Sapphire fossicking in Oberon

ntro: We’re stuck in Australia for two extra weeks, waiting for Russian visas. Here’s one of the things we did in the meantime!

Fossicking finds next to an Aussie $2 coin

I love searching for things. I’ve been on fossil digs around California, used to trawl estate sales in college for rare books, and spent my spare time in grad school foraging for edible plants and fungi. This also worked out pretty well in my graduate research, where there was a lot of searching how to do things, trying the things, and then searching for new ways to do things when those things failed. Five and a half years of that gets you pretty good at searching.

Wonderfully, Australia is one of those places where you can search for precious stones and minerals and keep them, which they call fossicking. Several parcels of land throughout the country are open to fossickers to collect everything from gold to opals, sapphires, rubies, zircon, and diamonds. Rules for fossicking vary by state, but in New South Wales you can purchase a permit ($27.5 AUD a year) to go fossicking in State Forests. They even have State Forest areas where you’re allowed to fossick without a permit. Update: I can’t find information on the permit-free fossicking areas, so the rules might have changed.

A bonus of fossicking: it gets you outside! Sunset on our way back from fossicking

Located 3 hours from Sydney (without traffic), Oberon is a little town on the other side of the Blue Mountains with several locations for fossicking without a permit. Though it’s accessible by public transit, the fossicking site aren’t: you can take a regional train out of Sydney to Bathurst and a bus from Bathurst to Oberon, but the fossicking sites are located 20 km or more south of the town. If you go by public transit, you’ll have to hitchhike or walk the rest of the way. Thankfully, I have awesome friends in Australia. Hugh drove all the way from Lake Cargelligo to come visit us in Sydney, and when we explained our fossicking plans he happily joined us. Transit solved!

The Three Sisters, a worthwhile stop on the way to Oberon.

Then we had to come up with fossicking materials. The standard fossicking kit comprises a shovel/trowel for moving dirt, a set of differently-sized strainers for separating stones, and a wide shallow pan for panning. We weren’t keen on spending a lot of money on these materials, so we went to the local Vinnie’s (a thrift store) and picked out the following: a colander and a large ceramic bowl. To that we added our aluminum pot from our camp stove kit for panning and the trowel from our camping kit.

Our fossicking kit, courtesy of Vinnie’s

We left Sydney late, so we camped one night at Millionth Acre and nearly destroyed Hugh’s car. It turns out that the main campsite is really only accessible by 4WD, but this is what you get when it’s late and you just look up the nearest campsite in Australia. After nearly getting stuck driving down a hill, we pushed the car out of its rut and found a flat-ish site to pitch the tent. In the morning, were greeted by kangaroos and jumping jacks, a type of venomous ant (Stoytcho says: Thanks, Australia). We decamped and drove on to Oberon.

The night’s campfire
The campsite in the morning
Little unfriendlies: slightly venemous jumping jack ants.

Our first stop in Oberon was for coffee, and our second was at the tourism office for fossicking information. A woman there provided us with maps, plenty of advice on the different fossicking sites, and the recommendation that if we see an older gent in a white truck, we should say hello because he’s been fossicking down there forever. (Note: This guy is apparently well-known and famous). Armed with information, we decided to try Sapphire Bend for two main reasons: it was the closest, and it had a water supply in a nearby dam that we could use to wash our finds. We also had a pretty sweet hand-drawn map of the location:

The map of Sapphire Bend, courtesy of the Oberon Tourism Office.

Sapphire Bend wasn’t hard to find—we drove south from Oberon on Abercrombie Road for 20 km, then turned left at the first campsite we saw (Black Springs), and then made the second left onto a dirt road (River View Road). Though there was a lot of dust, we could manage the road in Hugh’s non-4×4 car. We drove past endless stands of pine trees, the remnants of pine plantations from a logging company. A few km down on the left there was a huge sign displaying the words “Public Fossicking Area”. Surrounding it were dozens of shallow holes, remnants of fossickers come and gone.

Hugh investiagates a wombat hole.

