fair, it also has an excellent monthly farmers’ market.
Creswick is an action holiday epicentre thanks to plenty of walking and cycling trails, and the striking pale water of Blue Waters Lake is a draw for photographers.