Fossicking around Rubyvale

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It wasn’t me, I don’t even like sugar…….  He did it…..

Ok, these birds have nothing to do with fossicking around the area but I couldn’t start another post with more pictures of rocks. I was going to start with a spider picture but figured I should put that at the end rather than the start.  Rubyvale, Sapphire, Anakie, Glenalva, The Willows, they are the small towns that make up the central Queensland gemfields, a mixture of little ramshackle settlements, and public fossicking areas all based around sapphire mining. For most travelers who visit the area the fossicking will consist of sieving the buckets or bags of dirt from one or more of the many different places selling them. Those more intrepid people may go to a fossicking area and work hard trying to find a good stone.

Undoubtedly the cheapest way to find sapphire is to fossick in the wild rather than buying buckets of dirt, this is where you have a real chance of finding a good piece of stone by picking one of the many public fossicking areas, then digging and/or specking somewhere in that area. But one thing you will need to understand if you’re digging, it’s not easy and you need the right equipment. Here at Glenalva the ground is hard, it’s already well dug over and the sapphires are few and far between, but that’s why they are rare and worth lots of money.

The salt mine

The salt mine

This area of Glenalva was nicknamed “the salt mine” by some of the people camped here, big billy boulders make the digging slow but the whole process goes a little like this. Sapphire is in what they call “the wash” this is a gravelly mix of stone just under the top soil or overburden, luckily here it’s close to the surface so there’s not a lot of top soil to remove before you get the wash. Throwing away the biggest boulders, you dry sieve the rest of the rocky dirt (the wash) and here’s where you really need the right gear to do well. I had a standard set of 2 sieves and found myself spending a lot of time hand sorting and throwing out the larger rocks individually. Those who have been here before and know the territory tend to use larger sieves and have a third sieve on top to remove the larger rocks which I was picking out by hand. It’s all a matter of numbers, you just have to process as much dirt as possible.

Now that you have dry sieved the wash you’ve removed the sand and the larger rocks and you’re left with just the gravelly wash, this gets put into buckets and taken back to camp where hopefully you have a willoughby and a sorting table, remember it’s all about efficiency and moving lots of dirt.

Washing and sorting station

Washing and sorting station

I bought the willoughby and the large wash tub in town and they’re really essential out here, the ironing board was at the camp site when I arrived, there are a few around the different camp sites here. As you might imagine, the sieves on the sorting table (ironing board) go into the willoughby ring just above the water level in the tub, you then stand and bounce the spring loaded handle up and down, dipping the sieves up and down in the water, washing the stones and letting them settle into the two different sieve sizes. When washed, tip the top course sieve onto the old t-shirt on the sorting table, check through the course stone, then discard and do the same with the fine sieve and the smaller stones.

Now do this 347 times till you’re bored stupid, starting to question your sanity, and wondering if you may have forgotten what a sapphire even looks like. Never mind, the boredom of washing and sorting doesn’t last too long because you have to go back to the hole and dig and dry sieve some more dirt. The couple camped near me were processing about 30-40 x 20L buckets of dirt every day, he calculated that they’d processed about 24 ton of wash during their stay. Now look back at the picture of “the salt mine” above, look at all the boulders and rocks that have been moved out of the way to get the wash for sieving.

Shallow wash

Shallow wash

Here’s an area of shallow wash he’d been digging, hand removed boulders on the left, fine sand from dry sieving in the middle and course rock from his top custom sieve in the front. Now if you can imagine putting all those rocks and sand back in the shallow hole, and think of how much good wash he has actually taken away to willoughby, there’s a lot of work for a little bit of wash.

My hole

My hole

This is the hole where I found my small rubbish sapphire, lots of rock and the wash is pretty much right at the surface here, the ground is hard and there’s a lot of pick work involved, but at least this isn’t clay like where I was digging closer to camp.

So for the vast majority of people who are travelling through and not well set up for mining, you are left with buying buckets and bags of dirt in town, but where do you go? Many of them provide sieves, willoughby’s and sorting tables for you to use as well as training on what to do, and help sorting your good from bad stone at the end. I tried in vain to find information online which was backed by some sort of experience but there was nothing. Now seeing that my digging out at Glenalva was poor to average, I’d become more of a buckets and bags kind of guy, you may have read about this in my last post about Rubyvale. I’d tried the buckets at a few places around both Sapphire and Rubvale and there’s a huge difference in what you get, so I decided that I’d try a few more places and document what each place was like so that you the reader or visitor to this area get better value for money.

Some places I sieved at the premises where I bought the buckets, but towards the end once I’d decided to try a few suppliers just so that I could document how good or bad they were, I mainly went for take away bags.

Now lets get one thing out in the open here, these are all “salted” with sapphire and zircon by their suppliers, they wouldn’t sell any otherwise because people don’t want to buy bags of plain dirt. Out in the field fossicking like at Glenalva you sieve bucket after bucket of dirt and find nothing, and you churn through the buckets of dirt as quickly as you can. With a bought bucket of dirt from in town, you may spend hours sieving and sorting through the one bucket carefully picking out little bits of sapphire and zircon, there can be over a hundred little bits in the one bucket and you have to sieve it carefully, picking out each little piece with your tweezers. Many suppliers still try and keep it all a bit of a secret and I’ve often heard customers making comments like “this mine is churning out some good dirt, lots of sapphire.”

