All That Glitters

Kerry van der Jagt — 14 January 2021
There’s gold - and silver and copper and diamonds - in them hills. Here we explore some of the country’s most coveted metals, minerals and mines.

Humans have been attracted to shiny things — from gold and silver, to diamonds and pearls — since ancient times. Long surrounded by romance, superstition and skullduggery, a chance discovery of the tiniest fleck can instigate a chain reaction that can be felt across the globe.

The discovery of gold in 1851 near Bathurst in New South Wales set Australia’s first gold rush in motion, drawing diggers from the UK and Ireland, California, China and Poland, and forever changing the cultural landscape. Over the following decades the discovery of other precious gems, metals and minerals lead to boom-and-bust towns across the country. 

While some industries have dulled, others are shining brighter than ever. Here are eight experiences to add to your itinerary. 



GOLD — BATTERY HILL MINING CENTRE, TENNANT CREEK, NT

Located between Alice Springs and Katherine, Tennant Creek is a popular stopover on the Stuart Highway. Known as the ‘golden heart’ of the Northern Territory, this outback town was the site of Australia’s last major gold rush (in the 1930s). It was once home to two legends — the El Dorado Mine, which produced nearly 1750kg of gold, and Peko, the beloved dog of prospector Joe Kaczinski, who is said to have sniffed out one of the town’s most important gold finds.

Follow Peko Road out of town to the Battery Hill Mining Centre where visitors can join an underground mine tour or wander through three museum exhibitions: Freedom, Fortitude and Flies, which tells of the social life during the goldrush; the McLaughlin Minerals Collection, with its array of samples from around the world; and ‘100 Years ANZAC Spirit-Albert Borella VC’, a journey to the Western Front. If you don’t mind getting dirty you can also try your hand at fossicking — you might just find that ‘retirement nugget’.

Where: 1.5km from the Tenant Creek in the heart of the Barkly Tableland.

When: Accessible all year round, but best in the cooler months (April–September). 

Stay: Tennant Creek Caravan Park has cabins and powered caravan and camping sites with amenities. Other camping can be found at the Karlu Karlu/Devils Marbles Conservation Reserve.

Don’t miss: A guided walk-through Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles) Conservation Reserve.

More info: northernterritory.com/tennant-creek-and-barkly-region.

SILVER — DAYDREAM MINE, SILVERTON, NSW

A visit to Silverton without a detour to the Daydream Mine is like going to the movies without popcorn. It’s just not done. 

Established in 1882 the Daydream silver mine was founded three years before richer deposits began to be mined at nearby Broken Hill (1885). Although Daydream’s silver rush was more buzz than boom, the mine attracted a sizeable settlement of 500 or so residents during its peak.

Learn more on a guided mine tour, where, with helmet and headlamp in place you’ll gain an appreciation of how harsh conditions were. Afterwards enjoy scones, cream and tea, a tribute to the mostly Cornish workers of the time.

Where: Approximately 30km from Broken Hill, 12km off the Silverton Road. 

When: Accessible all year round, but best in the cooler months (April–September). 

Stay: Penrose Park at Silverton has powered camping and caravan sites with amenities. Or base yourself in Broken Hill at the Broken Hill Outback Resort.

Don’t miss: Silverton’s Mad Max Museum. 

More info: silverton.org.au.

DIAMOND — ARGYLE DIAMOND MINE, KUNUNURRA, WA

The Argyle Diamond Mine is the largest diamond mine on Earth, producing 20 million carats of diamonds each year, including a handful of the rare and valuable pink diamond. In a move set to disrupt the global market, the mine closed in late 2020 (apparently the mine became too deep to be financially viable).

In good news, travellers will still be able to visit the site with Luridgii Tours on an Argyle Diamond Mine Bus Tour, following part of the Jaliwang (Barramundi) Dreaming story as told by Traditional Owner, Ted Hall. Starting in Kununurra, the full-day tour takes visitors from the processing plant to the open pit, with a buffet lunch served in the miners’ mess (itinerary subject to change in 2021). For a bird’s-eye view Aviair offers scenic flights over Lake Argyle, the Bungle Bungles and Argyle Diamond Mine. 

Where: In the remote East Kimberly region of Western Australia, 200km south of Kununurra.

When: Best visited in the dry season (April–September).

Stay: Kununurra has a wide range of accommodation choices including campgrounds, caravan parks, motels and resorts.

Don’t miss: A cruise on Lake Argyle.

More info: visitkununurra.com.

SAPPHIRE — MINERS HERITAGE, RUBYVALE, QLD

The largest sapphire fields in the Southern Hemisphere can be found in Queensland’s Central Highlands thanks to volcanic eruptions some 15–65 million years ago, which brought a shower of gems to the surface. The aptly named towns of Emerald, Sapphire and Rubyvale are the glittering heart of the gemfields, exerting a powerful pull on all who pass by. 

Start at Miners Heritage, Australia’s largest underground walk-in sapphire mine, for a 40-minute guided tour or buy a bucket of ‘wash’ so you can look for your own blue beauties. If you fancy yourself a serious treasure hunter, the region offers plenty of self-drive or tag-along tours (fossicking licence required — qld.gov.au/recreation/activities/areas-facilities/fossicking/licences-permits/camping).

Where: Rubyvale is 332km west of Rockhampton on the Capricorn Highway.

When: Accessible all year round, but best in the cooler months (April–September).

Stay: camping is allowed in some designated fossicking lands (fossicking camping permit required) or the Rubyvale Caravan Park offers powered and unpowered sites.

Don’t miss: The Rubyvale Gem Gallery and Cafe for breakfast with a side of bling.

