Armed with metal detectors and clad in broad-brimmed hats, each winter a legion of prospectors set off in search of fortune in the West Australian desert.
People have prospected for gold around Kalgoorlie since the late 19th century, when legend has it gold was first discovered beneath a tree on what is now the town’s main street.
The days of tripping on gold are long gone, but seasoned prospectors say there’s still plenty to be found on the surface.
The recent discovery of a nugget worth about $100,000 prompted a prospector to contact the ABC under the condition of anonymity with proof of a larger find — a 7.9kg nugget worth up to $450,000 at today’s gold price.
Prospectors, unlike gold mining and exploration companies, are mainly amateurs or small-scale operations funded out of their own pockets.
Most sweep through the bush methodically swinging their detectors across the ground, the more serious invest in earthmoving equipment to remove the topsoil so their detectors can reach deeper.
They are not driven purely by money — it’s very difficult to make a living with a metal detector — but by the flood of endorphins only the discovery of gold can bring.
“Hard to explain what it brings out of you, it brings all the good feelings,” Mr Pereira said.
“It’s like this great achievement and it’s something you can keep and show.
Government warns prospecting is dangerous business
It is precisely because of the allure of gold and instant riches that prospecting has seen a sharp increase in popularity.
The number of licences issued is increasing year on year. In the past three years, the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety (DMIRS) has issued more than 13,000 licences, called miner’s rights, across Western Australia.
As the season kicks off this year, the Department is warning prospectors of the dangers of spending long hours often alone and isolated in bushland.
“It’s important to remember there have been prospector fatalities and a number of close calls over the past few years,” the DMIRS’s Rick Rogerson said.
“Trying to find missing prospectors is not only stressful for the family and friends of those lost, but also stretches precious police and emergency resources.”
“The population of people going detecting is getting larger and larger every year,” said Angus Line, whose family operates prospector shops in Kalgoorlie and Perth.
He attributes the rise in popularity to the TV program Aussie Gold Hunters, as well as viral posts of gold finds on social media.
Mr Pereira, who runs a prospecting tourism business, said most of his customers were grey-haired dreamers looking to find a “retirement nugget” to fund their twilight years.
For someone to get started, a basic metal detector, pick, GPS and two-way radio can cost about $5,000. A miner’s right can be bought from the WA Government for $25 to prospect on vacant Crown land.
From there, it is as much a game of luck as it is cunning and skill.
Big finds spark ‘mini-gold rushes’
One hot afternoon driving in the Kimberley on a work trip, Mr Pereira brought his detector with him just in case.
When he saw what he thought looked like good conditions for gold he stopped the car.
“I found this one spot, I got out of the car, walked two paces and pulled a 10-ouncer [nugget] out. That was about $20,000,” he said.
Most prospectors are secretive about their success. They don’t want to give away where they made a big find or even what equipment they use. But not Mr Pereira.
He went straight to the pub to celebrate. “Walking into a bar like that and holding a nugget, it’s like you’re famous,” he said.
One decent nugget can mean more nearby and news travels fast.
“Without a doubt, as soon as a nice find is announced, there is a mini-gold rush. I’ve seen it,” Mr Pereira said.
The discovery last year of a 103-ounce nugget near the sleepy town of Leonora, north of Kalgoorlie, did just that.
“You could see all the caravans heading [there],” Mr Pereira said.
From the counter of his shop Angus Line has seen hopeful new prospectors and the hardened and weary pass through.
He said people needed to think about the number of prospectors out there compared to the number of big finds.