We started off by hiking, following the foot trails laced through the public fossicking area to figure out where would be best to search. Our first sapphire is a lucky find on the tailings of someone’s hole. It had a sheared face that glinted like a mirror in the sun, making it easy to spot. Holding it up to the sunlight, it looked like a piece of blue glass.

After pocketing the first sapphire, we loaded a few pails of dirt into our pot and bowl, then returned to the car and drove to a nearby pond to begin sifting through it. We’d put a small handful of dirt through the colander with a bowl underneath, then dump water on top of it to wash the smaller rocks through. After picking through the big rocks (which inevitably had nothing), we’d discard them and look through the smaller rocks and silt collected in the bowl below. We found a couple more sapphires and a lot of quartz crystals.

Stoytcho and I returned to Sydney but wanted to do more fossicking, so we booked a car for a couple of days the following week. I also did more research on fossicking forums to help us identify good places to search, which mostly came down to learning to identify the wash layer; it’s the layer with all the pebbles/rocks deposited by a stream bed, and the most likely place to find sapphires. To improve our gear, we visited a local hardware store for mesh and scrounged up a bucket to make a strainer with a finer mesh size than the colander:

Our homemade sieve from door mesh, gaffer tape, and a pant bucket.
Driving to Oberon in the rain.

On our second trip out to Sapphire Bend, we camped at Black Springs Campsite up the road. This worked out perfectly, because the site was quiet and had water and restrooms. Heavy rains from the last few days had filled many of the fossicking holes with water, meaning we didn’t have to drive out to the pond to get water. We looked through less filled holes for a wash layer, started fossicking, and managed one more sapphire. The old guy mentioned by the Oberon Tourism Office even stopped by for a chat and with a wink, he pointed out a few “good” holes. He knew his stuff.

By day’s end, we’d collected a dozen potential sapphires and zircons (including one huge chunk of sapphire), as well as a couple dozen small pieces of potential black spinel. Fossicking was hard work, much less standing and moving and much more sitting, patiently sifting through bits of rock in search of glassy glints in the sunlight. But there’s nothing like the excitement of searching for something and finding it.

Our finds next to an Aussie 5 cent coin, including one pretty big sapphire chunk

Want to fossick yourself? You can rent a kit from Oberon’s tourism office.

Fossicking with a permit and want to know what’s around? You can find a great map (maintained by local NSW fossickers) here.

Creepy campsites and another rainy hike

It’s our last night with our relocation rental vehicle and at 8 pm we’re looking for a place to camp. Internet sleuthing has revealed that the free camping options further south (nearer to our destination of Sydney) are sparse. The furthest south we can find a free campsite is in Olney State Forest, a 30 minute drive inland from the M1 highway, so just before Morriset we pull off and navigate a maze of dark roads into the forest. We make a few wrong turns, so it’s nearly 9 pm and raining heavily by the time we’re at the campground. Its presence is only confirmed by what appears to be a path through the trees and a couple of picnic tables we spot with the headlights.

I want to be a rational person, but this place is absolutely creepy. We snuff the engine and when the SUV’s headlights go out, it’s pitch black outside. The sound of rain is mixed with occasional plinks from eucalyptus seeds falling onto the roof. We jump at it the first few times. After a brief meeting on the situation, we decide we’re sleeping in the car and after dinner, we make nervous dashes to the corrugated aluminum bathroom stall outside.

Leftover meat pies, for (hopefully not our last) dinner.


This might all sound hilarious and paranoid, but I know of a few murder incidents in Australia’s forests. I’ve got a friend who grew up near the infamous Belanglo State Forest, site of the Backpacker Murders. Back in the early 90’s a local guy named Ivan Milat used to pick up backpackers and drive them into the forest, where he shot or stabbed them to death. He killed at least seven people. Then in 2010 a group of high-schoolers, one of whom was Ivan’s great-nephew, drove a classmate celebrating his seventeenth birthday into Belanglo and killed him while filming it. My friend knew some of these kids from school.

Well, it’s off to sleep! Hopefully we wake up tomorrow, though it helps that we’re sleeping in an SUV as large as a tank.

