“A cup-of-tea sir, would you like one?”
“Oh, no thanks,” I said feeling embarrassed for not understanding her accent the first time. The stewardess gave a small smile as she rolled the overworked beverage cart down the aisle. I twisted in my seat letting my head rest again on the window. I flattened my nose against the scratched plastic for a closer look below. Clouds, lots of water…more clouds. Not much to see just yet. I turned to my right; a woman in her late 30’s was sprawled out across three seats snoring away. See had gotten a whole row to herself while the rest of us were packed in like cattle, ‘Lucky’ I thought.
What little sleep I had gotten was accomplished by wedging my head in the crack between the seat and window so I didn’t get whiplash every time I nodded off. I glanced over at my father sitting beside me. His eyes were closed as he rubbed the bridge of his nose. It had been a long haul – really long! With actual flight time and layovers, we had spent the better part of two days in route to our destination. I felt a poke in the arm. I turned back to my father who smiled through bloodshot eyes. He pointed to his watch and held up three fingers. Salvation was at hand! A few more hours, god willing, would see us safely to Perth.
I despised these long flights, but I couldn’t keep myself away from Australia. Actually this was my eighth trip to the Land Down Under. My first experience in 1995 took me through New South Wales and further north along Queensland’s tropical coast. No gold for me that trip, but I met a lovely woman along the way whom I eventually married nine years later. In ’98 my father Steve and I decided to tackle the Outback together and spent six weeks living out of a tent. Using our metal detectors, we prospected some of the most remote regions of the country getting as far as the jungles of the Northern Territory. The gold had been wonderful, in fact, the first nugget Steve dug weighed over an ounce! We brought home nearly 200 pieces including 3-ounces worth of crystalline gold we chipped from a shallow vein.
We had high hopes for this trip as well. We would be meeting fellow prospector and friend, John, for several weeks of detecting around the remote mining town of Meekatharra in Western Australia. Located on the Great Northern Highway, “Meeka” is the largest center in the Murchison region, and is accessible by road from Perth in the south, Geraldton in the west and from the Pilbara in the north. As far as gold goes, it has been an incredible producer of alluvial (or placer), with some nuggets weighing in excess of 150 ounces!
Once in Perth, we chose to catch a small, twin prop plane cutting the travel time to Meeka from 12 hours to only 2. These aircraft are used almost exclusively for transporting miners back & forth from the open-cut gold mines. A private individual can book a seat if they are willing to pay the fare; which isn’t always cheap. It was a quick flight and offered an impressive view of the landscape below. The first thought that came to mind as we soared across the vast sea of red dirt was, “So much ground to detect, and so little time…”
As the tiny plane taxied in, I spotted John’s rig parked just behind the one room building that served as the entire airport. The “truck”, as John calls it, has been customized especially for prospecting in the bush. It resembles a semi truck built for off-road travel. He has equipped it with larger tires, extra fuel tanks, 1,000 gallon water tank, solar panels, room for a quad, internal storage for detecting gear, and a slide-out kitchen complete with stove! The biggest drawback to this otherwise flawless prospecting machine was the fuel consumption. As you might imagine, when fully loaded down the truck’s engine drank gasoline like a man lost in the desert for a week! There was a nice motel in town, but with the price of fuel running nearly $5 US per gallon; it was pointless to commute everyday. Any profits made on gold would be quickly chewed up in gas, so we headed out bush to camp.
For a gold prospector, the location we picked to call home was prime real estate; lots of open spaces, plenty of dead Mulga trees for firewood, and best of all, nuggets within a stones throw away! I’m not exaggerating; we actually found a small nugget about ten feet behind my father’s tent! With good prospects so close to home we decided to hang around local for the first week. The ground here was predominantly flat, most of which was covered in tiny brown stones called laterite. Our Minelab GP3500 metal detectors had very little trouble with the ground mineralization. Occasionally when we ventured into areas with higher salt concentrations we opted to use the Nugget Finder XP Double D coils, but for the most part we were able to run the Nugget Finder Monoloop coils.
The first weeks take was slow; yielding only about an ounce of small bits. Then our luck changed for the better when the three of us decided to revisit an old patch. It had been worked and reworked by detectorists, but we figured any spot that had given up 80+ ounces was worth another look. Instead of spending a lot of time on the main run which had already been “pushed” with machinery, we concentrated on the fringes. Not even fifteen minutes into it I began finding a few tiny nuggets on the slope of a long, laterite covered ridge. My father Steve hiked his way to the top of the ridge while John wandered further in the valley where the overburden became deeper. Not long after a voice came through on the radio. It was John calling to let us know he had found a target which sounded deep and possibly quite large. Our luck had slowed up, so we walked over to have a listen.
