Many people want to know what we do during the winter when there aren't any tourist around.
We become tourist ourselves and head for a warmer climate - bit like migrating birds.
What else is there to do? Other than stay at home in the cold and do all those things that should be done during the 'quiet season'. But really, it's a lot warmer over in Australia, and it's time to catch up with the family over there.
After a quick visit with daughter and grandchildren in Nambour when we first arrive, we have a few more weeks to fill in before returning to New Zealand. During this time we head for the Gemfields of Central Queensland to spend some time fossicking for sapphires.
Whenever we tell people what we do on holiday they're intrigued about the sapphires.
“Do you find any?” they all want to know. When I show them the jewelery made from some of the stones that we have found, they are amazed at the different colours. Most don't know that sapphires are found in Australia, or that they're not all blue.
I had first seen a ½ green and ½ blue oval cut sapphire in Darwin back in 1981, but didn't buy it as I couldn't afford to get it set. Stupid decision - I've kicked myself ever since! I had asked for years at different places about the coloured sapphires, but no-one knew what I was talking about.
It wasn't until 2002 when we were staying in Bowen, and discussing the roads to take back to Nambour, that someone said they always went back via Emerald, the roads weren't as congested as the Pacific Highway. Straight away, I told Pete that if we were going to Emerald, (which is near the gemfields of Queensland) that I would be buying a coloured sapphire.
After spending the night in Emerald, we headed off to find my sapphire. The little towns of Anakie, Sapphire & Rubyvale are in the heart of the gemfields, and about 45 minutes driving from Emerald. In Rubyvale Pete had breakfast & coffee while I went shopping. It wasn't long before I had found the stone I wanted, and a setting for a ring.
After all those years, I finally had my first coloured sapphire. A beautiful parti stone. (combination of yellow, green & blue) It was a hard choice, as I found there weren't just blues & greens, but all shades in between, plus pinks, purples, orange, and yellows. The reds are commonly known as rubies.
On our way between Rubyvale and Sapphire, Pete saw the junk yard with all the discarded mining machinery.
“Maybe they'll have a part for the old AEC truck. We'll have to come back here,” he said.
“Thank goodness for weight restrictions on the planes”, I thought. I was more interested in the sapphires, and there was the lure of going out to dig for your own, something I had always wanted to try. Plus they don't incur excess baggage, like machinery parts.
In 2003 we went back, this time to dig for our own sapphires. We were going to find the 'big one'. Yeah right! We tried digging for our own, after getting the required fossicking license and borrowing some gear from the Mick and Jane at Rubyvale Motels. The information that came with our fossicking license told us that there were six main public fossicking areas; “The Willows”, “Big Bessie”, “Glenalva”, “Graves Hill”, “Middle Ridge” and “Tomahawk Creek.” Each area had it's own information sheet.
But were do you start? Which was the best area? Then when you get there - where do you dig? What was this stuff referred to as 'alluvial gravel'? How deep was it? What does a sapphire look like? We dug a bit & scratched around where others had dug, but didn't even know were to look or what to look for!
That day, we saw quite a bit of the area but not one little tiny piece of sapphire. Well, if we did, we didn't know it! We had decided that local knowledge was best, (our first rule of tourism) so on our return to the motel we asked Mick and Jane if anyone took out tours. They told us to go out with Keith Bezett of “Fascination Tours”. We had to book through his brother, Dave who owns “Fascination Gems & Crystals”. As well as taking the bookings for the tours, Dave cuts any stones that you find that are worth cutting and can set them into a setting of your choice. If you don't find anything, there is a range of cut local stones and settings so you can get Dave to create your individual piece of jewelery. Or you can choose from the very nice range of jewelery already set, the majority with local sapphires.
Next morning we were down on the corner of the highway at the turn-off to Anakie and Sapphire to meet up with Keith & his dog Jess. Off we set, with several other hopefuls who were also doing the “tag-along tour”. Once on site, he explained how to do find sapphires, and he put some in the sieve for the final wash, so when we found any, we would know what they looked like. Then left us to it, but kept checking on everyone during the day, to make sure we weren't missing any, and throwing any sapphires away in the discard pile. He does check these quite regularly too, and last year I saw him pick one up.
Pete did the digging with the pick and then shovelled up the dirt and stones (wash) into buckets. I tried that but got blisters, so that was it for me.
Next step was the trommel, which the dirt (wash) gets put through - a big round mesh contraption that is rotated by a handle. (Looks much like one of the old “mussel munchers' that we used to use for breaking up the mussel spat.) The trommel is a real work-out for the arms & back!
The last part of the process became my job. This was to wash the 'wash' in the willoughby, then sort what remained for any sapphires. Finally, the sieve was flipped over onto a flat surface.(Imagine flipping a sponge out of it's tin.)
That was the breath-holding moment - are there any sapphires? Well, as I quickly decided, it was a bit like fishing - If your line isn't in the water - you don't catch anything. So if you aren't digging - you're not going to find anything - so keep digging Pete!
On that first trip we found our first tiny yellow sapphire with a greenish tinge, plus a slightly bigger zircon. Dave cut both for us, and set it into a 3 stone pendant (we brought the third stone, another zircon) and that was it. We were hooked!
We've only missed 2 years since then, each time we stay a few days longer. We now have a reasonable collection of sapphires, zircons and star sapphires. I also have another excuse to go hunting for them - sapphires are my birth stone.
I look forward to the call for “smoko” for morning tea and lunch, to take a break from the hard work. It's also a good time to meet the others out for the day and hear if they are finding anything. Pete and Keith take time to discuss the latest rugby results, often with much lively debate.
It's dirty and hard work and usually hot too, but always with that anticipation of finding the 'big one', it becomes addictive. Plus, it is so peaceful out there, and I love golden flowers of the wattle trees. The bird life is abundant too, and there are opportunities for good photographs when they sit in the nearby trees.
You might be lucky and dig for only one day and find a really nice piece of several carats and get a lovely stone cut from it, or you may dig and dig for days, weeks or even years and not find very much. But it's the thrill of the hunt and when someone asks about a ring or pendant that I am wearing, its great to be able to say, “That's one we found.”
If you now decide you would like to try your hand at digging for sapphires, best to ask the expert, Keith on http://sapphiretalk.com/