David Whitley joins the bruised investors flocking to the Perth Mint and its stash of gold.
In a climate of banking instability, bailouts and business collapses, it's unusual to come across an operation that is not just surviving but booming. The Perth Mint is one of the unexpected beneficiaries of the global financial crisis. With the public jittery over the banks, house prices rocky and stocks and shares plummeting, people have turned to gold as a safe investment.
And if there's one thing that the Perth Mint has, it's lots of gold. The government-owned institution produces commemorative coins and bullion and acts as both a depository and trading centre. The gold price shot up last year and the mint has experienced a flurry of interest, both from investors and curious visitors. Sales of gold and silver coins from the mint's shop have more than doubled in the past year.
The Perth Mint is a curious mix of high-security trading centre, upmarket souvenir shop and tourist attraction. Many go in purely to buy jewellery and look at the collectors' coins, featuring everything from cutesy koala engravings to Prince Charles memorabilia. The coins are legal tender but it would be absurd to use them. A coin with a face value of $2 is sold for $90 and will probably be worth a lot more in years to come.
The mint also revels in its gold exhibition, which traces the history of the mineral in Western Australia and has a couple of fairly awesome set pieces. By the reception area are a few of the medals from the 2000 Sydney Olympics, which were made at the mint. But the history goes back much further.
WA's first gold was found in Coolgardie in 1892 and the state's population more than trebled in the next four years as people flocked to cash in. Soon after, the world's "richest mile" was discovered in Kalgoorlie and it wasn't long before it seemed sensible to mint it in Perth rather than send everything back to London. That's where the big limestone building that still houses the goodies today came in.
After the brief history lesson, visitors are led to a mocked-up prospector's camp, where giant gold nuggets are on display. Unfortunately, they're models and painted polystyrene isn't quite as valuable. One of the big beasts - the Hand of Faith - was found in rural Victoria and is the largest nugget in the world. The real version is on display at the fittingly named Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas.
Back inside is the world's largest collection of gold bars, all kept behind glass aside from one that visitors can try to lift. It's pretty small but takes a bit of muscle. It weighs 12.54 kilograms and was worth $200,000 at the time it was made but is now valued at considerably more.
There are also opportunities to see how much your body weight would be worth in gold (a cool $3,712,752) and to engrave your own coin.
The highlight is watching the gold being poured. Danny Martin, 26, has the unenviable task of standing by a 1300-degree furnace and handling $200,000 worth of molten gold.
"Please don't try and jump me," he says as he pulls the searing liquid metal out in a clay crucible. He's wearing a wool shirt, as wool smoulders rather than ignites, and has an apron and gloves made of Kevlar. He brushes the crucible against a mitt just to prove how hot it is - the sizzling sound induces shudders.
Very carefully, he proceeds to pour the gold into a mould. "Would anyone like to lick the bowl?" he asks. The bar takes five to 10 seconds to solidify, a process that it should be well used to by now. The same bar has been melted down and reused for the demonstration 30,000 times over the years. Remarkably, none of it has been lost in this time - the weight is carefully logged after every demonstration.
The cooling process is nothing fancy - the mould is just dunked in a sink of water - but soon enough, the bar can be touched with the bare hand.
Anyone who wants to be able to touch gold on a more permanent basis - the security guards and cameras are enough to deter any chancers - is better off heading to the shop, which is what most of the visitors do. In today's world, it seems the Perth Mint has the golden touch.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Western Australia.
Virgin Blue operates daily flights to Perth from Sydney, from $169 one way on the internet. See virginblue.com.au for bookings
The Perth Mint is at 310 Hay Street, East Perth. It is open from 9am to 5pm on weekdays and 9am to 1pm on weekends and public holidays. The tours cost $15 for adults and $5 for children and take place seven times a day (three times on weekends and public holidays). Phone (08) 9421 7222 or see www.perthmint.com.au for more information.