Annabel Candy goes in search of some hidden gems, fossicking around Rubyvale in the remote Queensland outback. Does she strike her fortune?
There’s no treasure map but, like many before us, we’ve come to Rubyvale looking for sapphires. The road out of town is lined with higgledy-piggledy houses, cobbled together from billy boulders, corrugated iron and bleached timber, their dull decay a sharp contrast to the bright, sparkly stones that have attracted us here.
Signs for fossicking tours or gem-cutting abound. The pioneering locals are keen to capture the tourist dollar but digging for sapphires isn’t just a tourist attraction. It’s a way of life for the hardy locals and a calling for people from around the world. Fortunately, although Europeans first discovered sapphires here a century ago, there are still plenty to be found.
We pass a sign that says ‘Designated Fossicking Land’. This is one of five areas in the Central Queensland Sapphire Gemfields where you can buy a fossicking permit and try your luck. Rubyvale is soon behind us, the narrow road flanked by tattered gum trees and dry, stony earth. I can taste the dust in my nose then, when the car stops, the sound of leaves rustling and bird calls fill the air too.
It’s early morning and mid-winter but the sun is high, already hot. The trees are too far spaced to provide much shade but it’s obvious what we have to do. A rough pit has already been dug out by other fossickers and our tour guide points out the layers of sand, clay and granite basement where sapphires are found in narrow runs.
It’s hard work digging the earth, sieving dust and washing the stones. We tap the sieve repeatedly over a bucket of water so the heavy sapphires sink to the bottom. Finally it’s time for the moment of truth. I turn out my sieve and inspect the contents, holding my breath and hoping.
Alas, there’s no treasure for me today but the week before a passing grey nomad found a six-carat yellow sapphire in an $8 bucket of wash, the leftover soil from a commercial mine. The rough gems don’t look like much but when you hold them up the sun they glow brightly.
At Rubyvale Gem Gallery, their full beauty is revealed. Here the gems are faceted, making the light bounce off them until they sparkle wildly. Sapphire rings, necklaces and earrings are for sale to people like me who didn’t find their own rock but the loose-cut stones fascinate me most.
A berry-sized, 25-carat yellow sapphire is valued at $95,000, but a deep green 18-carat, parti-coloured stone which flashes yellow, blue and turquoise catches my eye. At $18,000 it’s way over budget, especially since our family budget doesn’t cover sapphires, but gem fever has me in its grips.
That night I can’t stop thinking about taking a sapphire home with me, cleverly justifying the cost. This will be an heirloom, a unique memento of our time in Australia. I soon convince myself that buying a sapphire isn’t a crazy splurge, just a smart investment.
Sapphire miner-turned-jeweller Peter Brown tempts me with sapphire after sapphire from the cabinets and safe. They cover the rainbow, from traditional cornflower blue to yellow, and every colour in between. Ironically the rarest sapphires found in Rubyvale are the ruby red ones.
I choose a three-carat parti-coloured, cushion-cut stone and show Peter some simple, modern settings I’ve found on the internet. We set a price for the ring; he explains what setting will work best for and I leave it with him. Commissioning our family heirloom is as simple as that.
A few weeks after I get home Peter emails me photos of the stone, the wax model and the finished ring. It arrives days later by post, taking pride of place on the middle finger of my right hand.
I’m at once thrilled and embarrassed by how much the flashing ocean-blue stone pleases me. It’s just a trinket that serves no useful purpose, except as a reminder of my travels in the Australian outback, the pioneering spirit of its people and that beauty is all around us if you look hard enough.
The details: Rubyvale gem fossicking
Getting there: You can drive to Rubyvale from Brisbane in about 11 hours. If you’re short on time, it’s about a 90-minute flight from Brisbane to Emerald where you can hire a car and take the one-hour drive to Rubyvale.
Staying there: We stayed in one of the self-contained apartments at the Rubyvale Gem Gallery with rates from $125 per night. There’s also a two-bedroom cottage for families. rubyvalegemgallery.com
Playing there: Little House of Gems in Rubyvale offers guided fossicking tours or a DIY fossicking experience where they supply you with a fossicking permit, a map and all the necessary equipment.