The search is exciting; but not being able to stop is a sure sign of gem fever
Our guide Keith is holding a large uncut yellow sapphire in his hand while explaining the different types of gems that can be found in the gemfields of Queensland, Australia. He clearly knows how to motivate kids to work hard - you can almost see the dollar signs developing in our teenage boys' eyes as he speaks.
"This one is my retirement fund," he says as we admire the beautiful gem. "I figure it's worth about $50,000 Australia dollars, but I won't know for sure until I sell it and I won't do that until I find a bigger one."
He explains that sapphires are formed from the mineral corundum and come in many different colours, including blue, green, yellow, orange and pink.
Red corundum is classified as a ruby. When he finishes his little speech, he deposits the gem in a small Tupperware container with several others.
The gemfields area of central Queensland encompasses more than 9,000 square kilometres of land and supplies about 60 per cent of the world's sapphire market. The area is not only the world's largest and most productive sapphire field; it also contains rich deposits of other gems including rubies, zircons, jasper, and diamonds.
Gem and gold fields have a way of attracting unusual people - especially when a fossicking licence can be purchased for under $10.
People travel from other parts of Australia and the world to the area in the hopes of striking it rich and finding "the big one." Those who stay longer than planned are said to have "gem fever."
Once we are in a good digging location, Keith begins to train us in the art of surface mining.
"The most important fossicking step is to identify the layer of earth that contains gemstones," he says. "Gemstones are found in the wash layer, a section of earth below the topsoil and subsoil that contains iron stones, small pebbles and medium-sized rocks. The wash is the remnant of an ancient riverbed. If you are seeing iron stones, it's a good sign."
We all grab our picks and shovels and start digging. It's hard work, but before long we have several large buckets of wash collected. Once the wash is separated, it is poured into a large rotating sieve apparatus to remove dust and larger stones.
The filtered wash layer is then poured into another sieve called a Willoughby and repeatedly dipped in a water bath. The sieve is then flipped upside down on to a hessian bag made of wire mesh and the washed stone is carefully examined. Gemstones stand out when they look like shiny bits of glass.
Eventually, the kids organize themselves into an assembly line system for fossicking. The older children are digging and sieving and the younger children are looking for sapphires.
When the kids find their first sapphire, everyone stops to admire it. When we start digging again, we are working twice as hard - a sure sign of gem fever.
Unfortunately, it gets very hot in the central Queensland outback and by early afternoon, the younger children are tiring. We find ourselves in a dilemma when our oldest boys are begging to stay longer and our youngest child is begging to leave.
After three hours of steady work, we have collected 14 gemstones - four of which are of high enough quality to be cut.
Not a bad haul for a half day of work, but it's hard to leave knowing that the "big one" is still out there.
The gemfields area of central Queensland encompasses the towns of Anakie, Sapphire, Rubyvale and Willows. We favoured Rubyvale and stayed at Bedford Gardens Caravan Park. Rates start at $50 per night for a cabin. For more info visit: bedfordgardens.com.au.
Arrange a fossicking tour if you are unfamiliar with the process of surface mining. We arranged our self-drive tour with Keith at Fascination Gem Fossicking by phoning: 4985-4675 while in Rubyvale. It will cost about $40 per person for a fossicking tour, including all training, equipment and licence.