It’s the next morning and we’re not dead! We decide to celebrate with a hike, even though it’s still raining. We don’t even like hiking in the rain (we figured this out in New Zealand).

The falls we found. Maybe there’s a better waterfall elsewhere on the trail?

We find the nearby Abbotts Falls Walking Trail and follow it for an hour, trudging over soggy leaves and fording streams. We’re wet in minutes, and despite the rain overnight the falls are nothing but a trickle.  But it’s nice to be out in the trees with the smell of pines in the rain. We even encounter a tenacious tree growing in the middle of the trail, sprouting a new branch from where its severed trunk once stood.

This tree isn’t interested in your suggestion of not growing in the middle of the path, thank you.


Back in the SUV, we lay in coordinates for the rental dropoff and head back out toward the highway. Today’s agenda is dropping off the car and then checking into a hostel in the downtown area. Since this is our last English-speaking country for a long time, the next step on our trip is to try getting our Russian Visas here. Wish us luck!

The pattern of moss and wet bark on a tree trunk in the forest.

A (good) bed-end to our New Zealand travels

The cold and hot pools of the holiday park

This is our last night/day in New Zealand! After two weeks of driving around the country and sleeping in our tiny tent or in the not-so-ergonomic car, I’ve booked us a room at Opal Hot Springs Holiday Park to celebrate. We weren’t sure what to expect of a holiday park. We nearly missed the check-in cutoff of 9 pm, so the hours leading up to that were spent frantically driving just at the NZ speed limit and trying to call the place. Upon arrival, the guy working the front desk laughed and told us there was a bell to ring at night for check-in. He handed over the keys and asked if we wanted linens (they cost extra). We used our sleeping bags instead.

Our room. Of note: BEDS

The room came with a parking spot out front, so a short drive later we were at our room. And by room, I mean paradise. THERE WERE BEDS. Real, mattress-containing, soft fluffy beds. There was a roof, and a table with chairs to sit in. There was even a sink and food prep area, complete with dishes and pans. We dropped our stuff, flopped onto the beds, and just didn’t move for several minutes.

Natalie: “Can we just not move until tomorrow?”

Stoytcho: “Can we just not move until forever?”

But we needed dinner. So we mashed together the rest of our tomato/beans/eggs/soup seasoning, ate like hungry hikers, and then collapsed and slept like kings.

We also enjoyed our last Bundaberg soda to celebrate. It’s in a flavor that we’ve never even heard of in the U.S.

The next morning, we got a chance to enjoy the reason I had booked this specific holiday park: a hot springs pool. We pulled on our swimsuits and lazed about in the water’s warmth, interrupting our soak occasionally to swim some laps in the adjacent cold pool. In eight hours, we’d be on a plane bound for Australia. But for now, we were here, not thinking of our farewell to New Zealand’s shimmering sands, rolling green hills, and relaxing thermal springs.

Camping at Raetea Reserve

Trees in the Raetea Reserve

We’ve struggled to find places to sleep since the start of our trip. There aren’t many free campsites in New Zealand for cars, which shouldn’t be an issue because of the country’s freedom camping rules: as long as it’s not specifically forbidden, you’re supposedly welcome to camp anywhere provided you clean up after yourself and act responsibly. Freedom camping is part of the New Zealand psyche: when we were planning our trip and asked our Airbnb host in Auckland about free campsites, he looked at us like we were crazy. “Just pitch a tent anywhere out of the way and freedom camp,” he laughed. The problem is that most local councils of New Zealand have now heavily restricted or outlawed freedom camping, so in most places we’d technically be breaking the law.

A trail closed to prevent the spread of Kauri dieback disease

But let’s set that aside for now because we’ve found a free campsite to stay at for this night! It’s at Raetea, and the reason it’s free is that the rest of the reserve is technically closed to prevent the spread of Kauri dieback disease. So it means there’s absolutely nothing for us to do at this reserve, but it does mean a night of sleep free from fees and worries that someone will find and fine us for sleeping in the car.

The campgrounds, sheltered from wind and fairly quiet.

