World Class Sapphires and Billy Boulders
Some of the most beautiful and valuable sapphires ever found on Earth have come from small settlements in central Queensland.
Places like Anakie, Sapphire, Rubyvale, The Willows and Glen Alva not only have their place in history but still hold sapphires and no one knows when or where the next big one will be uncovered. The first gem was discovered in 1875 by a railway surveyor and very recently a 753 carat stone was found by a local who was out specking’ (looking at the ground as you walk along) after rain.
Mining started back in the 1890s and continued full steam until the 1980s when it was scaled back due to a downturn in the sapphire market. Nowadays the region has a mix of commercial mining, hand mining and fossicking. Visitors now come from all over the world to search for the blue, green, yellow, parti-coloured and star sapphires.
Fossicking is a game of chance which appeals to professionals, keen amateurs and rank beginners alike and it can become addictive! Many holidaymakers have gone home with very special and valuable mementoes of their gemfields holiday. But if you don’t unearth your own treasure, you can buy a stone from one of the many gem stores or local markets.
If you’re keen to discover what fossicking fever is all about, you’ll need to obtain a permit to fossick on any public sites. Permits can be purchased for a small fee and are available from numerous outlets throughout the region. Licences are not required at tourist mines and similar sites where a fee is charged. At such places the digging work has already been done for you. All you need to do is buy a bucket of wash and start searching. There will always be friendly staff to provide advice on sieving and sorting for sapphires.
Those who haven’t been to a gemstone mining area before might find the scenery a bit unusual. Some parts look like a shanty town, with bush humpies still in evidence. Other spots have a picturesque charm, with billy boulder and ironbark log dwellings adding a quaint touch. Billy boulders are much sought after by fossickers. Apparently these rocks are a sign that you’re on good wash because sapphires tend to get caught amongst the ‘boulders’.
Fortunes have been made and lost here and many treasures found. And many have been hooked by the laidback lifestyle and casual charm of the Central Queensland Gemfields.
Gemfest Festival of Gems
A fabulous mix of sapphires, gemstones, jewellery, earth treasures, entertainment
and demonstrations will combine to form a brilliant event at the famous Gemfest Festival of Gems from August 6 to August 9 2020 at the Allen King Memorial Park, Anakie, The Gemfields, Queensland. This amazing festival has been running for over 30 years and this year promises to be a spectacular event!
The main jewellery exhibition will be held in the Anakie Hall. ‘Jewels of the Outback’ showcases magnificent, but rarely seen gems and jewellery, including world famous sapphires. Local, national and international merchants will display a myriad of treasures for sale – and there is over $20,000 worth of prizes on offer.
See the huge variety of rough and cut gems, jewellery and equipment. Participate in workshops and watch demonstrations, enjoy the live entertainment and stage performances There will be demonstrations by artisan traders showcasing their skills and chances to win thousands of dollars worth of gems, jewellery and vouchers.
Willow from Brewstar Coffee is well known for his great coffee, with word even reaching across the country to as far afield as Western Australia. Situated at the crossroads on the Capricorn Highway at Anakie, Brewstar Coffee is in the perfect location for travellers needing a pick-me-up. A local to the area, Willow
returned six years ago and and has been operating his coffee van for the last five seasons.
Brewstar Coffee operates all year round, from 6am-11am during the off season, and 6am-2pm during the tourist season. So if you are going through the Anakie crossroads, stop for a chat while enjoying some superb coffee, you won’t be disappointed!
Anakie Caravan Park
The larger-than-life gemstone at the front of the Anakie Caravan Park adds an extra facet to the park’s catchphrase “Gem of the West”. The gem provides quite a talking point with visitors, seemingly changing colours when viewed from different angles.
Locals Ray and Glenda Richardson have brought their own flair to the complex. Some very weighty additions were big sandstone rocks that make quite a landscaping statement. The rocks come from the Richardson’s own quarry, and some were so heavy they came in one rock per truckload.
Accommodation includes modern cabins in addition to the original budget cabins, powered and unpowered sites. The park has a fully undercover area with a camp kitchen. In the afternoons during the off-season, locals sit around the tearoom and yarn. (You might even see a peacock nearby.) In the season, a sausage sizzle is usually held once a week and it’s not unusual to have 100 people enjoying sausages, onions, salad and bread. Sometimes there’s a bit of entertainment and occasionally the little pizza ovens get a workout. There’s no charge for the barbecue, but people can make a donation via the charity tin. One recipient of donations is the Thai Burma Railway Museum which the Richardsons support. (Rod Beattie, who established the museum, was originally from the gemfields.) The Rural Fire Brigade also benefits.
Glenda said that although they had diversified into quarrying and the caravan park, sapphires had always been a part of their life. “We both went to school at Anakie, so we’ve been around sapphires all our lives. Ray’s Dad was a miner and one of the best cutters around, so Ray grew up with them.”
