Fossicking in Australia
Admin - 06/10/2022
Fossicking in Australia
Finding your own Opal or Sapphire
Australia is one of the few places in the world where you can wander around freely and find yourself a beautiful gemstone, so if you find the idea of playing prospector exciting, this blogpost will give you the lowdown on how to go about unearthing your own precious gem.
Let’s start with the different terms for gem finding that you’ll come across in Australia:
- Fossicking and prospecting are general terms that are used interchangeably to cover a variety of gem-hunting activities, but there is an important legal difference between the two. Fossicking means mineral hunting for personal use and excludes diamonds and gold, whereas prospecting encompasses searching for all minerals and includes the use of a metal detector.
- Specking is when you walk around and look on the surface of the ground, searching on old mullock heaps (piles of waste rock) for opal missed by the miner.
- Noodling is often used to refer to opal fossicking.
- Digging covers digging and sieving. You can either dry or wet sieve, though wet sieving (screening) is more efficient.
Permits, licences and miner’s rights
The Australian government has established, signposted and publicised many designated fossicking areas in a bid to give a boost to the tourist industry, but whether you need to buy a permit depends on the individual state. If you simply stick to the tourist mines or sites charging an entrance fee, you will not need to purchase a separate fossicking licence. Note: fossicking is not allowed in national parks, nature reserves, Aboriginal land or heritage sites.
Queensland Purchase your fossicking licence from the Queensland Government online, or from an authorised agent. They are very cheap, starting at around $8 for an individual or $12 for a family. If you want to camp in a designated fossicking area, you will also need to buy a fossicker’s camping permit.
New South Wales No fossicking licence or permit is needed, but you will need to seek permission from the relevant landowner.
South Australia Again, no fossicking licence or permit is needed, but you will need to seek permission from the relevant landowner.
Victoria You will need to obtain a licence called a ‘miner’s right’ for anyone over 18 years old. Get it online from the Department of Primary Industries (DPI), or from designated tourist information centres and prospecting supply stores in popular fossicking areas.
Western Australia You will need to purchase a $25 miner’s right from the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety (DMIRS), or from any mining registrar’s office. Make sure you take proof of identity.
Northern Territory No permit is needed, but you will need to seek permission from landowners.
Tasmania You will need to purchase a fossicking licence if you want to fossick outside designated fossicking areas.
The rules vary slightly from state to state, but generally you can collect from the surface or by digging with hand tools as long as you don’t dig deeper than 2 metres (0.5 metres in streams) or disturb more than 1 cubic metre of soil in a 48 hour period.
You are not allowed to remove items of particular archaeological, cultural or scientific significance from any site, including vertebrate fossils, Aboriginal or heritage artefacts and meteorite fragments. If you find a diamond, I’m afraid you can’t keep that, either!
Be mindful of the environment and make sure you leave the site as you found it.
What to take with you
As I discovered, the Australian outback can be harsh, so I would advise some preparation before you set off. First, if you are planning to drive off the beaten track, you will need a four-wheel drive vehicle. The gravel roads will slow you down considerably otherwise.
It is not possible to hire or buy equipment at fossicking sites. You must come prepared.
- A shovel or a pick. A pick is good for splitting smaller boulders
- A spray bottle or bucket of water to wash away dust and make it easier to spot the colour
- Two sieves, one coarse and one fine, for rinsing and sorting the stones
- Tweezers for picking out gemstones
- A container to collect any good finds
- Hand cream—the dust will make your hands very dry
- A sunhat with a net to protect your eyes from the flies—they go for your tear ducts!
- Insect killer spray—spray it on your boots and trousers to stop spiders and ticks
- Sunscreen, sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat
- Sturdy boots or trainers
- Lots of water—fossicking is thirsty work!
- A first aid kit
Top tips for fossicking, specking and digging
- The best time to fossick is after it has rained. The rain will wash dust away and make opal or sapphire colour visible. If it’s dry, take a bucket of water (or a spray bottle of water) to wet the stones,
- To avoid fighting with your shadow, fossick when the sun is directly above you.
- Though it seems silly to say, take off your sunglasses! Wear a wide-brimmed hat instead.
- When specking a pile of mullock, always have the sun behind you so the sunlight will catch any gems and make them easier to spot.
- Look for potch, colour in the ground, ironstone, or anything that looks unusual or out of place
- When you are hand sieving your gravels, put a sapphire (or stone of equivalent weight) in the sieve to help show you where the heavy concentrate is.
- For your safety, stay away from open shafts!
- It’s about attitude. Manage your expectations. You’ve got to put in some effort.
Digging for sapphires in a creek
As a tourist, you are allowed to stop on any public or main road to dig around in a creek.
To fossick, you will need a shovel, two buckets, a throw screen, a container of water and a sieve. Optional: a willoughby to agitate the sieve at the gravel washing stage.
Step 1 Firstly, dig around in the creek. Good places to dig are around the roots of trees, in channels between large rocks, and in holes in the rocks—these are where heavy minerals get trapped. Fill your bucket with dirt.
Step 2 Slowly throw the dirt at the throw-screen using a circular movement so that the gravel can evenly separate the stones from the dirt. The stones will fall into the second bucket below. If you don’t have a throw screen, you can use two sieves (one coarse placed above one fine) to separate the stones from the dirt.
Step 3 Empty the contents of the second bucket into the sieve. Wash the gravels quite rigorously by rhythmically agitating the sieve, ensuring that the water covers the stones. The action of the sieve should bring the heavier stones like zircon and sapphire to one spot.
Step 4 Then, carefully (so that the heavy stones remain in one spot) flip the sieve onto a board or table covered with a plastic sheet. If the sieve is flipped over correctly, the heavies will be in the one spot, making it easier for sorting. If you can sort in the sunshine, the sapphires will be easier to spot. When a sapphire is unearthed, it is customary to hold the stone up to the sky to check the colour and clarity. Some people refer to this as ‘skying the stone.’
Where to go fossicking for opal in Australia
Declared fossicking areas for opal
Ideal to speck for Opal fragments or Yowah nuts. The fossicking area covers several acres of land – so there’s a huge choice of mullock piles. Private claims where you are not permitted to fossick are clearly marked no entry.
The Opalton Field, also called the Fermoy Field. Boulder Opal can be specked in opal dumps and old workings in shallow ground. If you stay at Opalton Tourist Park, you can freely fossick in many of the piles of gravel behind the Tourist Park. It’s a huge area of land. Be very careful of mineshafts (photo)
From Winton, take the Jundah Road (mostly unsealed) and travel 15km, turn left and travel a further 109km (unsealed road) to Opalton.
An old opal mining area about 100km south-west of Quilpie.
Sheep Station Creek and Emu Creek
These old mines are just to the south at the head of Sheep Station Creek, a tributary of Yowah Creek
The main areas for fossicking near Lightning Ridge are Grawin, Glengarry and the Sheepyard. There is a huge dumping ground in Grawin, where there are regular deliveries – trucks from the mines drive up onto the dumps and unload 5 or 10 cubic metres of mine tailings each time.
The Toompine Field is located between Quilpie and Yowah.
Author: Kim Rix