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Nugget Hunting in Western Australia
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Nugget Hunting in Western Australia

CHRIS GHOLSON

 

 

The first thought that crossed my mind when I looked out at the distant horizon was, “So much ground, and so little time...” The vast expanse of land called the Outback spanned in every direction as far as the eye could see. Aside from the insistent Bush flies buzzing around my face, there wasn’t another living soul in sight. This was my maiden voyage to the remote goldfields of Western Australia, and although I had heard it was big, nothing could have prepared me for the enormity of the place. As I walked back to the Toyota to get my metal detector I glanced at the ground underfoot. There seemed to be no end to the miles of red dirt or the quartz that lay scattered across its surface. There could be gold anywhere, but the real question was, where to start? Had I not spent so much time doing research beforehand I could have very easily spent days or even weeks wandering about without finding a single nugget.  

 

The state of Western Australia is not merely big; it is enormous! It takes up about one third of the continent and encompasses an area of nearly 965,255 square miles – that’s three times bigger than the state of Texas! Yet within all this space dwell a mere 1.5 million people; most of which live in the capital of Perth. The Outback is a dry and inhospitable land, which on average, receives less than ten inches of rain per year. The region’s so-called rivers are actually chains of waterholes that only run after a hard rain. Most never reach the sea, but instead widen into shallow, muddy lakes encrusted with salt. Apart from ranching and mining settlements, population is scattered and averages fewer than two persons per square mile.   

 

Western Australia is one of the oldest and flattest regions of land on earth. Its once towering mountains have been torn down with the passage of time, leaving behind a literal treasure trove of minerals. Most of the gold deposits were formed more than 2.5 billion years ago during the Archaean Era, and are typically found in an area known as the Yilgarn Block. This area comprises narrow zones of folded and metamorphosed sediments and volcanic rocks surrounded by granite and granite-gneiss. After countless years of exposure to sun, water, wind, and temperature change, these rocks were eventually broken down. Any particles of ‘free’ gold locked up within the rock were released and redistributed in the soil. This process led to the formation of exceedingly rich patches often containing many hundreds of nuggets; some quite large. The biggest nugget from Western Australia was found at Larkinville in 1931. It weighed a whopping 1,200+ ounces and was found just seventeen inches below the surface! The nugget was nicknamed the “Golden Eagle” because of its unusual resemblance to the bird.   

 

For electronic prospectors, it doesn’t get much better than the goldfields of Western Australia. The country seems as if it was almost made to be detected. It is appealing for a number of reasons, the first being the terrain itself. Most all the ground is flat, so it is easy walking. Second, because the region was never heavily populated, there is very little metallic trash to deal with. And lastly, the goldfields cover a massive area. There are hundreds of miles of unspoiled wilderness to explore, most of which has the potential to carry gold. It is an ideal destination for any nugget hunter, however as I mentioned before it is a big place and if a person doesn’t have an idea of where to start looking, they will almost certainly waste a lot of time. During the past decade I have traveled extensively throughout the region and have provided a brief description of my favorite places to detect. There are many more areas in the state to try your luck, but those listed below have been especially kind to me.  

 

The Pilbara Goldfields

 

Synonymous with red dust, iron ore, and gold, the Pilbara Shire is a vast region that encompasses the northwestern corner of Western Australia. At roughly 154,440 square miles it is the largest shire in the world. Britain would fit on one corner with room for several other European countries as well! Despite its enormous size, the Pilbara only has a population of around 55,000. The region has a tropical, semi-desert climate with temperatures ranging from 32 – 113° F. The Pilbara goldfield is divided into two main districts, that of Nullagine and Marble Bar. The placer deposits in both areas are extensive, and hold the record for producing the largest number of nuggets over 50-ounces in Western Australia!

 

Nullagine: This relatively untouched area is a must for any prospector seeking the true Outback experience. Nullagine is perched on the edge of the Gibson Desert and was founded in 1895. It is not only famous as being one of the most important goldfields at the time, but also has the distinction of being the location where diamonds were first produced in any quantities in Australia. In my opinion, it is one of the more scenic goldfields in Western Australia. The rolling red granite hills and gorges are impressive, and after a good rain, the colorful wildflowers that sprout from the desert floor are spectacular. Today, Nullagine remains much the same as it was a hundred years ago. The heyday might be over, but prospectors armed with metal detectors still walk the hills hoping to regain a piece of its golden past. Some have succeeded.

 

Marble Bar: Gold was discovered in the area in 1891 by Francis Jenkins and party. Marble Bar was declared a town site on July 13th 1893 and, at its peak, boasted a population of about 5,000. At one time it had two pubs, three stores, an aerated water factory, saddler’s shop, Japanese tailors, and four women in the oldest profession of all. Marble Bar derives its name from the immense band of red jasper which crosses the Coongan River about three miles from town. Early gold prospectors mistook the multi-colored outcrop of rock for a marble deposit, hence the town’s name.

 

In most cases the alluvial patches were exceptionally rich, and produced many nuggets over 100-ounces. In 1888 the “Little Hero” nugget of 334-ounces was found on the Shaw River by Doyle and party. At Shark Gully the 490-ounce “Bobby Dazzler” nugget was found by Archie Clive in 1899. Later that year W. H. McPhee unearthed the “General Gordon” nugget which weighed in at 312-ounces. Nuggets continue to be found by metal detectorists in the area, in fact the ‘Bar’ has yielded handfuls of multi-ounce pieces and hundreds of smaller bits within the last few years. One of the biggest finds made in recent times was a 214-ounce whopper found by a husband and wife a few years back with their Minelab. Marble Bar holds the title as Australia’s hottest town, with 160 consecutive days from October 1923 to April 1924 when the temperature never dropped below 100° F! It is a lucrative spot to detect, but one that is best visited during the winter months; from May-September.  

