Travel Story Prospecting for beginners: Catching gold fever in WA's Goldfields

Photo of Andy Tyndall

Offering the tantalising chance to find a gold nugget of your own, prospecting draws first-timers and devotees from around the country to a camp in the Great Western Woodlands, near Kalgoorlie.

“It changes you,” says Marty Pereira, who fell in love with gold prospecting when he first found some yellow stuff in 1992. “It changes your eyes when you find gold.”

Having prospected as a pastime for many years, Marty was often asked to teach prospecting skills. Now he operates a self-contained, ecological, transportable camp set up among the tall, bronze-trunked gimlet trees on his lease in the Great Western Woodlands, close to Kalgoorlie. 

To get there, I’m given classic “bush directions” involving gateways at unnamed waypoints and following tracks defined by the most recent tyre marks rather than wide avenues. Nevertheless, we twist and turn our way through the magnificent trees and arrive at an almost deserted camp: a number of tents, a couple of portable gazebos, a huge caravan, camp fire and a colourful bus displaying the name of Marty’s Golden Nugget tour company.

Marty is the only one there. He shows us our tents, in which each has a stretcher and decent mattress. Like all his guests, we are supplied with a brand-new sleeping bag to keep. A small torch and an external lantern are there for our use, too.

Marty chucks some leaves on the fire in the “bull pit” — “because so much bull is talked there,” he says — and soon the flames are crackling away on some logs.

As the evening creeps in and the tree trunks glitter in the last rays of the day, Marty’s guests drift into camp, unsaddling their metal detectors, slotting the batteries into the huge charging bank Marty has set up in the back of his caravan. Some walk in, some chug in in their utes or four-wheel-drives. Guests are fed and accommodated for the duration of their stay at Marty’s camp. 

They can prospect where they like on the lease and sometimes wander, legally, further afield with Marty guiding them. They get to keep whatever gold they find. Our new companions are three farmer friends from the Great Southern, a New South Welshman and a couple from Mandurah.

Two camp ovens are swung into action: one is filled with beef and vegetables, the other has a mix of flour, yeast and water, plus another secret ingredient. Both end up on the embers of the fire.

As the darkness gathers, more cars turn up. Marty’s camp has become the site for quite the corroboree: there’s a couple who host a gold-prospecting TV program, a neighbouring leaseholder, another New South Welshman who comes to the Goldfields every winter for some prospecting. He shows me a nugget he found. Where did he find it? “Oh, about one-and-a-half kilometres that way.” 

A vague wave of the hand is the best direction I’m going to get.

With gold prospecting, I soon http://wan-cciweb.wanews.com.au:7003/newsgate/images/SmallCode.pnglearn, it was ever thus. All the talk under the gibbous moon is of gold: tales of gold, prospectors and the bad things that can happen if you stray off lease. 

The single, repetitive mantra is “dig every target”. The TV hosts reckon you should dig 150 targets each day for a reasonable chance of success. 

The gold can come in tiny flakes or large nuggets. Previous treasures are displayed: “good-looking” nuggets that have been eroded by slow travel through the soil can be worth three times their weight if suitable for jewellery.

All the time, Marty is tending to the ovens, occasionally shovelling embers around the bases or on to the lids to cook the contents just right.

The damper and beef stew are served — and they are very, very good. Soft bread, meat that falls off the bones, and all with a subtle, smoky flavour perfectly matched to the setting.

Cars drift away into the night, numbers dwindle. It will be an early start the next day. 

“The rule is, first one up gets the fire going again,” is Marty’s goodnight greeting. “It’ll be cold in the morning.”

He is, of course, absolutely right. There’s a distinct chill, alleviated by urgent cups of tea and coffee in front of the reinvigorated flames.

While the other guests saddle up and drive out for another day of optimism, Marty arms us beginners with his high-end metal detectors, shows us how to set them up, tune them in and swing them from the hips, keeping the flat disc close and level to the ground. How to sift and eliminate targets that are not gold, how to zero in on the elusive flecks. 

We carry small picks with magnets in the butt of the handle to pick up and discard the huge amount of iron and metal that has been dispersed over the ground. Gold, being non-magnetic, will be left behind by the magnet to trigger the detector’s demanding shriek.

Tiny fragments of tin, dustings of iron filings, much scratching and scraping, and then the detector keeps yelling after the magnet has done its work. It’s in a shoebox-sized heap of dirt I’ve scraped up, whatever it is. 

Marty directs the slow elimination process: handfuls of dirt are waved over the detector and cast aside if there is no screeching from the machine. 

It squawks at one of my handfuls. I divide and divide again until the detector’s squealing is sparked by a small heap of crumbling dirt and powder that would barely fill half an eggcup.

I can see how prospecting ensnares you: you’ve whittled down the possibilities, chased down this last fragment of something, something that yet may not be gold. 

Now it’s down to the gentle brush of a finger sifting aside the red-powder dirt. And there it is. A tiny nugget, undoubtedly gold in colour, about the size of a quarter of my fingernail.

I have found gold. I’m off into town.

Richard Mancuso is one of a few gold dealers in Kalgoorlie. He buys and sells gold from professional and casual prospectors, as well as tourists like me. 

His shop also sells gold as well as beautiful, polished stones. He invites me to take gold to other dealers, confident he can offer the fairest price possible in town.

He shows me a lump of gold found by a regular “over there” — that vague wave of a hand again, which I’m getting to recognise well.

Ten minutes later, I’m heading out of his shop.

Fact File

Disclaimer

Andy Tyndall was a guest of the Goldfields Tourism Network.

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