There isn’t much at this campsite except a huge grassy field and some drop toilets across the stream. When we cross to use it, we notice people washing their dishes in the stream water. I almost want to shout at them: GUYYYYS, this is why they’re outlawing freedom camping. This is why we can’t have nice things, and it’s only a matter of time before freedom camping dies out entirely.

There’s also this sign, so stay classy folks.

Otherwise, the campsite is absolutely lovely. Though its hiking trails are all closed, the reserve still has beautiful scenery and is blissfully quiet. And except for the moon, it’s entirely dark at night. Time to get our first good sleep in days.

The stream near the campgrounds
The moonlight night in the campgrounds

Driving in New Zealand


Start by renting a car. The experience is in general very nice, except when a lot of the rental services are out of inexpensive cars. We walked in to several, picked up a pile of free maps provided by the government and insurance policies, and reserved a car for a day out.

Next up, plan your route – New Zealand is small but densely packed. To the north of Auckland is a peninusula full of natural beauty, and takes just under a week to cover in some depth. This was my most succesful plan of the trip, and only had two bouts of very long driving. New Zealand helpfully lays out “tourist routes” that cover a number of attractions and take you all across the island. The northernmost such route is the Twin Coast Discovery Highway, and we followed it up one side and down the other. Grab campermate or a similar app while you’re at it. It drains the battery but it tells you where all the bathrooms and campsites on the island are.


Before you go, get food. We’d already spent a good chunk of our daily budget on car and gas, so cooking for ourselves was a must. Nutella, peanut butter, and bread for breakfast. Pasta, eggs, canned tomatoes and beans for dinner. Quality instant ramen for lunch – though we cheated a lot and had fish and chips everywhere. Cooking was provided courtesy of a cheap aluminum pot and our camping stove. We threw in a large bag of  chocolates, a case of Bunderberg (the christmas edition is wonderful if you can find it) and a bag of snacks to break up the monotony of driving. Last, but not least, a 10 gallon jug of water. New Zealand helpfully has free fill-ups in many places, but not everywhere, so carrying your own water is a must if you plan on avoiding paid campsites.

Leftovers for breakfast : beans, tomatoes, and bacon by the seashore.

On the topic of campsites. There are free ones, but not many, especially on the north island. The paid sites usually provide some level of bathroom or water, showers in the higher priced ones. Out budget didn’t really have room for sleeping accomodations, so we relied liberally on “freedom camping” and it’s much more available cousin, “sleeping in the car”. It used to be, and the locals will tell you it still is, that you could find any spot not owned by someone, pitch a tent, and spend the night. Then packs of tourists started trashing popular spots, counties got tired of cleaning up, and the great limiting began. The national government says you can freedom camp anywhere not explicitly prohibited but local counties can make their own rules, and many have chosen to block freedom camping entirely, or severely limit the allowed locations. Sleeping in the car is one way to get around this – the police don’t bother you, and you’ll see others doing the same if you drive at night.

Driving in Califor.. I mean Auckland!

Car, route, food, sleeping arrangements. Everything looks good, and the trip begins! For anyone not used to driving on the left side of the road, starting is the hardest part. A good thing to remember is : turning to the right is the “far” turn, turning to the left is the “near” turn. This kept me out of trouble most of the time, except when Natalie had to remind me that I was on the wrong side of the road, or making the wrong distance turn. You get used to it pretty fast, and our only brush with death was right at the beginning, where I turned into the wrong side on the highway. Everything is ok until 15 seconds later a semi is barreling at your face, with a pile of cars behind it, and you steer as much as you can to the side of the road, and back up into the road you came from because there’s no chance to u-turn into the flow of traffic. This happened on the northern outskirts of Auckland, after a surprisingly uneventful drive out. The adrenaline settled down, and we went on our merry way.


The open road, very nicely paved.

