From June to October, Rubyvale heats up just as the thermometer drops down. New faces appear in town, the Pub is standing room only, bottles fly out of the bottle shop. This is the seasonal surge of fossickers, vaguely reminiscent of the wildebeest migration in the Serengeti or the Tokyo subway at rush hour. The lure of sapphires, just there for the taking, is what draws the hopeful hordes – the adventurous, the resourceful and the bejewelled. They’ve been coming to Rubyvale since a railway surveyor stumbled upon his first sapphire in 1875 – and promptly quit the railway business. It takes drive, persistence and sometimes dumb luck to find a precious gem, but these traits stand you in good stead in Rubyvale. They are the same qualities needed to cut through to the bar when the Pub is full of thirsty fossickers.
Is it a sapphire or is it a rock?
Rubyvale is a prime source for sapphires of all hues – blue, green, yellow and black star. ‘Parti-colour’ sapphires are mulitcoloured (and therefore perfect for parties since they go with everything!) and red sapphires are… rubies! Pay close attention to your finds – sapphires in their natural state are like wall flowers at a dance – dull and homely. Your job is to sift through the raw material to separate the belles from the dogs, not so easy when they are all dusty rocks. The secret is to have high hopes for any stone that has even a slightly glossy appearance, even if the colour seems quite dark. Hold the stone up to the sunlight and squint – if it is transparent or translucent, it is most likely a gem of one kind or another.
Where to fossick:
There are five fossicking areas in Rubyvale Township (Reward, Middle Ridge, Scrub Head, Divide and Tomahawk Creek). All but Tomahawk Creek are relatively close to town. In addition, there are six fossicking parks. Fossicking parks allow anyone, young or old, to experience the excitement of finding a sapphire without the drudgery of shovels or the inconvenience of blisters. More about the parks later…
Important note: Tempting as it is to fossick where you will, fossicking is a regulated activity in Queensland. To find out where fossicking is permitted in the Central Highlands, visit the Queensland Government Mining and Safety site. You must purchase a fossicking permit to enter and fossick on any non-exempt land in Queensland. You can either obtain this permit upon arrival in Rubyvale at the Little House of Gems or visit the Department of Mines and Energy website for a list of agents for fossickers’ licenses in Queensland.
Unless all the planets are in alignment and you’ve just discovered the end of the rainbow, you are far more likely to get a good meal at the NRHR Pub than to innocently stumble upon a giant sapphire. However gem grade sapphires and other precious stones are still to be found in the rubble of dried up ancient streams – rocky patches (called ‘wash’) that underlay the sod and sub soil. You can go to an area that the Queensland Department of Mines and Energy has designated as sapphire-likely and just stick your spade anywhere in the earth, or you can do what the smart tourists do: look for a pre-dug hole that has been abandoned by someone without your patience or keen geological instincts. There, amid the dross he left behind, are quite possibly some of Queensland’s finest gems.
Important note: Assuming that a hole has been abandoned by another fossicker can be dangerous to your health, especially if the fossicker is only off at the New Royal Hotel Rubyvale having a beer. If you find a bucket or similar object in a hole, take it as a gentle reminder to shovel off elsewhere. Otherwise relations may become strained – picture Rubyvale Roughnut hot on your trail …
Once you have decided upon a genuinely abandoned hole, clean it up and extend it outwards. The collection of stones, rocks and pebbles found under the vegetation and subsoil but above the layer of clay are your most likely suspects. At this point you will wish that you actually paid attention during your high school geology class. Is this ironstone or is it a black sapphire? Don’t trust the fossicker at the next hole to give you the straight answer.
Separating the sapphires from the stones
Sapphires are the heaviest gem stones (greatest specific gravity) next to diamonds. Clean the stones using water, sieves and a Willoughby (a gravel washer – see www.gemfossicking.com.au/fossicking_guide for instructions on how to make your own). Once the dust has been washed away, flip the sieve upside down on a Hessian bag (‘burlap’ for you foreigners) or similar onto a table or other comfortable surface so that you can examine your finds without killing your back. Sunlight is helpful! Starting at the middle, examine the stones for colour (blue, green, yellow, red and orange are the most likely, though red and orange are likely zircons), gloss and translucence. Be on the lookout for the unexpected – star sapphires, loose change and diamonds already set in gold or platinum. Pocket anything you even suspect of being valuable – remember people do find gems worth thousands of dollars! Take these to one of the many gem shops for professional analysis. Avoid sending to the United States for appraisal.
Fossicking parks – the easier path for the casual prospector
These establishments sell you a bag of wash and show you how to sieve, rinse and sort the sapphires from the common gravel. It is the perfect ‘fossicking lite’ solution for those who are complete novices, who have recently shampooed and showered, or who are optimistic enough to believe that the proprietors overlooked a few multi-carat sapphires in order to encourage business. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, you’re ready to hire a fossicking kit and try your luck with the big boys out in the fields!
100% guaranteed fossicking success
Short on time or down on your luck? Fossick Rubyvale’s gem shops, offering you beautiful stones that come pre-polished and already in a setting (i.e. jewellery), at prices that are sure to please. You cut out the calluses and sun burn and still go home with a lasting memento of Outback Queensland. At the Rubyvale Gem Gallery, owner Peter Brown is a recognized sapphire specialist and one of the best gem cutters in the Gemfields today. He’ll facet and set your finds or sell you jewellery of his own creative design. Michael and Karen at Little House of Gems are a font of information even as they sell gems destined to become family heirlooms. Ask at the Pub for recommendations of other gem outlets scattered around town – some are tucked away in people’s homes or in small sheds but definitely worth a look!
* Free advice is worth exactly what you paid for it.