Tom Sundstrom searches for sapphires at Pat’s Gems.
Tom Sundstrom searches for sapphires at Pat’s Gems. Contributed

Pack a sieve for a treasured holiday

EVERYONE has a story to tell.

“My neighbour picked up one walking down the street of town. It was 30 carat, worth about $2000,” said the guy at the corner store.

“The bloke here yesterday found a 29 carat star sapphire,” came from the bloke at the fossicking park.

Wherever we went in the Queensland towns of Sapphire and Rubyvale we heard someone’s story of how they, or someone they knew, had found something worthwhile digging in the ground.

This is part of the attraction of these two tiny towns in the heart of the Australian Gemfields.

And it was hearing similar stories that made us decide to do the 900km trek from the Sunshine Coast in freezing July.

The January floods brought destruction across Queensland.

But in their wake they were said to have washed away the topsoil from the earth and brought the gems to the surface, making it easy pickings for those prepared to look.

Rubyvale is about 50km from Emerald. The Rubyvale caravan park was packed to capacity – and we were out-of-season.

We didn’t have the foggiest idea how to search for sapphires so our first stop was the nearby gem shop.

The helpful local not only showed us what a sapphire in the rough looked like – it is hard to distinguish from road tar – he taught us how to test if it was real.

Take a torch light and shine it under the stone, if the light shines through and it has a marble-like appearance, you’ve got something.

He also advised us on how to wet and sieve the dirt to make it easier to find something worthwhile.

But the best way to learn about fossicking 101 is to take a trip to one of the many gem stone patches in town.

For $8, Pat’s Gems will give you a bucket of dirt from a mining site, they’ll teach you how to wash the dirt, sieve it and then use a toothpick to look for something of value.

We had slim pickings in our barrel. Pat herself only found about five worth keeping. But for $8 we had a fantastic learning experience and several hours of fun.

Lesson over, the next day we head off into the designated fossicking areas. You need to buy a licence from the caravan park in Sapphire. At $9 a year for a family, it’s cheap as chips.

The bloke in the gem shop hired us all the gear we’d need for $20: spades, sieves and large buckets filled with water to clean the dirt.

We found what we thought was a hole and Doug began digging. He dug all day, a hole that was the maximum allowable depth of two metres, and he found nothing.

That’s when another local gave us a tip – Armfest in Sapphire sold buckets of wash (clean dirt) for $20 and you were virtually guaranteed to make a good find.

Armfest was fantastic. With the use of a Willoughby to make the sieving easier, we were quickly able to pick out a couple of bags of sapphires, one alone with an estimated value of $120 that easily paid off our expense.

More than finding the gems, we had a whole lot of fun and coffee, tea, Milo and biscuits were included in the entry fee.

We also bought a “take-away” bag of cleaned dirt and have had many hours of many pleasures sifting through the stones, shining a light under the rocks and finding treasures.

Fossicking provides a family holiday everyone is guaranteed to enjoy.

It doesn’t matter if you walk away with a giant sapphire, or a bag of rocks, it’s an experience you’ll treasure.

Queensland Gemfields

  • Emerald, Rubyvale, Sapphire, Anakie and The Willows in Central Queensland form the heart of the gemfields.
  • Fossicking licences can be bought in the town and the gear can be hired at various outlets.
  • Easy options include visits to places like Pat’s Gems and Armfest where you can get a bucket of wash taken from the mines and save the trouble of digging in the ground.
  • The gemfields are a major supplier of sapphires to the world market.
  • Sapphires come in a range of colours: green, yellow, red, orange, brown and violet.
  • Many people find them while walking and they notice something sparkle on the ground, most often you need to dig, sieve and clear the wash to have any luck.
  • Sapphires are second only to diamonds in hardness and are one of the five most prized gems in the world.
  • The Sapphire Gemfields are open all year, but are more popular from April to October.

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