All that glitters in north Queensland

All that glitters in Far North Queensland

 

The topaz is so easy to find even the bowerbirds fill their nests with it. This explains why I’m sitting starry-eyed in the middle of a dusty creek bed at noon, digging and sifting and waiting to slam my pick into something big and crystalline. Even the blazing north Queensland sun can’t temper my gem fever, which has lured me to O’Brien’s Creek, six-hour drive west of Cairns.

It’s renowned in fossicking circles as one of the best places in Australia to unearth gem-quality topaz (and aquamarine, citrine and smoky quartz too). The idea of striking it lucky here has enormous appeal. Twenty years ago, the gems at O’Brien’s Creek were supposedly ankle-deep, and local rockhound Simon Harrison jokes that he used to have to hide behind trees to stop the topaz jumping out at him.

These tall tales hit their mark, bolstering my little band of newbie fossickers as we set off into the scrub, armed with a mud map and a bunch of borrowed tools. The gemfield at O’Brien’s Creek seems bafflingly large, crisscrossed with tracks and riverbeds named Tourmaline and Crystal, and scattered with dozens of spots where topaz might be found. We park our 4WD above the reserve’s namesake creek and wander down its cycad-lined banks, swinging ambitiously oversized buckets.

Abandoned holes are everywhere, and I can’t quite decide whether to start anew or take over someone else’s hole, just in case they gave up too soon and I find gemstones deeper down. Testing out both theories, we get to work, scraping with picks and sifting through alluvial wash two metres deep. Hours pass by, and the heat is blistering, but we scratch and sweat and cling to our dream until suddenly, beginner’s luck strikes, and the day turns around.

My daughter is the first to strike it rich with a transparent little crystal that’s as beautiful as anything she’s seen in a jewellery shop. Unearthing it herself means she’s entirely besotted, and in truth, it’s quite a feverish feeling to find something so precious by simply scratching in the dirt. I hold it up to the sunlight and decide it must be topaz. It’s not enough to retire on, but we get to stride back into camp and hold our own among the real gem hunters gathered around roaring campfires at day’s end.

Fortune finders

These are the hardcore gem hunters who set up their base camps on the verdant banks of Elizabeth Creek and spend an entire dry season filling their coffers. Some tell me they’ve worked this gemfield for years, but none has tips for a fresh punter like me. They keep their latest dig sites as closely guarded as the jars of gemstones hidden within their caravans. I head to bed with the distinct suspicion that the longer you sit in the creek bed, the luckier you’ll get, so our trio decides to put in a few more hours of hard labour at dawn.

We take tools and advice from campground manager Simon Harrison, who has plenty of patience for beginners like us who arrive with starry eyes and lots of questions. According to Harrison, gemstones are often found trapped behind big granite boulders and the stoic tree trunks that eddy and still the floodwater and gather precious stones. This piece of advice works a charm, and tiny pieces of glinting blue topaz pepper our sieves throughout the morning before the heat saps our enthusiasm and sends us scuttling back to Harrison’s grassy, shady camp.

With its waterfront views and mesmerising birdlife, O’Brien’s Creek Campground is a lovely place in the cool hours that bookend each day. Winter’s barely-there, the tropical chill is just enough to edge us closer to the campfire, which does little to dim the blazing canopy of stars above. There are 10 hectares of free-range shady campsites strung out along the edge of Elizabeth Creek, where sandy pools lure egrets and herons and weary would-be fossickers who can’t handle the heat. We decide that’s us and whimsically make a plan to fossick for agates next, our little tin of topaz rattling happily away in the backseat as our hunt continues south to Agate Creek.

Thundereggs and agates

As a child I’d scoop up thunder eggs by the hundred on a Northern Territory cattle station that rockhounds had yet to discover. I’d crack them against each other to reveal their spectacular crystalline centres and hide these precious, palm-sized geodes in the boot of my parent’s Kingswood station wagon for the long trip back to the city.

Thunder eggs have crowded my parent’s back garden for decades and belong to my daughter now, and this is the memory that sends us rumbling off the bitumen to faraway Agate Creek, 230km away. Like O’Brien’s Creek, this government-sanctioned fossicking site is no secret spot, and there are no longer easy pickings to be had. But it’s a big destination, and there are plenty of places to try your luck: Blue Hill, for its blue agates with bright pink centres, Spring Creek for thunder eggs, and Flanagans, the site of one of the first commercial mines in the area.

Chasing thunder eggs, we climb the slopes along the reserve’s northeastern rim and dig away, filling our pockets with eggs that we hope will dazzle inside. Not everyone has flair, but my daughter spends a week tapping away at her rocks, making sparkling finds here and there. When we can carry no more, we retreat to Agate Creek and emu-bob our way upstream in search of its red, iron-rich agates, so often cut into thin “slices” to reveal bright bands of colour that look electrifying in the sunlight

Washed down from the upper reaches of the region’s most gem-rich waterway, Agate Creek’s huge deposit was discovered back in 1900. The most prized agates harbour stunning amethyst, calcite or aragonite crystal centres, and we fill a tin with the best of thousands of tumbled fragments then, with aching backs, call it a day. The nearby bush campground caters amply for self-sufficient travellers, but Cobbold Gorge is just a 45-minute drive away, and sunset drinks sipped by the infinity pool is surely the way to end the day.