Bags of concentrate

Bags of concentrate

Buckets and bags tend to range from $15 up to $25 and there are two types you can buy, there’s a general bucket of dirt which is sandy soil with some rock and “the good stuff” mixed in, then there’s what many call “pulsator concentrate”, which is a mix of various size rock with no sand or fine dirt. At the end of the day it makes little difference which you get, you hope that the dirt may be virgin dirt so there’s a slight chance to get a good stone, but the reality is that you will only get what has been added to the bucket or bag by the supplier. So who adds the best bits to their buckets/bags?

Firstly I should begin with some definitions, I talk a lot about the stones I find and whether they are “eye clean” or they could be a “potential cutter”, here are a couple of photos to help.

Potential cutters

Potential cutters

The green sapphire on the bottom may have too many inclusions within it, you can see some dark stripes, it’s hard to tell if these are imperfections going right through the stone or if they are near the surface and there may be good green cuttable sapphire under it. The other blue/green stone is very dark, you can just see some light through it. Once again it may just be the back side of the stone that has imperfections, twist it 90 degrees and the light shines through, but the stone is still fairly dark, it can go off to Thailand for cutting and they may cut it or they may send it back. Also for a stone to be a potential cutter I like to aim for a minimum of 1.5 carats, yes they can cut smaller but I don’t see much point in having lots of cut stones slightly bigger than grains of sand. As a general rule of thumb you can expect to lose somewhere between 3/4 and 1/2 of the stone when it’s faceted, depending on the shape of the stone to begin with and the faceting cut. So a 1.5 carat stone may only cut to half a carat.

Eye clean sapphire

Eye clean sapphire

Although it’s not easy to see exactly, these are all eye clean, clear like glass and you could theoretically read text looking through them. Eye clean stones are always cuttable so long as they are thick enough, sometimes you may get “flats” (thin stones) which are only good for skin polishing.

Then there are sapphire “bombs” and you can see a couple in the picture below. Bombs are sapphire filled with cracks and/or imperfections, they are not suitable for faceting though you may be able to cabachon them or give them a skin polish.

Now onto the different suppliers beginning with what I consider to be the best, working down to the worst.

1. Max and Helen Pulsator concentrate

My favourite by far is Max and Helen’s Pulsator concentrate. Helen sows the little bags herself, the rock sand the added good bits all come from their own mine in Rubyvale and these bags have produced the best eye clean stones of all the places I’ve tried.

Good stuff

Good stuff

Their bags are $20 each or 3 for $50 and each bag contains a small cut sapphire as well as your other rough sapphire so you can work out how many of their bags I’ve bought by the cut stones in the picture above. In their bags I found my two biggest sapphire bombs to date the biggest being 165 carats, also a beautiful clean green sapphire over 10 carats in the picture above and many eye clean sapphires around 1.5 carats up to about 4 or 5 carats. Unfortunately I didn’t get photos of what individual bags produced, but each bag produced at least one or two good eye clean cuttable stones, some bags had up to 5 or 6 such stones in them. Far and away the best value I have found and this was backed up by others I spoke with who had bought the bags. Now ok, the downside? They are only in town for about a week every year before and during Gemfest, they aren’t in Gemfest but rather in Sapphire at the community centre.

2. Miners Cottage

Second best buckets were at “The miners cottage” in Rubyvale, on Goanna flats road. I spoke quite a bit about Gae and my sieving there in the last post so I won’t go into too much detail except to relist the details and the photo.

All buckets are not equal

All buckets are not equal

Three fairly standard buckets from Gae’s Miners cottage are on the right, between 80 and 140 carats of stones, sometimes some nice eye clean stone, a few potential cutters in each bucket, good value and good variety of stone size. Nice atmosphere, music playing, $15 a bucket and cup of tea or coffee as well as scones, jam and cream are included in the price. I spent many days here washing rocks and would happily go back there anytime, her’s are dirt buckets and if you want to take some home bring your own bucket or strong bag.

 

3. Bill and Deb’s Backyard gems

Bill and Deb are just in behind the caravan park in Rubyvale on Goanna flats road and they slip in at third just above Armfest.

Bill n Deb

Bill n Deb

Their small $25 bags of dirt contained 80-100 carats each and normally I would have put them further down the list here because there was nothing in the way of cutters or even potential cutters, but see the two large cut zircons in the little gem pod, one golden and one brown. These would easily be worth between $20 and $60 each to buy them retail, so although there’s nothing decent in the rough, the cut gems in each bag make up for it.

 

4. Armfest

Next place on the list of good value would have to go to Armfest in Sapphire, $20 for a bucket of pulsator rock, nice outlook over a big dam, very helpful operators, open 7 days a week but only open till midday for washing onsite but you can buy takeaways at any time.