Arica Stargazing

1-IMG_6581 It was in insane plan. When we visited Arica’s tourism office on our first day, we noticed a flyer for an astronomy workshop going on just outside the city while we were here. Attached was a phone number to call for reservation. If we attended, it would mean a night of camping out in the Atacama, and it would overlap with a tour we were taking the day after. Scheduling it alone would be hard, let alone explaining that to both the workshop organizers and our tour agency in Spanish. But we called everyone and got it worked out: we would attend the workshop, camp out, and then get picked up on the side of the road the next morning. That’s how far our Spanish language skills have come.

Getting out to the workshop wasn’t easy. Although it was only about 10 miles from town and there were supposedly taxis that would drive us to the Lluta Valley, most said they couldn’t. One finally agreed to, although he technically wasn’t allowed to drive out there. If the cops caught him, he would get in trouble. The rate he quoted us was in line with what we’d heard at the tourism office, so we accepted anyway. It would turn out later that this was some weird false backstory, but nothing terrible happened to us and I have no idea why the guy made the story up. For those of you going out to Lluta in the future via taxi, any taxi can take you. 11-IMG_6577

We arrived at the workshop site, a mini petting zoo and farm with plenty of space for tents and telescopes. We got registered with the workshop folks, generously let us pay a reduced rate since we’d missed all of the workshop seminars (they had happened earlier in the day). We pitched our tent among the more than thirty other tents. Although this is their first ever astronomy camp, it’s insanely popular. Kids of all ages are running around and playing, while teenagers are chatting in groups and adults are fiddling with telescopes and equipment. In all, it looks like more than sixty people signed up.

2-IMG_6582 While we waited for night to arrive, we explored the petting zoo and talk with the other attendees. There were alpacas and llamas, which suddenly appeared in Peru and we have not been able to escape since (we’ve seen a live or artistic rendering of one in every country since Peru, including New Zealand, Indonesia, Vietnam?!, Japan, and Russia). We also befriended one kid who was obsessed with our tent, an ‘ultra-light’ two person Big Agnes from last year. It stood out from the other tents, which look like models from a decade ago. He followed us around, asking us questions about it, and then asked if we would “make a gift for him of the tent.” We laughed and told him we couldn’t, because we wouldn’t have anywhere to sleep. Still, it’s worth thinking about. Chile may have the highest GDP in all of South America, but the range of what’s buyable and available here in Arica isn’t the same as in the U.S. or Canada. 4-IMG_20170129_073356

As the sun sinks lower, the workshop organizers brought out goggles covered in thick black film that let us look directly at the sun. We gazed at the tangerine-colored sphere that is our planet’s primary star. One of the organizers directed us to look at the upper left corner of the sun and a little black spot appeared in our vision. A sunspot! This is a region of cooler temperature on the sun, where the magnetic field has reduced convection and creates a little black freckle. I felt a bit of a karmic satisfaction that the sun gives everyone freckles, including itself.

The dusk after sunset stretched like shadows slow and long, and after a dinner meal I found myself sleepy. We retreated to the tent to nap for a few hours, and when we woke it was midnight and there was full darkness outside. Though the camp is mostly quiet, there are several groups of adults and teenagers huddled around telescopes, talking in whispers and adjusting the equipment. We joined one group around a massive, bucketlike telescope with a wide, shimmering lens on the end. They were hunting for the Pleiades, the cluster of seven stars that appear near Orion. While we waited, someone pointed out the Southern Cross. As inhabitants of the Northern Hemisphere, it’s one of those constellations that’s entirely foreign to us.

After seeing the Pleiades through the telescope, we wander to other telescopes pointed at different things. We saw several other stars, a nebula, and what may have been the Andromeda galaxy, our neighbor in the vast universe. We spent a lot of time mis-aligning and re-aligning the telescopes with the volunteers, hunting around the emptiness of space for a celestial body. Around 2 am, someone excitedly called us over to his telescope. As we gazed through the lens, a huge marble with a swirl of colors appeared before us: Jupiter.

We return to sleep around 3 am and we’re up again at 7, decamping so we can meet our tour along the side of the road. Everyone else is asleep, so we have no way to thank the fine folks who organized this event. But if you’re in Arica and looking to learn more Spanish and Astronomy, visit their website and see what events they have. Maybe you’ll get your own astronomy camp experience.