Cobbold Gorge

We join a convivial crowd of explorers gathered on the poolside deck, hands clasped around cold beers and sunset bubbles, and linger for a starry night swim. It’s the perfect way to shake off the day’s heat and unwind before one final day of fossicking in this surprising, far-flung spot. Made famous by a solitary, slender rock chasm and the electric boat tours that venture deep within its flaring, water-rippled walls, Cobbold Gorge lies so far off the beaten track that it’s amazing that travellers find it at all.

Pastoralist Simon Terry discovered it in 1992 after bush-bashing with his mates from the mouth of Cobbold Creek. Today, this gorge on the upper reaches of the Robertson River is the centrepiece of an elaborate tourism venture. Access is by guided tour only, and it’s a pretty amazing one at that, beginning with a bush tucker walk, a daring stroll over Australia’s first glass bridge, and finishing with a small boat cruise that ferries you deep into the gorge. You can stand-up paddleboard through Cobbold Gorge, too, silently dipping a paddle without haste as the sun sinks low. Then there’s the fossicking.

My best day at Cobbold Gorge begins aboard a 4WD bus, crossing the sandy Robertson River and pushing far upstream to stand ankle-deep in agates, all ours for the taking. Tins are handed out and we fill them to the brim with all the bright, red and gold gems we can scoop from the dry bedrock of seldom-visited Agate Creek.

The tour pushes on, unearthing pioneering history and leading us beneath crumbling rock arches to secluded freshwater springs that fill some of the clearest rock pools imaginable. With our ever-patient guide coaxing us on, we nibble pea-tasting bush tucker, then tuck into the real deal, dunking homemade biscuits into huge mugs of smoky, billy-brewed tea.

Downstream, beneath crumbling stone overhangs that protect Indigenous rock art, I stand at a long-abandoned campsite of explorer, geologist and renowned historical photographer Richard Daintree, examining his 1860s-era treasure trove of discarded tobacco tins and trinkets. This outdoor museum is a wonderful find, protected by the lack of public access and light fingers that might otherwise pocket this rare slice of history.

As the day draws to an end, we cruise the gorge with necks craned upwards, mesmerised by freshwater crocodiles and the utter magical silence. Afterwards, collapsed by the pool with a cocktail and a sunset, I empty my pockets and sift through handfuls of beautifully patterned gems. Even in the rough, these stones have splendour, and I wonder how they’ll shape up once they are cut and polished and hanging from my kitchen window.

Not everyone comes to Cobbold Gorge in search of such treasures. Most come for the boat tours and to park their campers and caravans in a place that feels blissfully remote but really isn’t. Good facilities take care of that, and for non-campers with a bigger budget, there are cabins and indulgent wine-and-cheese heli-picnics that deliver you to the escarpment edge in time for sunset. Our sky-high chopper ride puts a fresh spin on our Cobbold experience, elevating us above endless rocky scarps, and ducking and wheeling over the winding Robertson River towards a bewitching golden sunset.

Cobbold Gorge might be one of Australia’s lesser-known outback gems, but it definitely deserves a spot on your list. The tours and facilities are surprisingly excellent, but it’s the gorge itself that will dazzle you most, and peering into the abyss from Cobbold’s magical glass bridge is a view you won’t easily forget. 

Escape routes

Go: O’Brien’s Creek Fossicking Reserve

O’Brien’s Creek Fossicking Reserve is located a six-hour drive west of Cairns or Townsville via Mount Surprise. Continue 85km west to Georgetown and turn south to Cobbold Gorge, or travel 110km through Forsayth to reach Agate Creek.

Stay: O’Brien’s Creek

Campsites cost $10/adult, $5/child (4-16 years) or $30/family, with free use of fossicking gear (Phone: 07 4062 3001). In Forsayth, rooms at Finnigan’s Rest start from $123 a night. 

Stay: Cobbold Gorge

Cabins start from $170 per night, and campsites from $17/adult or $49/family. All guests have access to the infinity pool, bar, restaurant, kayaks and walking trails (cobboldgorge.com.au). 

Stay: Agate Creek

Bush campsites cost $10/person or $60/week (kids stay for free). Register upon arrival (hot showers, bore water and toilets provided). 

Plan

The best time to visit is from June to August. Queensland fossicking permits cost $8.80/person or $12.60/family, valid for one month (qld.gov.au/recreation). Find out more at etheridge.qld.gov.au. 

Pack

A wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen, drinking water, a pick, shovel and sieve, and a sturdy bucket for your finds

Catherine Lawson

Catherine Lawson

Journalist, editor, author and adventurer Catherine Lawson travels full-time with photographer-partner David Bristow and their 5-year-old daughter Maya. Captivated by wild places and passionate about their preservation, these storytellers advocate a simple life and document their outdoor adventures to inspire all travellers, but especially families, into the world’s best wild places.

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