Sandy Guy tries her hand at gold prospecting with a metal detector and has a golden moment.
The metal detector is squealing so loudly that, for a moment, we think we've found another gold nugget like the Welcome Stranger. But we haven't struck it rich. Instead, my partner has learnt rule No. 1 of gold detecting: don't wear steel-capped boots.
The 64.5-kilogram Welcome Stranger, the world's largest nugget of gold, was discovered at Moliagul in 1869 and today we're trying our luck in the same goldfields region.
Modern-day prospectors like John Gladdis, from Coiltek Gold Centre in Maryborough, say more gold remains in the ground than was ever removed during the gold rush and that old goldfields such as Tarnagulla, Waanyarra, Bealiba, Goldsborough, Rheola, Inkerman and Dunolly continue to provide rewards.
I have decided to try my luck prospecting around Dunolly, 174 kilometres north-west of Melbourne. Along with the almost-forgotten gold rush towns of Moliagul and Tarnagulla, Dunolly is said to be site of the world's richest deposits of alluvial gold.
A living snapshot of Victoria's gold rush history, Dunolly features a parade of colonial buildings that remain from the days the town was hectic with theatres, bowling alleys, sly-grog shanties, pubs, brothels and scores of shops, serving a population of 45,000 in its heyday in the 1850s and '60s.
While these days Dunolly also features a gold shop – Gold Search Australia – where you can hire metal detectors and purchase maps, the business doesn't run guided tours. So, being novices at the gold game, we head to nearby Maryborough to meet Gladdis at his shop.
Gladdis has been chasing gold for more than 30 years. Display cases at his shop are filled with all sorts of relics like coins, opium boxes, manacles, troopers' spurs, medallions and gold brooches and photos of nuggets dug up in the region over the years.
"One bloke found a nugget worth $30,000 on his first time out. Not a bad afternoon's work," says Gladdis. “Another unearthed a 1930 penny that sold for more than $17,000. Central Victoria is like a treasure trove. When you're going for gold, you never know what you'll find.”
Driving with Gladdis along a scenic web of backroads, we pass farmlands dotted with mullock heaps, the sites of old puddling machines and several ghost towns like Havelock, once home to about 6000 people and now a series of paddocks without so much as a chimney still standing.
No matter where you look, the landscape is scarred from mining. “The diggers were like ants going after gold,” Gladdis says. We learn to prospect deep in the bush, picking up the sounds to listen for when the detector passes over metal. “It's like playing golf,” says Gladdis. “The more you swing a detector, the better you get at it. Gold fossicking requires good equipment, patience – and plenty of luck.”
The heavily treed bush, perfumed with the scent of eucalyptus, is silent but for chirping birds as we start searching.
“There's nothing better than walking through the great Australian bush,” Gladdis says. “And if a piece of gold pops up, what a bonus.”
And, a few hours later, pop up it does. My son gets a strong resonance on his detector. We brush away some leaves and swing the detector again. Sound still there. Barely able to contain our excitement, we dig and unearth a small nugget. It mightn't be the Welcome Stranger, but we're ecstatic at our own Eureka moment.
Sandy Guy visited Dunolly and Maryborough with the assistance of Goldfields Tourism.
To go prospecting you need Victorian Miners Rights ($29.20 for two years from the Department of Primary Industries and Sustainability and Environment, see www.dpi.vic.gov.au). They are also available from selected tourist information centres and prospecting equipment shops, including Coiltek which runs prospecting tours on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; $120 a day for one detector and guiding. Phone 5460 4700, see coiltek.com.au. Hunt's Folly provides accommodation in Dunolly for $120 a couple a night (Monday to Thursday), $150 Friday, Saturday or Sunday nights. See huntsfolly.com.au and dunolly.com.au.