Gold prospecting in Australia comes back into fashion

 

Nick Bryant tries his luck at finding gold in the New South Wales bush

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In creeks and hollows that were once the focus of a 19th Century gold rush, modern-day prospectors have come in search of their fortunes. Nugget by nugget. Speck by tiny speck.

Four hours' drive inland from Sydney, over the Great Dividing Range that separates this vast continent, the scenery is classic Australian bush.

Mike Honeysett, prospecting When the detector bleeps, you start digging

Dry scrubland. A parched stream. Rust-coloured soil. Peeling eucalyptus trees, with barks that look like ancient parchments.

Yet the sound of kookaburras singing in the trees is drowned out by the undulating whine of expensive metal detectors.

Prospectors still venture out with old-fashioned pans, sifting through the sludge, pebbles and debris scooped up from the creek. But the modern-day tools of the trade are top of the range detectors.

Lucrative work

For some this has become a career.

Kim Ellis and her husband, Linc, gave up their jobs to pursue what started out as a hobby full-time.

Australian prospectors, in an 1851 engraving Most "finds" are false alarms, but the 19th Century gold rush brought prosperity to some rural towns

"I was working for a construction company, and Linc had a business painting and decorating. He just said to me one weekend, 'I'd like to do it full-time.' And I had the confidence in him to sell our houses, quit our jobs, buy a caravan and a few quad bikes, to pack the galah [cockatoo] and the dogs and off we went."

Since then the couple have made hundreds of thousands of dollars. They also have shops in Western Australia and New South Wales packed with equipment, hi-tech and old, for Australia's new prospectors.

Their core clientele used to be the so-called "grey nomads" - retirees looking to augment their pensions. Now, increasingly, they are seeing young people from the cities coming through their doors. No wonder: gold prices have risen almost 25% since the beginning of this year.

Prospecting is also a pretty lucrative occupation for another prospector, Mike Honeysett.

He's deaf, and rather than relying on the high-pitched whine of the metal detectors he keeps a close eye on its digital display. Right now it reads 90%, and he drops to his knees, with spade in hand, to start scraping away at the soil.

He picks up a clump, and again the detector registers a high reading. Then he divides the soil in two, in an attempt to isolate his find. Now he can feel a small metallic fragment in his hand. He scrapes away the soil, to see if he has found gold. Alas, all that he has dug up is a small lump of lead.

No rush

This can be back-breaking work, for even in the favourite haunts of local prospectors most digs end in failure. Kim says there is a one in 20 hit rate. Most "finds" turn out to be false alarms. But gold has a powerful allure, and keeps people going.

Sure enough, moments later, Mike's persistence pays off. He's uncovered a tiny fragment the size of a small ladybird.

Stefan Grossenbacher holds a nugget he found in Australia Some nuggets are worth a small fortune

It is worth about $100 (£65), and is a valuable addition to his week's haul. He has been out prospecting about four hours this week and found about $500 worth of gold. Not a bad return. Had he uncovered a nugget, he could have made $2,000 (£1,300) or more.

The nearby town of Mudgee stands as a landmark to the riches that a gold rush can bring. With some impressive Victorian civic architecture and an air of prosperity, it is one of the most elegant towns in rural Australia.

It is hardly witnessing another gold rush. Locals reckon that only four people have come to live in the town as a result of the gold. But it is becoming something of a golden hub for weekenders from Sydney and elsewhere who want to try their luck.

Steve Mini is among the novices taking it up. A professional motorcyclist, he sees it as something he could perhaps do when he retires from biking.

Wearing a baseball cap to protect him from the sun, he's moving slowly through the bush, hovering his metal detector about 5cm above the ground and moving it gently from side to side.

Then the pitch of its whine hints at possible success. "This could be my life-changing nugget," he says hopefully.

But when he sinks his spade into the turf, all he comes up with is a bucketful of worthless dirt.

 
Nick Bryant Article written by Nick Bryant Nick Bryant New York correspondent

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