Prospecting may seem like the perfect activity for those self-isolating in the outback, but authorities are warning that those engaging in the pastime could be at risk of breaching coronavirus restrictions.
- Police and local government leaders want prospectors in WA to stay at home
- The WA Government stopped issuing “Miner’s Rights” — required for prospecting — this month
- The peak body for prospectors wants hobbyists to stop but warns prospecting is vital income for others
Cooler weather traditionally signals the start of the migration of thousands of prospectors to Western Australia’s old gold rush areas, but this year authorities have called for those with “gold fever” to hold off heading into the bush, warning it would contravene the official advice to stay home.
Nonetheless, prospecting shop owner Matt Cook said he had logged a 30 per cent increase in enquiries, though he expected the “mad rush” to be short-lived.
“Most of the enquiries are for people who want to get a new detector for the first time … it’s a whole new game for them,” he said.
“People may have lost their jobs, they have time on their hands because they can’t socialise so they think, ‘Well I’ll go out bush, it’s isolating’.
Potential risk to ambos
In the historic goldrush town of Cue, 650 kilometres north east of Perth, the caravan park is now closed to new arrivals.
But some prospectors have already settled in because they did not want to return to the cities, or because they lived out of vans and had nowhere else to go.
Cue Shire chief executive Rob Madson said this is not the time for people to try their luck with metal detectors.
“[Prospecting] flies in the face of the direction from the Federal Government to avoid all non-essential travel, as far as I am concerned, and I did point that out to the people in the park,” he said.
“But that is a police matter as to how they want to enforce that.”
As one of a few active ambulance volunteers in the tiny mining town, Mr Madson had concerns about what could happen if a prospector got lost or found themselves in need of emergency attention.
“If we have to go out and look for prospectors who get into trouble, then that is going to take our focus away from anybody who might need attention in relation to anything to do with the virus,” he said.
Not ‘in the spirit’ of infection control measures
Midwest-Gascoyne police superintendent Roger Beer, whose district includes the gold-rich Murchison towns of Cue and Mount Magnet, said prospecting is a hobby — not an essential activity.
“You would have to say that prospecting is a recreational activity that is not necessary,” he said.
Supt Beer said everyone was “doing their best to restrict the spread of this very nasty virus”, and that movement restrictions had been put in place for a reason.
“But over and above those restrictions, I think as members of our respective communities we have a responsibility to do the right thing,” he said.
“I would appeal to people’s sense of goodwill in these circumstances.”
What about seasoned prospectors?
The WA Amalgamated Prospectors and Leaseholders Association (APLA) agreed that hobbyists should stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19.
But it stressed there was another category of people who relied on the precious metal as their source of income.
“Unfortunately, if people have just lost their job and never done prospecting before, I’m sorry, but you’ve got no history of earning a living with it,” president Les Lowe said.
Despite the WA Government banning travel between nine different regions, there are some exemptions — including for people “travelling to work”.
Mr Lowe said he had worked with the State Government to develop a list of documentation for those occupational prospectors “that should prove to a police officer this is what they do for a living”.
The Department of Mines executive director of resource tenure, Rick Rogerson, said it had “stopped issuing Miner’s Rights and is no longer assessing applications for Section 40E Permits from 1 April”.
“The suspension is in response to the State Government’s introduction on 31 March, 2020, of a prohibition on regional travel made under the declared State of Emergency to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” he said.
Mr Lowe said while Section 40E permits were predominantly used by recreational prospectors, there was a group of occupational prospectors who would be affected and “they’ve lost their income at the stroke of a pen”.
“This coronavirus has changed the whole landscape of prospecting, small scale mining and the resources sector,” he said.