The signal sounded sweet. All of us agreed it had to be gold, but from the surface it was impossible to tell just how big it would be. Using a pick that more closely resembled a battle axe, John quickly opened the hard packed ground. With several inches of material off the top the signal strength really improved; we all giggled like children in anticipation. The hole continued to get bigger until the detector alerted us that the target had been moved into the freshly dug pile. A bystander would have thought we hit the Lotto from the round of cheers that went up when Jonathan held out a solid 2-ouncer! A nugget this massive on a patch that had been hammered to death was indeed testament to the capabilities of the Minelab GP Series. “If this piece had been missed, what else could be left?” we all wondered. This discovery kicked us into high gear and we spiraled out from the hole, picking up an additional ounce of smaller nuggets. We lay to rest a few beers that evening as we celebrated around the fire; satisfied with a bit over 3-ounces for the day.
We came upon another productive, but labor intensive area a few miles away. This patch, much like the one mentioned above, must have been incredibly rich in its heyday. Someone had brought in a piece of heavy equipment and removed the topsoil, taking the entire area down to what I initially thought was bedrock. When I started to dig out a gold nugget the previous hunters had been overlooked I quickly realized how wrong I was. This was not your normal run-of-the-mill bedrock it was CAP!
If you’ve never had the privilege of working caprock consider yourself lucky. Caprock is a conglomerate consisting of sand and gravel cemented into a hard mass by precipitated calcium carbonate. There are similar formations called caliche or calcrete found in the southwestern US, Mexico, Peru, and Chile. Regardless of name, this stuff is hard! I’m not kidding in the least when I say I would have preferred digging gold from concrete. BANG, BANG, BANG!!! I slammed into the impervious layer with my pick over and over, yet the tiny divots I made in the rock only taunted me. I kept this pace for a better part of an hour until my fingers hurt so badly from the vibrations that I was forced to take a break. Feeling beaten I rolled onto my back trying to catch my breath.
Finally John strolled over and proceeded to say with a smile, “There is an easier way mate. I’ve got a jackhammer in the truck…” I didn’t know whether I wanted to kill him or kiss him. He and my father chuckled as they wandered back to the rig to fetch the hammer and generator. Once the hammer was kicked into action there was little the cap could do to stop me from claiming my prize. Moments later I was holding a brand new ¼ ounce nugget. It was a nice lump, don’t get me wrong, but if there were any more left they could stay there – I was officially out of the cap digging business!
The remainder of our time in Australia was spent doing day trips into the surrounding country looking for new patches. We covered miles of juicy looking ground, most of the time never seeing another soul. We found lots of “widow” nuggets and those disappointing 2 or 3 nugget patches that never really turned into much. As strange as this might sound, one of the most exciting days our group had also proved to be the most disheartening. We drove the truck as far as the road would allow. Once it had vanished completely we parked and unloaded the quad. Three grown men laden with prospecting gear piled onto the back of the poor Honda. It moaned and groaned for a moment, but once in motion, the 4-Wheeler whizzed us along at a decent pace through the scrub.
Half an hour later the bike came to a screeching halt. We had just driven over the top of a decomposed quartz vein. The color of the soil, the heavy ironstone present and of course the quartz all screamed of gold. We decided to give it an hour then leave if nothing came of it. Within five minutes Steve had netted a nugget just behind where Jonathan had parked the quad. He took another few steps and hit a screamer of a signal. He didn’t have to look far; lying right on top of the ground shining in the sun was a flat 4-gram nugget! Everyone knew this had to be the start of a monster patch; the piece my father had just found was surely only the tip of the iceberg. The more we talked about it the more we worked each other into a frenzy. We tediously gridded the entire area, sadly three hours later we still had just 2 nuggets in the bottle. Our super patch had turned out to be a super dud, but we all agreed the temporary adrenaline rush had been worth it. That’s one of the things I enjoy most about metal detecting; when you hit that first nugget you just never know where it’s going to lead you…
We didn’t strike any bonanzas this time around, but the three of us managed to kick up approximately 7-ounces of buttery yellow Australian gold in less than 3 weeks. I always enjoy my trips Down Under and this was no exception. I am thankful for being able to make such a wonderful expedition, and of course for getting to spend quality time with my father. Each year it gets harder for the two of us to coordinate our schedules to allow for big trips like this. So in reality, even if I hadn’t found a single nugget the trip would have still been worth every penny.
If you are as fanatical about metal detecting as I am, and craving a true modern day adventure, the goldfields of Australia won’t let you down. I have visited many, many places in this sun burnt land and all are unique and beautiful in there own right, however my favorites are those found out west. This is the region most Aussies call the “Outback” and for nugget hunters this is as good as it gets. Mostly flat ground, widely scattered patches, and very little trash; it’s almost as if this terrain was made to be detected!
There’s also plenty of space to stretch out and take in the vastness. Western Australia is not merely big; it is humongous! It takes up about one third of the continent and encompasses an area of nearly 2.5 million square kilometers – that’s three times bigger than the state of Texas! Yet within all this space dwell a mere 1.5 million inhabitants; most of which live in Perth. With this in mind, I would suggest that all would-be travelers plan ahead; pack plenty of supplies, bring spare parts for your vehicle and check in with the local shire if you are traveling alone. Preparation and common sense will see you safely through this corner of the earth that still remains largely untouched by the hand of progress. I hope all of you have a chance to visit the Outback one day; it is truly a wondrous place.