Armfest buckets

Armfest buckets

The two buckets I bought produced 152ct and 182ct most are bombs or way to small to be of any use. The bucket on the left produced a couple of nice dog tooth crystals which would cost $10 each at most places and a potential cutter. On the right there are a couple of nice eye clean cutters, one green at 3ct and the other a nice little parti saffire of 1.5ct, most cuttable clean stone sells for about $5 a carat so that was worth it. They also sell small bags of pulsator concentrate for $20 these produced over 250 carats per bag but all small stuff and nothing I would consider sending off for cutting in the 2 bags I bought.

5. Anakie Caravan Park

Just over 50 carats each in the dirt buckets from the Anakie caravan park so not a lot of volume, but they score well because they are only $10 each and because of the quality in what you find.

Anakie caravan park

Anakie caravan park

Two nice zircons about 4.5 ct each, an eye clean green sapphire over 3 ct and a couple of other potential cutters around 3 cts. Not crazy good stones but zircons range from $3 to $10 a carat to buy. Hey I’d rather do buckets like this with less in them and better quality stone, rather than the Armfest pulsator concentrate bags, one fifth the amount of stones but at least I have some cuttable stone, and it only took me an hour or so to sieve these two buckets, Armfest’s pulsator concentrate bags took at least a couple of hours each to pick out all the tiny stones. And remember, Anakie caravan park buckets are only $10 while many others are $20.

 

6. Willy wash

Willy wash comes in next with their $20 dirt buckets producing 80ct and 85ct each.

Willy's wash

Willy’s wash

I’m not sure what it’s like to wash at their place in Rubyvale as I just grabbed a couple of bags and left, their dirt in the buckets is currently very clayey, Gae had the same dirt at one stage and she ended up giving this dirt away as freebies because it was so yucky to wash trying to break the clay down. Bucket on the right had a cuttable zircon at 2.5ct and bombs, bucket on the left had a couple of potential cutters.

 

7. Miners Heritage

Just north of Rubyvale these guys have come really low down the list for a few reasons.

Miners heritage

Miners heritage

The woman serving was really quite rude, I wanted to buy a couple of buckets but she looked at me flustered and grumpy and said “you’re right!” and walked off before I could say anything. Well actually I wasn’t, I wanted to buy something. Then the buckets, $20 each for dirt buckets and they provide bags for takeaways, but the grumpy lady wouldn’t let me pick which buckets I wanted, which is a bit of a standard thing “which bucket do you want, which feels lucky?”. Then their bags are so narrow that some dirt was spilled trying to get it into the bags. Still that aside, they each came to a total of between 50 and 60 carats all rubbish except for one just cuttable zircon about 1.6ct and the niggley thing that gets to me, gems not from the area. I had a couple of red garnets which are not local and some other rocks almost like opal potch that I’ve not seem anywhere else in any other buckets.

 

8. Bobby Dazzler

Last and well down at the bottom of the list is Bobby Dazzler, found on the main street as you drive into Rubyvale that was the bag on the left below, only 22 carats of tiny stones, nothing of any use.

All buckets are not equal

All buckets are not equal

I also heard him tell another couple washing his buckets that they had found a star sapphire worth hundreds of dollars. I saw the stone they had found, and it was a bomb not a star, and basically worth nothing. I wasn’t going to go back there to try another bucket for the purpose of this blog, I had seen others do buckets while I was there and they got about the same as me.

Pat’s Gems is in Sapphire on the main street, it’s a large cafe/fossicking place and I visited a few times wandering around looking at what people were getting from their buckets for $12 each. I didn’t buy any buckets but I’d estimate the returns to be poor to average, so they would probably come in between 6 and 7 on the list. The food at the cafe here was a bit average too, I ate here twice and wasn’t willing to go back a third time. By far the nicest food I found around the area was at the cafe in Rubyvale, excellent meals well cooked, well presented, good size and very well priced. The birds in the first photo were on one of the tables at the cafe.

All in all, there are buckets and bags available for almost every shop you go into, the caravan parks and plain old houses in side streets often sell bags, they are everywhere. I’ve only tried a few of the main ones here, if you’ve tried some others in the area, let me know how you went.

 

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Little spider

 

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2 Comments

  • Reply John Ian Downing July 12, 2017 at 1:43 pm

    Love reading your blog ,have just come back from gem fields,10/7/17,after visiting annually for the last 4 years but this year noticed a big downturn,bought from 7 places all put in less than other years ,Armrest the worst. But the accomodation at the rubyvale motel was just as good as ever,overall still enjoyed our stay.JOHN.

    • Reply joel July 23, 2017 at 5:26 pm

      Hey John, Not good to hear that the buckets are getting light on. I’ve just arrived in Sapphire myself, keen to get digging out in the wild tomorrow. I’m going to try and not buy buckets this year. Well maybe one from Gae at miners cottage so I can have a scone. Then a bag or two from Max and Helen if they are here for Gemfest.

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