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Sapphire, Rubyvale... and there's "Emerald," too
Queensland's Highway 66, which runs west from Rockhampton, is also called the "Capricorn Highway" because it runs just about along the Tropic of Capricorn (the latitude line halfway between the equator and the South Pole). Here again, we headed inland from the coast into Australia's Bush country.
A popular pastime in this area is "fossicking," which as far as we can tell is a cross between "fossil" and "picnic." People (mostly tourists) go out into the bush and poke around for anything from gold to gems. Fossicking has become so popular that Queensland has established specific regions and regulations for it.
On August 24, we went fossicking for "thunder eggs" a half hour west of Rockhampton at Mt. Hay. Thunder eggs are pieces of volcanic rock where gases have formed bubbles that mineralized thousands of years ago. The result is a piece of rock that looks round like a potato or an egg (geodes are thunder eggs that have crystallized).
Armed with picks, shovels, and a bucket, we were shown to "the wall" where thunder eggs were likely to be found. Any suspicions that these things are "planted" there disappeared as we spent the next hour and a half slowly chipping away at what seemed like a cliffside of solid rock. Actually, the boys lasted for about an hour, while Gail kept looking for "one more egg" -- she only stopped when she had more blisters than she has fingers. In the end, we came back to the shop with a bucket half full of thunder eggs, and we allowed each person to pick one and have it cut open (we have no idea what the park did with the rest of them). We'll have our souvenirs shipped home -- Russell's sister has already remarked that what we choose to ship home is rather peculiar.
Working "the wall"
Gail trying to extract thunder eggs out of sheer rock
By afternoon we reached the city of Emerald, gateway to the gemfields and home to the world's largest painting -- a replica of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers." Our Tourist Information Centre luck was not with us, as the TI was unable to find any self-contained accommodations with kitchen facilities. Instead, we stayed in a standard motel room (breakfast included) for about twice what we've been paying, because we were getting too tired and cranky to look any further. The family-style restaurant we ate dinner at is apparently a big deal in Emerald, because it was completely full and included people who had obviously dressed up to be there. We spent the rest of the evening on the telephone trying to book our next accommodations ahead so we wouldn't keep running into this problem.
We were very lucky to get accommodations in the little town of Rubyvale (population 45), as just about everything else was sold out. So on August 25 we headed further west from Emerald into gemfield country, where we stayed in a self-contained cabin in the back of a gift shop. The atmosphere here was absolutely wonderful: the hostess told us that there was no particular check-in or check-out time, that we were welcome to park our van out in the back but she would have to move her truck first, but to be aware that they close the gates at sundown to keep the cows out (this is the last area in Australia that still has free-roaming cattle... and camels). There was a historical marker to commemorate the piano tuner's grave.
Because we were able to check in so early, we spent the afternoon fossicking for sapphires. There are two ways to do this. One is to obtain some tools, drive out into the gemfields, and dig around for days (this is how a couple recently discovered a sapphire worth $300,000 AUS). The other way is to visit a walk-in mine and sift through a bucket of their "tailings."
We chose the easy way (mainly due to Gail's blisters), and walked to Monique's Mine because Bob is very good with children. He shoveled four bucketfuls of dirt and rock from a nearby pile, and we spent the next several hours sifting, sieving, washing, and closely examining lots of dirt. Actually, the boys lasted for about an hour, while Gail kept holding out for the huge sapphire that had to be in the next batch. In the end, we came out with a small cupful of sapphire bits and chips. A visit to the nearby jeweler informed us that five of them were worth being faceted, but they couldn't do it for us that day. So we now have a couple of small bags full of little uncut sapphires, which we will undoubtedly ship home with our little cut thunder eggs.
Cameron and Joss filling their sieves
Tediously combing through dirt for sapphires
All in all, a very nice fossicking experience... although Gail has now had to wash everyone's clothes two days in a row.
Our hard work pays off: sapphires and thunder eggs
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