The park has a fossicking section where you can buy buckets of wash and try
your luck using the drums of water and willoughbys supplied. The dirt comes from the Richardsons’ sapphire mine in Rubyvale, where they also operate a pebble quarry.
Lorikeets come in every afternoon to be fed and some of the guests like to go down to the dam to feed the ducks. During Gemfest, there’s a barbecue and entertainment every night. All in all, it’s a great place to stay, either for a stopover or a winter holiday.
Sapphire Gemfields Treasure Trail
Get out and about and enjoy a day or a week of discovery when you begin your own treasure hunt in Central Queensland’s unique and innovative tourism trail. Visitors can take themselves on a historic journey through the largest Sapphire Gemfields in the southern hemisphere.
The trail takes visitors to a series of five large interpretive nodes across Anakie, Sapphire, Rubyvale and the Willows. From these, you can follow local maps to another 30 place markers scattered throughout the region at points of interest.
The trail includes creative interactive applications such as augmented reality and geo-cache activities and is part of the Dig the Tropic geo-tourism adventure. With just your smartphone or device on hand you can unlock the fascinating stories of this unique part of the world thanks to the incorporation of augmented reality technology.
There are also solar-powered audio posts and while on the hunt for buried treasure, download the Aurasma app as directed and follow “centralhighlandsqld” to access these informative and innovative features. The interpretive trail was funded by the Central Highlands Regional Council and the Australian Government’s Tourism Demand Driver Infrastructure (TDDI) Program.
In winter, it’s not unusual to see 4WDs scattered on a sandy creek bed just behind the Blue Gem Tourist Park. The park backs onto Retreat Creek, famed as being the place where sapphires were first found in the 1870s in this part of Australia. Luckily these days you can drive right down to the creek, so you don’t have to lug your fossicking equipment down the steep hill!
Blue Gem Tourist Park
Blue Gem’s on-site fossicking park is another option for searching out colour. You can buy buckets of wash and use a willoughby to check your load. If you find something special, the brag board is waiting for your name! Park hosts Ewan and Claire Letts say people can hire equipment or even buy their own willoughby from the park.
You need a licence to fossick in Queensland, and the Blue Gem is the only retail outlet for licences in Sapphire. So while you’re stopped to take a photo of the very oversized pick, shovel and sieve out the front, make sure you go into the store to buy your licence. The park also handles camping permits. The reception-convenience store has fuel, swap and refill gas, newsagency lines, groceries and food from muffins to bacon-and-egg sandwiches and hot chickens to ice-creams in a variety of flavours.
Jewellery cabinets display sapphires in gold and silver settings for sale, the walls are adorned with stories of the characters of days gone by and there’s even a free treasure map.
From May until after Gemfest, guests can have free nibblies at the camp kitchen on Saturday afternoons. Top entertainers come from time to time too. There are also Tuesday night dinners and hot chooks on Friday and Sunday evenings. Try disc bowls once a week, darts twice a week or join the weekly craft session.
Jim Nesbitt is a perfectionist with a passion for sapphires. How is it that you know this even before you walk through the door of Sapphire Showcase? Because the whole building is a showcase, inside and out!
With the clean lines of class on the outside, the interior has a personality all its own. Mellow timber floors give a feeling of warmth while the artfully integrated corrugated iron reminds you that you are in Australia. A wheelbarrow sits on the showroom floor, along with a sofa where you can take the weight off your feet. Beautiful oregon showcases crafted by Jim contain sapphires in every shape and colour. Wine barrels stand like sentinels bearing jewellery cases, while old wooden sieves hang on the walls and an 1890 telescope graces the scene. When you look up, leadlight windows add a solar-powered artistic highlight!
The attention to detail and individualism he has given to his showroom has also been lavished on Jim’s designs. He has a mantra, “Quality, price, service” to give his customers the very best at a reasonable price. The settings he makes for rings are just gorgeous, using exquisite local sapphires. Jim’s passion for his business earned him Runner-Up in the 2017 Business Excellence Awards.
“I only source sapphires locally and only top quality,” he said. “I never work with treated stones—natural sapphires only. I believe in totally handmade. Look at it, touch it, try it on. Fall in love with the jewellery you’re going to buy.”
The work he doesn’t do himself, he hands on to a master craftsman. Living in the region for over 20 years, Jim has made it his life’s work to learn the jewellery business and the art of facetting. He just loves it, and it shows.
Pat Vine has been the face of Pat’s Gems for 44 years, and although she sometimes talks about retirement, it doesn’t look like it’s happening anytime soon!
