Corrugated dirt roads, termite mounds, cattle and harsh country, that’s what it’s all about up this way, and the clouds starting to roll in as the wet season approaches. This is Mount Surprise, or more precisely, O’Brien’s creek which is 35km further down this little dirt road. I arrived here at about 3 in the afternoon after two days of driving and what a joy. The campsite here is huge, it’s $10 a night per person and includes toilets and showers, rubbish bins and good clean drinking water if you need it. The campsite is right on Elizabeth creek and it’s magnificent, a huge variety of birds live around the area and galahs make a lot of boisterous noise early in the mornings and late in the afternoons.
Also there’s no phone reception out here, which means no internet either… Ahhhhhh….!!!!! Still somehow I’ve managed to survive for over a week. If you drive out of camp and head back towards Mt Surprise, a couple of kilometres down the track you go up a small hill and on the left hand side there’s a large tower, here you can pull off the side of the road and get some limited reception.
If you decide to come here be sure you are well stocked and prepared, it’s about 35km of gravel road into Mount Surprise so a trip into town isn’t such a quick and easy thing. Also Mount Surprise doesn’t have a lot, the closest town with basic supplies is Georgetown 100km west or almost 200km east to Ravenshoe which is where most long term campers go once a month to stock up. It’s also pretty warm up this way, hey, it is far north Queensland after all, but after I’d driven 900 odd kilometres north from Rubvale and Sapphire to get here it’s noticeably warmer and more humid than further south. Digging is good to get done early in the day, I have tended to get down to the creek at around dawn and worked till lunch time. Then head back to the van at the campsite for a few hours having a quick cold shower, some food and then relax for a few hours in the heat of the day. If I’m keen then I’d head back at about 3 or 4 and have 2 or 3 more hours of digging. It’s now the start of September, the sun has a real bite to it and although the early mornings are reasonably cool my van is sitting at 34 degrees by the middle of the day, and it’s not pleasant, by 9 in the evening the temperature’s still up around 28 degrees.
If you’re not equipped for fossicking all the equipment you need can be hired from either in town at MtSurprise, or at the campsite. Also take great care when driving from town out to O’briens creek this is land owned by Mt Surprize station and cattle are everywhere so drive cautiously on the dirt roads and be respectful of where you are and aren’t allowed to go.
It can take you a little while to become orientated up here when you head out to the fossicking area about 2kms from the camp. Generally you’ll have a mud map from either in town or from the camp site showing water courses and tracks but the thing is that there are tracks off everywhere in the bush and it’s hard to know whether you are on a marked map track or a more recent “unofficial” track. Same with the creeks, it can take a while to get your bearings and to work out what’s what. Almost all the tracks off the main gravel road into the fossicking area are four wheel drive only. If you find yourself here with a vehicle not suitable for off road, never fear, the area where I did most of my digging was only perhaps 100m from where the main road intersects O’Brien’s creek, it’s easy to find a spot to pull over on the side of the road, then have a short walk up the creek looking for a place to dig.
The main things you’ll find up here are topaz and quartz with of course topaz being the main prize, there are also other possibilities like tourmaline and aquamarine but Topaz is fairly prolific and the staple most people come here to find, with quartz and smokey quartz also being a common thing you can’t help but find along the way, though specimens of quartz here are not as good as the quartz from down at Tingha in NSW.
Topaz has a hardness of 8 on the Mohs scale, diamonds are 10 and sapphires 9 so it’s a nice hard gem meaning that it doesn’t scratch easily once faceted and used in jewelry. Generally up here you’ll find clear topaz, though pale blue is the main prize if you can get it, I managed to get a few pale blue pieces in my time digging as well as a slightly pale honey colour topaz, I also saw someone with a vivid dark green coloured topaz but this was a very rare specimen. And no, I didn’t find these following specimens, they are a couple of magnificent pieces I bought.
There are a couple of different ways you can fossick for topaz, most of the time I spent digging in O’Brien creek which involves finding a “likely looking spot”, then digging the loose friable sand/rock and loading it into a course sieve. Then drop your sieve onto a dry shaker and give it a wiggle. The sand and fine rock quickly drops through, pick out the bigger rocks and throw them, then hopefully pick out the lovely topaz pieces and put them to one side. You may want to dip the sieve into a bucket of water or a pool of water in the creek to give things a rinse, this helps make the topaz sparkle, though water isn’t always available so dry sieving may be your only method possible unless you bring water in from the campsite.
To increase the possibilities of you unearthing the best bits there are a few basic concepts to keep in mind when picking a spot and when actually digging. Topaz is heavy, this means that it will be at the bottom of rock crevasses or at the base of big rocks and trees. When the creek floods in the wet season, topaz is washed from the hills downstream and as the water flow slows or hits obstacles these are the areas where the heavy topaz may stop and get stuck. Generally the inside of curves and bends in the creek are more likely for deposits as on the outside of a bend the water flows faster and solids don’t tend to get deposited.
If you are digging in the creek and you find bedrock this is a good sign, this is where I spent most of my time digging, along the bedrock. The bedrock here is a very jagged decomposing granite like most of the surrounding hills and quite brittle, this is where you need to concentrate on getting every little bit out of crevasses with a small trowel or similar pointy device. Bob and Sue, a couple that I met while digging in the creek managed to find a lovely big specimen of about 150 carats from memory. It was only a few inches under the surface, caught in the roots of a small paperbark tree growing in the rocky crevasses of the bedrock on the edge of O’brien creek.
