Kookaburras cackled in the trees overhead as my mum knelt down by the bush creek panning for gold. I watched her at work, her hands moving in the water. Suddenly there was a glint in the pan. “Mum, gold!” I gasped. She picked out a buttery fleck of metal. “That’ll pay for some groceries,” she smiled.
It was 1972 and I was eight. We lived in Mudgee, in New South Wales, Australia, a historic gold-rush area.
From that first time, I was captivated and loved gold panning in the creeks, following in the footsteps of my gold-rush ancestors. Mum found a little gold most weeks, enough to pay a bill or put some food on the table.
In my teens I lost interest. I grew up, married, and had three kids. Sadly, my marriage didn’t work out and by 2001 I was a single mum to Mark, then 15, Kirsty, 14 and Kalya, ten.
I worked in admin for a building company in Mudgee and became friendly with a painter, Lincoln Parsons, 48. One day he mentioned that he went gold prospecting at weekends.
“I used to go gold panning with my mum,” I smiled, remembering our trips fondly. Mum had passed away in 1991 from heart problems aged just 54.
Lincoln and I got along well. He was single, and his four children were all grown up. We started dating.
“I’m prospecting with a mate at the weekend. Why don’t you come along?” he suggested one day. It was something different so I agreed.
“Modern metal detectors can pick up gold the old-time prospectors missed,” Lincoln explained as we started searching on the outskirts of a township near Mudgee, in an area where the historic gold-rush pioneers had first worked in the bush.
“Listen for changes in the detector’s background hum,” Lincoln said. I nodded, moving my metal detector over the ground.
After two hours Lincoln and his friend Mike had found a good selection of tiny gold nuggets. I’d found lots of tin cans and wire. Suddenly, my detector buzzed loudly.
Scraping away some earth I uncovered a finger-nail-sized gold nugget.
“Wow. That was easy,” I gasped, forgetting the previous two hours. Lincoln rushed over. “Well done. That’s worth about
A$130 (Dh500),” he beamed. It might not have been a fortune but there were lots of things I could buy with that money – food, treats for the kids, a trip to the cinema. Right then, I got a serious case of gold fever. And from then on I accompanied Lincoln every weekend on gold-prospecting trips. The kids came along too, sometimes, and loved it.
Lincoln averaged about A$400 worth of gold, almost an ounce, every weekend. He would save it up until he had a few thousand dollars worth and then sell it to local gold collectors. Being in the bush, close to nature and cooking over a camp fire, was my idea of heaven. “It’s like being a pioneer 100 years ago,” I marvelled.
By 2005, the kids were all living away from home, with Kalya, my youngest staying with
Lincoln was weary of the painting business. “I’ve been doing it for 30 years,” he sighed. “I’d love to prospect full time instead.” I stared at him, an idea forming.
“What’s stopping us?” I replied. “You’re good at prospecting. If you can find an ounce most weekends you’d probably find two ounces working all week. That would be worth more than A$1,000. We could live off that.”
We each had a house too, so selling those would give us more cash behind us.
“You’re right,” Lincoln grinned. “The worst that could happen is we’d have to go back to our old jobs.”
“You’re going prospecting full time? Cool!” Kalya said when I told her. I’m sure she and everyone else thought we were crazy, but nobody said anything. So we sold our homes, quit our jobs, bought a caravan and four-wheel drive and we headed for Forsayth, in the outback west of Cairns, north Queensland.
We managed to make a living – and loved every minute – but the following year relocated to the west of Australia because there was more space there to prospect and we’d be less likely to run into other prospectors.
Lincoln towed a trailer with our equipment from Mudgee 3,500 kilometres west to Laverton, while I followed towing our caravan.
Laverton was the last town on the bitumen heading east from Perth into outback Western Australia. Rich in quartz rock and ironstone, and normally associated with the formation of gold deposits, it was a place where a lot of gold had been found in the past.
With permission from landowners, we started searching the bush using metal detectors. There were creeks but they were mostly dry.
Lincoln was the big-picture prospector, focusing on an area because experience and ‘feel’ told him gold was there. I trusted his instincts. He always found gold and had an uncanny knack of knowing where to look.
Lincoln would search with the metal detector and then I followed his trail paying closer attention to the ground and listening for sounds from the detector.
“Women have more patience and an eye for detail,” I told him.
Combining our talents paid off and we quickly started finding a couple of ounces of gold a week, worth about A$1,200 which was more than enough to cover our expenses.
Researching prospecting books, maps, geology reports and information held by government mining bodies helped us narrow our searches and led to more success.
But we still trusted Lincoln’s gut instinct, honed by years of prospecting. We’d pack up camp and move on every week or so to search somewhere new, but always stayed within the Laverton region.
Sometimes that meant driving over rugged terrain or hacking through thick bush to the most unlikely places. One day, we ended up in a really remote spot.
“I’ve got a feel for this place,” Lincoln said enthusiastically. He left me to work the area while he went off to check out another spot.
I got out my metal detector and swept it over the ground at the rear of the caravan. The detector immediately pinged and I scraped away the earth to reveal a one-ounce nugget.
Minutes later I found a half-ounce piece and then a five-and-half-ounce nugget. It was the biggest I’d ever found and worth about $3,500. Excited, I called Lincoln on the two-way radio. “I think you better come back,” I told him.
