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How to become an Aussie gold miner

Kiwi-Pommie Engineer Kevin McFarlane QM Magazine Featured Image

Kiwi-Pommie engineer KEVIN MCFARLANE discovers that there’s a bigger opportunity to become a gold miner in central Victoria than you would think.

During the recent end-of-term school holidays, over here in Australia, I took the kids to the Sovereign Hill gold town in central Victoria for an educational (and inspirational) day out.

Near the historic town of Ballarat is a completely enclosed gold mining town. It features replica buildings, staff walking about in 19th century period costumes and activities to watch (eg, candle making, wheel-righting). We strolled around saying “Howdy” to folk; if I had been wearing a wide-brimmed hat I would have ‘tipped’ it to the ladies. I may even have contemplated spitting on the sidewalks if my wife hadn’t forewarned me. We also tried panning for gold in the creek (we actually found some little slithers of the yellow stuff and put them in a jar to keep). Afterwards, we went into an adjacent gold museum.

We wandered about in the conditioned air and read eye-popping stories about how the gold had been extracted from the ground in Victoria since ‘the rush’ that started in the 1850s. By all records and estimates, something between 10,000 to 11,000 tonnes of gold has been extracted from Victoria. At today’s prices ($1584 per ounce as I type) that gold would be worth approximately A$614,613,000,000.

I read, with jaw-dropping fascination, that the largest single gold nugget (the Welcome Stranger nugget) was found about 100 kilometres from Ballarat at a place called Moliagul. It was found in 1869 (wait for it!) just three centimetres below the surface by two Cornishmen, John Deason and Richard Oates, and its trimmed weight was 78 kilograms or 2500 troy ounces. That’s a tad over A$4.4 million in today’s lingo. This humungous nugget was heavier than the other legendary ‘Welcome Nugget’ of 2217 troy ounces (69 kilograms) that had been found in Ballarat in 1858.

On display were full-size replicas of more recently discovered nuggets found by amateur prospectors in the last decade or so and using nothing much more to hand than a metal detector, a hat to keep the sun off their heads, and a sturdy spade. My brain started to hatch a plan and on the way home all I could hear was the word ‘gold’.

Once home, online research revealed some startling facts for ‘household’ prospecting in Victoria.

First, and most importantly, there is still gold out there despite the vast amounts already mined. “An abundance of gold still lies undiscovered in central Victoria and advanced detection technology means anyone can find it,” reported one of Australia’s leading gold prospecting gurus in 2012.

I particularly like the word ‘abundance’ in that report. I also discovered through further study that for not much investment (A$50) anyone can buy a mining licence that’s valid for two years; anyone (with said licence) can “fossick” for the yellow metal on public land without any other permission. The landowner’s permission is however required to hunt for gold on private land.

Add this to the fact there’s a lot of public land in Victoria; whoever finds gold keeps it; and (this is a clincher) in Victoria you can sell the gold at market price and pay no income tax!

As a result of my visit to Victoria’s Golden Triangle (Bendigo – Ballarat – Stawell), I am now saving up for a A$50 (Miner’s Licence) and a A$2000 metal detector – the more expensive detectors ‘look’ deeper into the ground (by as much as one metre), but cost considerably more; perhaps¬ up to A$6000.

I will also need an old fashioned, sturdy pick and a spade to dig with (and to keep Victoria’s venomous snakes at bay); snake gaiters (to wear over my lower legs/ankles to prevent snake bites if the spade/pick doesn’t work); a mule to carry my stuff and any discovered gold; a swag bag to put my nuggets in; another sack for the mule’s oats; braces to hold up my breeches; and a couple of books – The Idiot’s Guide to Fool’s Gold and How to find Gold, Avoid Venomous Snakes and Deal with Stubborn Mules.

By now those of an older generation might be thinking of the same film I am, a classic in the true sense of the word that is still shown on late-night TV over here.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) starred Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston, the father of the famous director, John Huston. Walter won an Academy Award for his role as a pugnacious old gold prospector and John picked up Best Direction. Bogart famously said during filming in Mexico, “One Huston is bad enough, but two are murder.” Which made me think.

A friend of mine (with more youth, energy and willingness to dig in the 40ºC Victorian energy-sapping heat than me) suggested that we could go partners in the hunt for fame and fortune. However, I recalled the tragic and violent end to the movie. A studio tagline at the time stated: “The nearer they get to their treasure, the farther they get from the law.” And greed and mistrust are powerful emotions that can be the result of “gold fever”.

While I like my friend, and am currently law abiding, the lust for treasure might just overcome me the way it affected Huston Senior and Bogart. And as the Bogart character (clearly) I don’t fancy a violent death at the hands of dust-covered, cut-throat, sombrero-wearing bandits.

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