Another way of digging your topaz is to dig in the ancient wash layers underground. This is topaz which was deposited many years ago by ancient water courses much like the sapphire fossicking further south. The easiest way of doing this is to find an existing hole someone has been digging, then get in and have a go. This isn’t for the faint hearted, I’ve heard this layer of wash being called “concrete wash” because it literally is quite like concrete. A pick is essential here, preferably a medium sized pick, too small and you’re only scratching the wash layer, too large and it’s difficult to swing sideways in a hole. As you pick at the layer of wash in the side of the hole you may see pieces of topaz begin to show in the wash, either in the wall or dropping out to the bottom of your hole. Gather up the dirt you have picked from the side of the hole and dry sieve it.
A third method of finding Topaz for those with a four wheel drive, or just the more adventurous walkers, is to follow the creeks up stream till you find sections of the stream filled with rocks and boulders, now get in there and start moving the rocks and boulders out of the way checking carefully underneath, digging any rocky rubble from beneath the boulders and sieving it. You might imagine that with the floods each wet season, the topaz washing down stream gets trapped in the boulders and drops down between them. This is the preferred method of many serious fossickers, there’s a guy living on the side of the track between the campsite and the fossicking area called Queeko, he runs fossicking tours and also sells topaz to visitors, I spent a few hours talking with him and this is one of his preferred method. Some people get quite serious and use winches or block and tackle to move bigger boulders, though as you might imagine, this can be a little dangerous and great caution is required, however great returns can also be had. Of course you may never be sure if someone has recently already moved the big boulder you’ve just spent an hour or two trying to move, or whether there’s anything under it at all.
If you put in a little effort you will be rewarded, you’re almost guaranteed of finding some if you put in the time and effort and follow the simple guidelines. Bill and Deb from Rubyvale, the couple I bought sapphire from down there, come up here regularly and Bill said they average about one kilogram of topaz a week digging in the banks and the little islands of O’briens creek.
If you want a better specimen than what you’ve found and you’re thinking of buying some topaz I would recommend Queeko, I bought some pieces from him and his prices seem quite reasonable with small stuff being extremely cheap. I wouldn’t recommend buying in town, I bought a couple of pieces in town and you’re paying about double or more what Queeko was charging especially for larger pieces. There are usually a few people in camp selling rocks as well, I know that when Bill and Deb come up here they sell topaz in the campsite, while I’ve been here there are at least a couple of long term campers selling some topaz including some beautiful specimens. Speaking of Bill and Deb, strangely enough, I was talking with another couple at the camp office here and mentioned Bill and Deb while looking across at a photo pin up board I said “Bill looks a bit like him”. It was only later on during a different topic of discussion about big topaz I looked closer at the pictures on the wall, It was a picture of Bill holding a huge piece of topaz, a piece that I’d seen back at their place in Rubyvale when they showed me around their magnificent gem and fossil collection.
I’d highly recommend coming up here to have a dig, you may find some valuable stoneand you’ll definitely get some good exercise, though make sure you cover up and drink plenty of water during the day as the sun is pretty ferocious. You’ll also meet some characters, like Bob and Sue who have spent years living on yachts, or the young woman I met who’s travelling around living out of the car with her 3 year old son, or the many long term stayers who come here for months at a time.
One last word of advice, if you think you may want to buy a nice specimen piece of topaz, make sure you bring cash with you. There are no banks or eftpos machines around and everyone out at O’briens creek only works in cash, after all there’s no phone line or mobile phone reception there anyway. There is one small cash machine at the cafe in Mt Surprise with a $100 limit, there’s also another small cash machine over 100km away further west at Georgetown with a $200 limit. After I’d taken out $100 in Mt Surprise and then done a round trip to Georgetown for another $200 I arrived back at the cafe in Mt Surprise and the woman there said “Oh you can get as much as you like out here, you just have to do it $100 at a time and you pay $2.50 per transaction.”
Ahh, so I could get more out to buy the topaz specimens I wanted, a stood there for quite a while getting out $100 at a time till I had about $1400 then headed back to camp and bought the stones I wanted. A day or two later I thought I’d get some more out, a lady in camp had some fine specimens for sale, so another trip into the cafe, $100, $100, $100.
I withdrew about $800 and the machine shut down with an error. Apologizing to one of the ladies behind the counter I said “I think I’ve broken your machine.” The other lady suggested it may be out of cash, and then the debate between them started “No, I stocked it with money not that long ago, it can’t be out yet. “Yes, but a guy was in here a couple of days ago and he stood there for ages getting hundreds and hundreds of dollars out of it, he must have been there for 20 minutes.”
Ooops, she hadn’t recognized that it was me, I’d shaved my beard off since my first visit. The original lady started up, “Well that’s it, we don’t have any more money to put into it, hardly anyone gives us cash these days, we can’t put in what we don’t have, people will have to do without till we get some more.”
So I’d single handedly stripped the town of Mt Surprise from all it’s cash supplies. Bring your cash with you.