He returned to the caravan and when I showed him what I’d found his eyes lit up.
“I can’t believe it,” he grinned. I’d made thousand dollars a few steps from my car.
We’d spend up to eight hours a day prospecting, sometimes we found nothing, other times five or more ounces in a day.
We aimed to find at least a couple of ounces a week. Every fortnight we headed into Laverton town to buy supplies.
“Goodness knows what we look like,” I laughed to Lincoln. Then I caught sight of myself and stopped laughing. Tanned, scruffy and wild-haired I looked like I’d gone feral. We could rig up a shower in the bush, but it wasn’t like the real thing.
Sometimes we hit a dry run and found nothing all week. Then, inevitably, we’d stumble on a great find.
One week we found 20 ounces after a bad week. We’d save up the gold until we had about 30 ounces or so and then I’d head into the city to sell it at the Perth Mint.
The prospecting season ran from March to September. Outside of those months it was just too hot in Western Australia. We’d go back to Mudgee, prepare for the next season and pick up casual work.
At the end of our first season we’d made about A$100,000, which was more than we’d made at our old jobs and couldn’t wait to get back for the second season in 2008.
A shocking find
That season we headed back to the bush around Laverton. Going over some promising ground my detector started bellowing. ‘It’s either a big nugget or a big tin can,’ I thought, scrapping away earth. The detector bellowed even louder.
Realising I might have some digging to do, I called Lincoln over. The more soil he shifted with his shovel the louder the detector got. “I hope it’s not a tin can,” I winced as Lincoln sweated in the heat. “If its gold I reckon it’s a good size,” he grinned. When he was at 70 centimetres he hit rock, studded with flecks of gold. “Oh my goodness,” I gasped. “That’s going to be a big nugget.”
Finally he pulled the rock clear.
“That’s a brilliant find,” Lincoln beamed.
It turned out to be a ten-ounce rock containing six-and-half ounces of gold, worth over A$4,000.
Emus, snakes and the great outdoors
It wasn’t always that easy though. There were some hassles. Deadly brown snakes usually got out of the way, but emus with chicks didn’t.
While we prospected a sparsely vegetated patch one day Lincoln wandered off to explore. Suddenly he came racing back, red-faced and panting. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked.
He looked terrified. “An emu chased me,” he gasped. “I had to run round and round the only tree I could find until it gave up.”
Creepy crawlies were everywhere, but they didn’t bother me too much, except for the giant golden orb spiders.
Head down, scouring the ground, I was forever walking into their big webs spun at head height.
Anyone watching would have seen a mad woman shrieking, jumping up and down and flapping her arms.
We were followed by dingoes a few times and I had an uneasy feeling once when I heard a pack howling not far away and I was alone.
But mostly the wildlife was one of the best things about being out in the bush.
The landscape was stunning too.
“I can’t believe how lucky we are,” I often grinned to Lincoln as we sat round a campfire watching the sun go down.
Expanding the business
In August 2009, after almost four years full-time prospecting, earning roughly A$100,000 every year we returned to Mudgee to care for Lincoln’s elderly parents.
We continued prospecting at weekends and in December that year with the money we’d earned finding gold we had enough to open a gold-prospecting shop called Nuggets From Down Under. Kalya, then 19, came to work in the shop. The business thrived as the ever-rising gold price attracted people to prospecting.
I didn’t turn the gold I found into jewellery, I sold it so I could keep prospecting. In 2011, with the gold price soaring, we opened another shop in Laverton and Lincoln returned to full-time prospecting. I split my time between Mudgee and Laverton.
“There are more women out there prospecting now,” Lincoln reported from Western Australia. Usually they were with their partners or members of prospecting clubs. The steadily climbing gold price was drawing more people. I started seeing more women customers in the shops too and a lot more young people. They all wanted to know if it was possible to make a living at it. With the gold price soaring, the answer was yes.
Right now it’s about A$1,500 an ounce, but it was A$1,700 a few months ago.
It’s great finding gold, but we love the lifestyle too. We’ve shut the Laverton shop down now so we can focus on prospecting again.
Lincoln and I easily find two ounces a week in the Laverton area.
With the Mudgee shop we’re doing well - even if we only found half what we do we’d be earning a living.
There’s still plenty of gold to be found all over Australia. Prospectors are secretive, but there’s a rumour going around prospecting circles that someone has found a 20-kilogram nugget worth over A$1 million in Western Australia. Stories like that spur us on.
Passing on skills
Prospecting is my passion. I’ve even started how-to courses in Western Australia. We teach people the basics of metal detecting and the kind of ground that produces results. Gold is often found where you see greenstone rock, quartz and changes in the topography of the ground itself.
Our students always find some gold. Just a few weeks ago one guy found a A$1,100 nugget.
After a few hours during one course recently the blokes went off to play on the quad bikes.
The women continued searching for gold.
“I reckon we make better prospectors,” I laughed to Kayla. (She works with us, running the Mudgee shop while we’re away.)
“The blokes are good for digging holes though,” she grinned.
I’m thrilled to be prospecting full time again. When it comes down to it, I’m just a gold digger at heart!