Pat’s Gems is a fossicking park, jewellery shop, café and the home of accommodation with two cabins—a kind of one-stop shop for a Sapphire stay. There’s even a one hour driving tour that takes people to look at points of interest, claims, digging areas, working machinery and generally
get a feel for the place. The tour covers about 30km and is a wonderful introduction to the area.
“I know all the highlights of the fields, and it’s good to show people a few good sites, take them through a mining area and give them an idea of how the plants work,” Pat said. “I think it gives people a better appreciation of what’s here when they see a bit with a local first.”
As well as local sapphire jewellery in gold and silver, Pat’s shop carries all germstones. There’s even a bit of boulder opal and fossils. Pat says she has something for every budget, with jewellery ranging from $20 to $15,000.
This is also where you purchase your bucket of wash to go through outside in the fossicking park. Everything is supplied, from sieves to water troughs. Pat’s Gems operates all year round. It’s open seven days from 8.00am to 4.00pm and some nights for meals during the busy season, with pizza night every Friday night from April to September. The café is a great spot to get breakfast, bakery goods and hot food ranging from toasted sandwiches to hamburgers to seafood baskets, all washed down with a milkshake or espresso coffee.
Fascination Gems and Crystals
Between them, brothers Keith and David Bezett provide a fascinating mixture of
fossicking tours, self-drive adventure, gemstones and jewellery. Keith heads up
the Gem Fossicking Self Drive Tour and David covers the retail part of the business, Fascination Gems and Crystals, in Rubyvale. David’s wife Anne adds another dimension to the mix with an interesting little shop that’s a pleasure to browse through.
The gem shop has a little piece of fascination too —its name is embossed on the floor in rough sapphires! David does the cutting and employs a jeweller. You can have your own stones facetted and set into jewellery here. The shop is open seven days from 8.30am to 5.00pm, all year.
Keith’s tours usually run with just 24 hours’ notice, and you can book at An Extra Facet, the shop in Main Street run by David’s wife Anne. While you’re there, browse among the gemstones, silver jewellery, boutique clothing and leadlighting. The latest addition is a range of old photographs printed on canvas. Enjoy this glimpse into the past of local gemfields images that date back to the late 1800s. A fascinating piece of history to have hanging on the wall!
If you’re serious about DIY fossicking, the fossicking tour will give you a head start
about what equipment to use and what to look for. For some up-to-date news, browse through their website and blog.
Miners Heritage in Rubyvale is much more than a shopfront. Here the stories and mining processes of yesteryear are honoured and preserved. And you have the opportunity to experience something different – an underground sapphire mine.
Australia’s largest underground sapphire tour, has been sharing the heritage of the gemfields for over 30 years, with old mining tunnels giving an authentic glimpse into the lives of early miners. Owners Kim and Kerrie Wilson say one of the benefits of their underground tour is that the tours run no matter what the weather! And it doesn’t matter who your tour guide is; all the staff are miners themselves so they really know their stuff. Tours are offered every hour (beginning at 9.15am with the last tour at 2.15pm in summer and 3.15pm in winter). There are 440 metres of tunnels to see and with fairly small groups on each tour, you gain a fascinating insight into mining for sapphires. There are 48 steps in total and most people manage easily. Government regulations require a minimum of two people for a tour. So if you’re travelling alone, wait a while … another starter may well turn up.
One section of the mine was started in 1906 and some of the original tunnels are still in place. People are fascinated by the size of these monkey drives—also known as tummy tunnels. After the tour, spend some time in the Heritage Room, which features a display showing the colours and shapes of sapphires in the rough, information about famous stones and stories of the characters of the region. Some of the smaller pieces used by miners over the years are displayed, including a hand-made facetting machine – a wonderful example of repurposing the machinery at hand. There’s even a very handy mousetrap designed to catch four mice at once!
Visitors are also able to immerse themselves in the history of the sapphire fields by viewing the 3D model of mining fields and the works above and underground, along with old photos of the early townships. Browse around the large air-conditioned showroom and admire the rough stones, loose cut gems as well as the finished gold and sterling silver jewellery. All work is done on the premises, as Kim is a qualified manufacturing jeweller with 40 years in the trade. The exclusive pieces are entirely crafted by Kim—even the gold setting starts as an ingot and is hand forged on the premises.
Gifts and souvenirs are also on display, along with a little Mineral Rockhound Corner especially for children.
Kim and Kerrie have a working mine separate to Miners Heritage, and sapphire-bearing wash is brought directly from the mine to the fossicking park right outside the showroom. When you buy a bucket of wash to go through, you have just as much chance of finding sapphires as the miners do!
There is something for all the family at Miners Heritage: picking through the wash in search of sapphires, admiring the jewellery and choosing a piece to buy or browsing around the historic machinery. And you’re welcome to enjoy a picnic under the large sheltered area. It doesn’t get much better than that!
Phone (within Australia) 1800 676 701