Keen gold prospectors are flocking to a small town in central Queensland to try their luck in two newly opened areas of Blair Athol state forest.
After more than a decade of lobbying by local prospectors and business groups, the new general permission areas (GPA), Birimgan and Four Mile West, 22km north-west of Clermont, opened in March.
The discovery of alluvial gold in gullies south of Clermont in 1861 triggered one of Queensland’s major gold rushes, and the area remains one of Australia’s most popular goldfields.
The new spots have excited and re-energised tourists and grey nomads who have been coming to the region’s goldfields for years.
Most of the prospectors use metal detectors to meticulously scan bushland for gold buried beneath the soil.
“It’s a very good thing for Clermont,” gold prospector Angela Wells said.
“The new areas are very big so it’s going to take a lot of driving and walking to determine where the gold is, but it’s certainly going to bring a lot of people back.”
It is Ms Wells’s 13th year visiting Clermont’s goldfields, and she said tourists were vital for the town’s economy.
“A lot of local business owners will tell you they look forward to winter when the fossickers come because we live here for months, we get our car serviced, we go out for tea and we all play bowls,” she said.
“Country towns are dying and this is some way of keeping this particular country town open.”
Fellow prospector Anne Robijn and her husband have been making the trip to Clermont from Hervey Bay every year for the past decade.
“It’s a lovely hobby. It gets you out in the bush and it will be nice to see some younger people coming through, people that are retiring in the next five years,” Ms Robijn said.
Economic boost for regional centres
Clermont Community and Business Group president Sharon Jansen said gold prospecting generated $500 million a year for Clermont’s economy.
“The gold prospecting season runs from April to September, so they stay and invest in our community for months at a time, so it’s a huge economic boost,” she said.
Ms Jansen said the prospectors became part of the community and supported local groups.
“They join our clubs, they come to our events, they give their time and energy and volunteer at our aged care centre, so it’s not just the dollar value they bring, it’s the people power.”
Capricorn Enterprise chief executive Mary Carroll said gold, sapphire and gem fossicking were big tourism drawcards for the Central Highland region.
“Tourism is worth a billion dollars to the Capricorn region each year, and a significant amount of that is due to our winter visitation, and particularly those that are traveling to the Central Highlands areas of the sapphire gemfields and further towards the outback,” she said.
“There’s about 4,500 fossicking licences throughout Queensland so it’s a very popular pastime.”
Bittersweet news as well-loved site closes
However, the news of the two new sites opening has been dampened after the popular GPA, Bottom Aspley, closed to fossickers in the same week.
The Department of Environment and Science said access to the site was no longer available for gold prospecting due to the leaseholder withdrawing permission.
The Outback Prospector manager Jonathan Porter said he and many other prospectors had a strong connection to the area and were feeling the loss of the site.
“There are a lot of people this year who, even though we have new GPAs, have decided to not come or only come for a short time because it’s their favourite place,” he said.
“It’s where they’ve had their most luck and they love going there.”
Ms Robijn said the site would be missed because the terrain was flat and easy for grey nomads to access.
“A lot of us are getting on and are on pensions, so it was a nice short distance which also saved on fuel,” she said.
“It wasn’t as rugged as the new sites and there’s mobile phone coverage, so we knew if we were by ourselves we could contact someone for help.”