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Published January 27th 2022
A Central Highlands Bobby Dazzler
Throughout much of the 19th-Century, Queensland's Central Highlands region was making a name for itself as a 'gem field', yielding beautiful & plentiful sapphires and rubies.
In 1979 the largest exceptional quality crystal ever found was picked-up on the surface behind the Rubyvale Post Office. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Creation of The Gemfields began as long as 70 million years ago, when the earth's crust shifted and lava and ash embedded with sapphires and zircons spewed skyward, deposited back to earth and eventually became concentrated in a layer of gravel known as 'wash', found along now dry waterways.
Sapphire and ruby originate from the same mineral, corundum. Both are aluminium oxide but the presence of different trace elements produces a variety of colours. All red corundum is called ruby and all other colours are called sapphire.
Rubyvale is the most substantial of the gemfields towns and caters to a large tourist trade. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Gold miners had reported small finds of sapphire in New South Wales as early as 1851 but, in 1873, a surveyor named Archibald Richardson discovered significant deposits while working at Retreat Creek near present-day Sapphire. His discovery ultimately led to a commercial sapphire industry in Australia and the development of the largest sapphire fields in the southern hemisphere.
Civilisation in the shape of two shantytowns, Sapphire and Rubyvale, just 6-kilometres apart, developed along the main diggings at Retreat Creek and Policeman's Creek.
Conditions on The Gemfields were harsh and worked very hard. Mines were dug with pick and shovel, often just open pits or trenches but later, as mining techniques improved, deep, square-sided shafts appeared. And there was money to be made with the majority of local gemstones being sold on the European markets. Some Australian sapphires even found their way into the Russian Crown Jewels.
Rubyvale's New Royal Hotel offers great pub-grub and a very refreshing cold beer. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
The industry prospered until the mid-1930s when it fell into a period of decline that lasted until about 1960. It was then that Gemfields tourism and a new wave of mining led to a rebirth of the industry.
In 1970, Asian buyers, mainly from Thailand, arrived on The Gemfields offering improved prices for the local product. This, in turn, led to a boom in large-scale, mechanized mining in central Queensland that created a huge increase in sapphire numbers and saw Australia responsible for about 80% of world sapphire production.
In 2022, commercial mining is again in the doldrums, prices forced down by the availability of cheap African and Asian product and the Australian Gemfields are now heavily reliant again on tourism for their income.
The intriguingly named Willy Wash is just one of a number of fossicking opportunities available to visitors to Rubyvale and The Gemfields. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
If you're feeling lucky, you might like to get a Fossickers Permit and try your luck on one of the nine major fossicking areas set up over thousands of hectares in central Queensland. You can get all the information required, rules, maps and handy hints by going to www.dnrm.qld.gov.au/mining/fossicking .
Today Emerald is the unofficial capital of the region but The Gemfields themselves centre on a prominent trio of tourist towns, Rubyvale, Sapphire and Anakie.
The Gemfields are home to the last Miners Common in Queensland and that means sharing the roads with free roaming stock. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Rubyvale is the more substantial of the three, home to the Bobby Dazzler Mine, the Miners Heritage Walk In Mine, Old Mick's Gem Shop, the Rubyvale Gem Gallery and some smaller dealers and attractions, including the intriguingly named Willy Wash, where for a fee, visitors can fossick through their own bucket of wash.
There's an excellent pub, The New Royal Hotel, where you'll get a great cold beer and a classic pub-grub menu. If you're looking to be a bit more self-sufficient, there's a well-stocked general store just up the road.
Sapphire and Anakie are a bit more basic to say the least. Much of the housing is fairly run-down, the surrounds unkempt with large tracts littered with derelict equipment. The emphasis here is clearly on fossicking with gardening and community beautification not getting much of a run.
With commercial mining again in the doldrums The Gemfields rely heavily on tourism for their income. Photo's: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Sapphire, with a population of less than 600 has a caravan park, a general store, a couple of gem shops and The Big Spanner, an auto workshop that urges travellers to 'get your nuts tightened here'.
Accommodation options in The Gemfields is plentiful. Apart from Sapphire, there are caravan parks at Emerald, Rubyvale, Anakie and the nearby Willows Gemfields.
There's free-camping available in the Sapphire Reserve with a maximum 48-hour stay. Toilets, water and a dump point are available and the site is pet friendly. No fees are charged. You'll find the reserve on Rifle Range Road, Sapphire.
The Gemfest festival of Gems has been running for more than 30-years, most recently at the Allen King Memorial Park in Anakie showcasing sapphires, gemstones and jewellery along with relevant discussions & demonstrations and a good deal of entertainment.
Subject to any COVID limitations, it's normally held in August and certainly worth enquiring about if you're in the area around that time.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to The Gemfields. A relaxed week that provided a range of fun things to see & do and gave an insight into a period of Australian history and industry that I previously didn't know a great deal about.
If fossicking doesn't deliver the goods there are plenty of opportunities to purchase precious stones throughout The Gemfields. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Getting There …..
The Gemfields are located in Queensland's Central Highlands region, roughly 900-kilometres northwest of Brisbane, and cover an area of just under 1,200-Square kilometres.
A road trip through the Central Queensland Gemfields will give visitors a great insight into this lesser known Australian mining industry. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media
Why? A visit to Queensland's Central Highlands Gemfields will provide a range of fun things to see & do and provide you with an insight into a period of Australian history and an industry you might not otherwise come across.
When:Queensland's Gemfields are open year 'round but you'd be well advised to avoid the hotter months from December through February.
Phone:Central Highlands Visitor Information Centre (07) 4982 4142