More info: visitcapricorn.com.

PEARL — WILLIE CREEK PEARL FARM, BROOME, WA

To the ancient Japanese, pearls were created out of the tears of mermaids, while to Persians they were formed when a rainbow met the earth after a storm. Travellers to the Willie Creek Pearl Farm, however, will learn that pearls start as a minor irritation inside an oyster shell. 

A two-hour eco-tour of the pearl farm begins with the spawning of oysters in the property’s hatchery before moving onto seeding, harvesting and grading. All tours include a cruise on the azure waters of Willie Creek followed by a morning or afternoon tea. To uncover more about Broome’s unique pearling history pick up a copy of the self-guided Broome Heritage Trail map from the Visitor Centre.

Where: Willie Creek Pearl Farm is 38km out of Broome in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

When: Accessible all year round, but best in the cooler/dry months (April–September).

Stay: Free bush camping at Willie Creek Road, Waterbank (offroad caravans only) or numerous caravan parks and commercial accommodation in Broome.

Don’t miss: The Japanese cemetery, where obelisks mark the graves of over 900 Japanese pearlers.

More info: visitbroome.com.au.

OPAL — WHITE CLIFFS, NSW

Drifters, dreamers and schemers have long been drawn to the rocky landscape around the town of White Cliffs. It is here, within the 100-million-year-old sandstone conglomerate, that seams of opal run like lustrous threads. Discovered in 1884 by a mob of ‘roo shooters, the site became Australia’s first commercial opal field. 

Arriving here is like landing on the moon. Above ground the parched earth is pockmarked with crater-like scars of opal mine shafts (over 50,000 of them), while underground a maze of whitewashed ‘dugouts’ form the humble homes of White Cliffs’ 100 or so hardy residents. 

To make the most of your experience sleep in an underground motel, join a tour with Red Earth Opal or pull up a chair at the pub and enjoy a chat with a local.

Where: 225km north-east of Broken Hill or 93km north of Wilcannia.

When: Accessible all year round, but best in the cooler months (April–September).

Stay: Camp at the White Cliffs Opal Pioneer Reserve Caravan Park, stay at the Underground Motel or in a private dugout BnB.

Don’t miss: Outback Opal Hunters series on Netflix.

More info: visitnsw.com/destinations/outback-nsw/white-cliffs-area/white-cliffs.

COPPER — QUEENSTOWN, TAS

Queenstown, the largest town in Tasmania’s west, will shock, challenge and surprise you as you descend the eerie mountain pass with its curling ribbon of hairpin bends. Once one of the world’s richest mining towns, thanks to the discovery of vast copper deposits in the late 1800s, the land surrounding the town has been reduced to a man-made moonscape. Stripped of its forests, peppered with sulphurous rain and poisoned by smelting furnaces, the damage represents ecological vandalism on an unfathomable scale. Yet there is a brutal beauty here now that the smelters have ceased (1969) and the vegetation is clawing back from oblivion.

There’s also a raw optimism as the artists move in with their galleries and paint-splotched paints. From the biennial contemporary arts festival known as ‘The Unconformity’ to a tour through abandoned mine tunnels on a Lost Mines-Ancient Pines tour with RoamWild Tasmania there are plenty of reasons to take a closer look at this much-maligned fringe town.

Where: Queenstown is 260km from Hobart in Tasmania’s west.

When: Enjoyed year-round, but roads may be blocked by snow in winter.

Stay: The Railway Hotel Queenstown offers comfortable rooms as well as limited overnight parking for self-contained vehicles. Cabin accommodation and powered and unpowered sites are available at the Queenstown Cabin and Tourist Park.

Don’t miss: The West Coast Wilderness Railway 

More info: discovertasmania.com.au.

GEMSTONES — EL DORADO, VIC

The name El Dorado, Spanish for the Golden One, is the first clue there might something hiding in the waters of Reedy Creek besides reeds. The second clue is a miner’s right is needed before any fossicking begins (purchased at the Information Centre in Beechworth or Wangaratta). To those in the know, El Dorado is the one place in Australia where you are almost guaranteed to find a gemstone or crystal.

A visit to the El Dorado Museum tells of the folk-laws and outlaws of the mining era, while on the outskirts of town the El Dorado Dredge stands against the sky like a prehistoric beast.

Where: 276km north-east of Melbourne, 21km east of Wangaratta.

When: El Dorado is a year-round destination.

Stay: Free camping for caravans and campers is available at El Dorado Reedy Creek campground, with accommodation and caravan parks in nearby Wangaratta.

Don’t miss: A self-guided tour through the town’s mining and commercial sites from the 1850s.

More info: eldorado.org.au.

ROCKS — NATIONAL ROCK GARDEN, ACT

More than a bunch of rocks, the National Rock Garden is an important tribute to Australia’s rich geological heritage. Gazetted as a National Monument, the garden includes a commanding installation known as Federation Rocks. Displayed from east to west, in order of official establishment, the eight rocks represent Australia’s six states and two territories.

From a giant piece of 430-million-year-old Canberra Limestone to a 235–247-million-year-old slab of Hawkesbury Sandstone, each rocks tells a story about the state or territory it represents.

Where: Western end of Lake Burley Griffin adjacent to the National Arboretum.

When: Canberra is a year-round destination.

Stay: Canberra offers a wide range of caravan parks and commercial accommodation. 

Don’t miss: The National Dinosaur Museum for its collection of fossils, minerals and crystals.

More info: nationalrockgarden.com.au. 

Tags

Destinations Travel Australia-wide Mines Outback NSW WA TAS QLD VIC ACT SA

Photographer

Kerry van der Jagt and Supplied