Montag, 18. Mai 2015

Gum boots on guys - we're going digging for all that glisters

It was meant to be a nice surprise, but when I tell Bea I've hired us a guide to go gold digging she immediately looks alarmed. "Hey, you know we're getting short of cash. How much is this going to cost?". "Ahm, she didn't say", I reply. In a lengthy telephone call with Yulia, a local geologist, we'd discussed everything to do with gold, and the chances of finding some here in Golden Bay. But, ironically, we'd not talked about money at all. "Ooh", says Bea, her face brightening up a bit, "perhaps we can pay her in nuggets".

Slipping into gum boots and other waterproof gear – we’re heading for a gold-rich spot on the Takaka River – Matilda starts counting on her fingers. “I need eight pieces of gold”, she announces “Ha?” I retort, fascinated to know what sort of entrepreneurial arithmetic might be going on in the mind of my six-year old daughter. “One for each of my friends”, she replies.

Bang on the arranged time of 10 AM Yulia arrives in a smart SUV. “Jump in”, she calls chirpily. We’re glad she’s offering us a lift as the gold-search area is quite some way down the river, at the end of an unsealed road. We already have one stone chip on our windscreen, and are worried that a further chip might cause it to shatter completely. It’s a bit of a squash though – the vehicle is jampacked with enormous drum-size buckets. “Are they for all the gold we find?”, I ask, immediately recognising what a silly question. “No”, she replies, “they’re for you to put your bags in”.   

Yulia digs underneath bed-rock for suitable panning material, while Tim studiously updates his diary.

Half an hour later we’re squatting on our knees around boulders at a bend on the river – the site of a former goldmine. Yulia shows us how to pan stones and shingle: "Get water on, shake pan, remove dust", she says, as if reading from a get-rich-quick instruction manual. Seeing our excitement at the prospect of striking rich at any moment, Yulia brings us down to earth with a jolt. "There is no guarantee we'll actually find any gold", she says.  Still, we feel we've got a pretty good chance, since this Russian-born geologist is an alluvial platinum gold specialist. Her precious metal research takes her on jet-setting missions all around the world. She's just come back from lecturing at an international platinum group metal conference in the USA. 

Yulia makes it all look incredibly easy. You simply wash off the lighter pebbles, and the heavier sediment remains in the pan. If there's any gold that's where it will be. Bea already has some suspiciously gold-looking sediment in her pan, but our geologist is sceptical. Testing it with a magnetic pen, she shakes her head apologetically: "Nothing so far, sorry". She encourages us to carry on though, saying we've found a lot of magnetite, which is a good sign, since that's a heavy metal too. Gold is heavier than magnetite, so any gold would naturally stick to it.
Tildy, meanwhile, seems to be having more success than either Bea or I. "Yeah, yeah, yeah", encourages Yulia,"you're already professional, Matilda. You can have a job with me as a field assistant".

There's no job offer for me, sadly. But when I tell Yulia that one of my greatest hobbies is reading, her eyes immediately lighten up. "If you want a really awesome story read The Illuminaries", she suggests. "It's about the early gold miners". Yulia goes on to describe how there was absolutely nothing glamourous about early gold prospectors' lives: "They had to save up three weeks' wages just to buy a bag of flour. "So", I reply, making a note to put this in my blog, "they were sold a dream and ended up with a nightmare". Visibly impressed by my commentary, Yulia nods. Matilda, in the meantime, has lost interest in gold prospecting and gone off to skim stones across the river.
If it was tough for early pioneers it's not proving easy for us either. The odds are heavily stacked against us. "For every ton you dig up you get one gram of gold", says Yulia, "and that's a good result".  Normally you need to search 80 pans of pebbles a day. We've managed just four. Yulia adds that to stand any good chance at all we also need to dig five to seven metres. We've probably not been digging much deeper than just a couple inches. 


Still, we've had good fun, and the morning's prospecting really gives us a feeling of early pioneering life, warts and all. Comfortingly though, even the experts don't always strike lucky. Yulia is wearing a lovely three-gram gold charm around her neck. When I ask her if she found the gold locally, she grins and says "Actually no, I got it in a store in Sydney".
 All that glisters is not gold
  William Shakespeare