 

The Kimberley Goldfield

 

Even with phones, faxes, and a paved highway, this isolated region has fewer people per kilometer than almost any other place on Earth. Its immense and diverse landscape encompasses rugged ranges, gorges, waterfalls, cave systems, pockets of lush rainforest and an astonishing variety of wildlife. The Kimberley has just two seasons, which are known as The Wet and The Dry. Most visitors to the area choose to come during The Dry which is mid April to mid October. This is an excellent time to go prospecting as the temperatures are mild and the humidity is low.

           

In September 1872 the government decided to encourage the search for gold. Traces had been reported from time to time and after the discovery of significant amounts of gold ore in the eastern states it was hoped that similar finds would be made in Western Australia. A reward of five thousand pounds was offered to anyone who could find a ‘payable’ discovery that produced 10,000-ounces within two years.

 

Two prospectors named Adam Johns and Phillip Saunders took up the challenge and in July 1881 they landed in a place known as Cossack. They found signs of gold at Nickol River and Roebourne and traces of copper at Whim Well, but none of these discoveries were considered payable. They struck east toward the Kimberley’s in April 1882 and found signs of gold in several areas; the most promising of which was in the headwaters of the Ord River.

 

Unfortunately Johns became seriously ill and the expedition was abandoned before any large finds were made. When news of the gold reached the government a new expedition was planned in 1884, this time including an experienced geologist. On the 14th of July 1885 the group discovered the first payable gold near the head of the Elvire River. As soon as word of the discovery leaked the first gold rush in Western Australia was on!

 

Hall’s Creek: Hall’s Creek has been called the oasis of the Kimberley. It lies on the northern edge of the Tanami Desert, roughly 1,740 miles from Perth and 745 miles from Darwin. The discovery of gold on the Elvire River drew in prospectors like a magnet, and by the end of 1885 there were 2,000 miners living in makeshift huts and calico tents around Hall’s Creek. When the gold rush finally came to an end, the town became a small service center for the growing ranching industry. Its location made it the last stop before stock drovers began the treacherous 1,250 mile cattle drive through some of the most isolated country in the world. Thousands of ounces have been recovered from Hall’s Creek with metal detectors ranging from tiny bits less than 1-gram all the way up to huge nuggets as large as a man’s head! In general, the terrain is rougher than the Pilbara, but those that don’t mind putting in the legwork will surely discover that there is still plenty of gold to be found in the Kimberley’s. My last visit through this region produced nearly 9-ounces of shiny nuggets for only two weeks worth of detecting.

 

Australia is an incredibly safe place to prospect, however if you have never traveled Down Under, you may want to consider hiring a local guide. There are several companies that specialize in this sort of thing and can provide everything from one day training sessions to extended, fully catered prospecting trips. Two outfitters I personally know of are: Gold Prospecting Australia (www.goldprospectingaustralia.com.au), or Pioneer Prospecting (www.pioneerprospecting.com.au). If you prefer to plan your own expedition, try visiting the official website of Western Australia at: www.westernaustralia.com. This is an excellent site where you can find all sorts of helpful information for organizing your trip.

 

As far as metal detectors are concerned, anyone planning to tackle the West Australian goldfields will definitely need a machine capable of handling the severe ground mineralization. While there are many makes and models to choose from, by far the most popular brand is the Australian-made Minelab. These detectors utilize a different type of technology known as Pulse Induction, and are able to filter out nearly all the background noise caused by ground mineralization, while still retaining excellent sensitivity. They also have the ability to detect buried targets at upwards of two feet! A new Minelab won’t be easy on the wallet, but if you are serious about finding nuggets they are a worthwhile investment.

 

Other items you will want to pack along include: light weight clothing, comfortable hiking shoes (preferably without metal), snake-proof chaps, GPS, a heavy-duty pick, insect repellant, sunglasses, and a mosquito head net. The last item isn’t necessarily for the Mozzies, as the Australians call them, but rather the flies. Certain parts of the Bush are infested with them, and believe me; these winged nightmares can test the limits of anyone’s sanity! One last thing you will want to obtain before heading out into the field is a Miner’s Right. You are allowed to keep any gold you find in Western Australia, providing you have this permit. A Miner’s Right will give you access to unoccupied Crown Land, pastoral leases, and mining or exploration tenements with written permission. They can be purchased at most any prospecting shop or obtained through a reputable guide. At the time of this writing the fee is $25.00 AU.

 

I have prospected for gold all over the world, but of all the places I’ve been, the goldfields of Western Australia are very near and dear to my heart. It is a magical place that has a way of getting into one’s blood. Perhaps it is the peace and serenity of the Bush, the hospitality of the folks out West, or maybe it’s the chance of striking a huge nugget. Whatever the reasons, I find myself being drawn back year after year. If you have ever dreamed about chasing gold in one of the last wild places on Earth, then a trip to the Outback should top your list of ‘must see’ destinations. Whether you find a pound of gold or a pennyweight, it promises to be an adventure you’ll never forget!

Minelab, Nuggetfinder coils, gold nugget prospecting with metal detectors.Where to find placer gold.
Nugget Hunting in Western Australia

 

             
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