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.

Dorrigo National Park: Waterfalls and Wildlife

Just south of the Queensland-New South Wales border, Dorrigo National Park is a green rainforest refuge, one part of World Heritage Site known as the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia. The patches of rainforest here are all that remain of the thick rainforest that once blanketed Australia millions of years ago. Thick mists and rain nourish the forest, and the water flowing from the soil collects into streams that tumble from rocky cliffs. And uncleared by humans, these forests remain a refuge to thousands of species: microbes, plants, fungi, and animals. Just a brief stroll through the forest reveals a kaleidoscope of wildlife, carrying on just as it did when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

We visited Dorrigo National Park on a rainy day, raingear ready and cameras poised to capture what we saw. Sometimes we were surprised. Sometimes we weren’t fast enough. But here’s a sample of what we found in the 7 km loop from the Dorrigo Rainforest Center:

Peek: a tree that has fallen across the trail sports a family of fungi



This shy bug has pulled his eyestalks in and waits for me to leave.


A heavy vine winds around a tree and runs up into the canopy above


Little family: mushrooms of varying age and fray clustered together


Crystal Shower Falls, at one end of the Wonga Walking Track


The view from the carved crevice behind the falls, where water collects and forms mud


Eco-friendly graffiti: Hikers put their hands in the mud pools behind the falls and leave their prints on the wall.


A skink rests on a rock near the falls. Possibly an orange-speckled forest skink (Eulamprus luteilateralis)


Hiding out: more tiny mushrooms huddle in a woody crevice.


Red fruit hangs from a walking stick palm (Linospadix monostachyos)


Spot the leech in this picture. Leeches were all over the forest, and we had a few get onto us and suck blood.


Ascomycete fungi grow from a tree trunk.


A large bird (Australian brush turkey?) dashes off into the forest.


Tristania Falls, the second waterfall on this hike.


The water of Tristania Falls flows over the contours of an unusual rock formation

Photos: Out and about in Sydney

We’re making final prerations to leave Sydney on Tuesday for Jakarta, so the blog post backlog is taking a back seat to travel planning. In the meantime, here are some photos of life in Sydney, where we’ve spent the past month:

Stoytcho cleans mud from his shoes after a hiking trip.
A miner bird steals thread to build a nest
Rainbow thread exhibit by Megan Geckler at The Customs House in Circular Quay
A sailboat in Sydney harbor
Weekend visitors to Bondi Beach
An “Oh my Lorde” donut from Doughnut Time. The company’s website boasts the following description for this creation: “Vanilla and passionfruit glaze, topped with meringue, freeze-dried strawberries, raspberry powder and party curls!”
A man watches the sky
The ceiling of the Central Park Mall
Advertisement at a metro station
The moon rises over the Newtown metro stop
The alleyway entrance to Sappho’s Books and Wine Bar
A street near the warehouses of Marrickville