Red Centre Adventures I – Fossicking at Gemtree 

Campsite at Gemtree Australia

Australia is not only known for its stunning landscapes, but also for its amazing minerals found all around the country. There is gold, silver, copper but also diamonds, emeralds, and so much more. The best way to get to know the outback is to get out there and get your hands dirty. So we set off with a plan to do some fossicking at Gemtree in Australia’s red centre. 

Gemtree is one of those places where you can really enjoy the Australian outback. It is off the main road to Alice Springs and first came to mind when we looked online for a place to do some fossicking. Most of the precious and semi-precious stones are found in Queensland, but here in the heart of Australia we had a blast looking for Garnets and Zircons. 

On our arrival we were warmly welcomed by friendly people and a lively atmosphere. The son of the family hopped on a quad and showed us to our campsite. The perfect spot! Surrounded by thin trees and with private fire pit. To get a taste of fossicking we bought a bucket of dirt and sieved through it, finding several small garnets. 

The next morning, we met our guide for the Garnet tagalong tour. 

Garnets are semi-precious stones, that took millions of years and the perfect conditions to form. Garnets have a divine red colour that has a demand all over the world. It isn’t as rare and not nearly as valuable as diamonds or rubies but it sure looks beautiful! Uncut they are basically black and only the sunlight can reveal their fiery red colour. 

We got our equipment at the shed; a shovel, pick, two large buckets, 20L jerrycans with water and four sieves. We were joined by two other couples and drove to the nearby garnet fields. Our guide explained how it worked. Basically, you dump your “pay-dirt” on the dry sieves, take out all the sand and branches, and transfer it onto the wet sieves. The wet sieves you put in the bucket of water to give it a coating. When you hold the sieves up against the sunlight and see anything shining bright red, it is a garnet. 

We picked a hole and went underway, and soon found…. nothing! We decided to change our digging spot and were lucky. When you find that first garnet, and it looks so beautiful you get a rush of excitement that makes you continue regardless of the hard work. We used the pick to break-up the hard sand and the shovel to put the pay dirt into the sieves, once we got a hang of it our “production” started to excel. We dug around a tree, as our guide explained us that it would guarantee that nobody dug there before. After two hours of finding small but plentiful stones, Anna-Lena found a huge garnet! A garnet-frenzy ensued and, before we knew it, time flew by. 

Each rock is different and never the same quality. A trained eye can check the rocks to see if it is possible to cut the rock into either a circular or square shape. Most of the rocks are cracked or not big enough to be cut. The ones that are cuttable are called gems. They come in different sizes, usually starting with 3mm to 9mm – the largest they ever found at Gemtree. 

Once it was our turn to have the rocks appraised, we dumped them into the sieve to get washed. As soon as he placed them on the white plate under the light, his mouth started to form a smile. First thing he said: You’ve done well. Excited we waited for him to check each stone, one at a time. The tension was building as we knew we found a couple of good ones. The results: 14x 3mm stones, 9x 4mm and the big one 8mm by 6mm! The biggest one found in months. We decided then and there to get that one cut and put into a ring like the one on display in the shop.

We were super happy with our “treasure” and decided to celebrate with a dinner from the restaurant. Amazingly enough they take orders during the day and bring it to your van/tent in the evening after the restaurant closes. Right on time, at 18:30 our burgers and fries were brought to our campsite by quad. How cool is that! 

Garnets Gemtree

We took a chill day the next day, mainly hanging around the campsite, reading a book and enjoying the sunshine. The day after we planned to join a Mud Tank Zircon tagalong tour. The dirt road to the Mud Tank was dreadful and on more than one occasion I really thought poor Beasty wouldn’t make it. 10km off-road on a heavily corrugated road is no place for a two-wheel drive. 

Zircon is an entirely different kind of gem. It looks like a diamond and comes in different colours ranging from clear, to pink and orange. It is not to be mistaken for Zirconia, which is fake and created in a lab and only named after this semi-precious stone. 

Not only the gem, but also the process is a bit different. For starters, instead of the blunt pick we were now given a proper sharp pick that weighed a ton. Buckets and sieves were the same but came with a white wooden board. Instead of holding the sieve against the light you have to put all the stones on the white board and look for them with help of the light.

It was much more difficult than garnets as there is a very similar but worthless rock called Apatite everywhere. This made finding Zircons a bit of a nightmare and it took us a long while to figure it out. Luckily with the help of the friendly guide we got the hang of it. I did the digging, while Anna-Lena put the pay-dirt in the sieves and dumped it on the white board. We then looked together if we could spot any of them. We started to find some smaller ones, each a different colour, from yellow, orange to pinkish. Hidden among the rouble was one rock that was bigger than all of the others, and to my amazement it was a zircon! We continued chopping but it was hard work, much harder than the other day, and after a couple of hours we really had enough of it. So we quit and slowly made our way back to the campground to get the rocks appraised again. 

Zircon is a completely different consistency and is often cracked. About 95% isn’t good enough to be cut even if it’s the right size. Thankfully the big one and several other decent sized ones were good, really good in fact. The big one was the same size as the biggest one found in the last two years, making us the talk of the campground. 

Overjoyed, we made our way back to camp where we decided that we would stay another day to celebrate my birthday and do another garnet Fossicking tagalong tour. The garnet-bug bit! We spend the morning looking for more garnets and simply enjoy the outdoors. Even after so many years, it is still an adventure and a privilege to celebrate my birthday in a different country.

We have enjoyed our visit to Gemtree immensely, and I hope that the fossicking in Queensland will be just as much fun!  

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