Gems were first discovered in 1870 near Anakie, but until Thai buyers came onto the scene a century later operations were low-key; even today there are still solo fossickers making a living from their claims. Formed by prehistoric volcanic actions and later dispersed along waterways and covered by sediment, the zircons, rubies and especially sapphires found here lie in a layer of gravel above the clay base of ancient river beds. This layer can be up to 15m down, so gullies and dry rivers, where nature has already done some of the excavation for you, are good places to start digging.

Specking and fossicking

Looking for surface gems, or specking, is best after rain, when a trained eye can see the stones sparkle in the mud. It’s erratic but certainly easier than the alternative – fossicking – which requires a pick, shovel, sieve, washtub full of water and a canvas sack before even starting (this gear can be rented at all of the fields). Cut and polished, local zircons are pale yellow, sapphires pale green or yellow to deep blue, and rubies are light pink, but when they’re covered in mud it’s hard to tell them from gravel, which is where the washing comes in: the wet gems glitter like fragments of coloured glass.

You have to be extremely enthusiastic to spend a summer on the fields, as the mercury soars, topsoil erodes and everything becomes coated in dust. The first rains bring floods as the sunbaked ground sheds water, and if you’re here at this time you’ll be treated to the sight of locals specking in the rain, dressed in Akubra hats and long Drizabone raincoats and shuffling around like mobile mushrooms. Conditions are best (and hence the fields busiest) as soon after the wet season as possible (around May), when the ground is soft and fresh pickings have been uncovered.

Gem parks and mine tours

If this all seems like too much hard work, try a gem park such as Pat’s Gem Tourist Fossicking Park (t 07 4985 4544), just outside Sapphire, where they’ve done the digging for you and supply a bucket of wash along with all the necessary gear (around $10–15). All you have to do is sieve the wash, flip it onto the canvas and check it for stones. There’s an art to sieving and flipping, but visitors frequently find stones. Alternatively, Pat’s sells bags for $15 that include among the wash a sapphire ready for faceting (cutting). Gem parks can also value and cut stones for you. Another break from the business end of a pick is to take a mine tour and see if the professionals fare any better. In some ways they do – the chilled air 5m down is wonderful – but the main difference is one of scale rather than method or intent.

Licences and staking claims

If you’re still keen you’ll need a fossicker’s licence, available from shops and gem parks, which allows digging in areas set aside for the purpose or on no-man’s-land. The $7.05 licence is valid for one month and gives you the right only to keep what you find and to camp at fossicking grounds. To “stake a claim” – which gives you temporary ownership of the land to keep others away – you need a Miner’s Right from the field officer in Emerald. This also carries obligations to restore the land to its original state and maintain it for two years after quitting the site.

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