I left Sydney in the dark, dodging the bullying B-doubles and pantechs until I made the turnoff deep in the pine forests beyond Lithgow, where the road to Kirconnell gaol kinks off. I drive past the gaol feeling guilty, like I’m there to spring some felon, the driver of a getaway car purring in the scrub beyond the tiger-wire fence. But of course I’m not, because then there’d be two of us in one car and we’d be an easy mark for a lazy cop: the law hasn’t caught up with Ministerial declarations as to what is (and is not) a permitted purpose for leaving your home during this plague, but two guys in a car skulking around the woods in the pre-dawn light is cause for a traffic-stop if I ever heard one. I’m calling this exercise, for the COVID-19 record, because I’m allowed to leave home for that, and plus, I know the effort ahead will be (almost) herculean.

I make better time than I need, and step out of the car to take some dawn-lit photos of the track I find myself on. They always look better in the viewfinder than the memory card. My deficiencies as a photographer writ large for all to see. Better that I try, fail, learn and improve, then not try at all. Eventually, there’s enough light to walk by and I strap on my pack. I cross Dark Corner Creek near the barbed and electrified fence of somebody who wants me to KEEP OUT, hopping from a spur of fissured shale to the opposite bank. No springbok, I’m happy to stay upright and dry, and let my feet find the trackhead disappearing into the bracken.

We re-cross the creek and rise onto a wooded spur. The eucalypt forest around me is sparse up close, rugged at a distance, sinking its roots deep into rocky broken soil. I’m seeing a lot of busted granite, sharp-edged and mica-flecked. The creek never lived up here, not halfway up the spur. My backpack is heavy, but the 10L bucket I keep swapping from hand to hand is heavier. In it are all my tools, without which this turns into a fairly pointless exercise. I’m sure there will be things to photograph, but it’s not looking too pretty yet. The Australian bush, I’m fond of saying, is filled with things that want to bite, scratch and sting you to death. Today will be no exception.

I lose the path. My fault, I descend to the creek prematurely, lured by bedrock. When I get there the bedrock is a jumble of stone, no crevices, no gravel, no options. But it lets me see the opposite side of the narrow, riverine valley I’m traversing, and again there’s nothing but busted granite rising sharply from the waterline. No alluvial shelves of river-smooth stone. Is it possible this creek hasn’t deviated? It’s flowed here, right here, since drop bears (thylarctos plummetus) roamed the boreal wood? It’s a relevant question, because the best gold is most often and most easily found not where the river is today, but where it flowed a hundred years ago. Deep, fast-running water is hard to work with a short spade and pan, if not impossible. And (stupid) now I’m thinking about drop bears… I try following the creek, but I’m soon mired in fallen trees, grabbing lawyer vine and brush. I’m not following a path anymore, exept for wombat warrens, metre-high tunnels hollowed out in the scrub, meaning I have to push through the interlocked storey with my upper body. It’s exhausting, and I am soaked. I stop to test another unlikely spot, then eye the ridgeline above me. Up there, the path is somewhere above me. I’m moving about a hundred metres per hour down here, I need to get out. Plus, I’m not seeing any quartz. As the pre-eminent indicator of gold, the absence of visible quartz makes me very nervous.

I do know there’s gold here. Dark Corner Creek Mine is infrequently mentioned in the literature, but in mid-1898 it was bought as an abandoned venture by the Paddy Lackey Deep-level Company to catch a reef they’d discovered at the Lackey mine ‘a stone’s throw to the north-west‘. They were chasing a vein of gold two feet wide which was paying them an ounce per tonne. What ultimately stymied their best efforts was the sheer logistics of getting heavy machinery into place: ‘the country is extremely hard and wet‘ they lament, and the gold was at least 400’ beneath their feet, through rock a team of professional miners could only penetrate by hand at a rate of four feet per week. Trudging up the treacherous, ankle-turning hillside, I could easily empathise. Gold fever is an insidious illness, but this place could be the cure. Finally I regain the spur, sweat running off me in rivulets, and meet the trail which is extremely feint. I lose it, find it, lose it some more. I’m starting to see quarts, not individual pieces but spidery veins in granite. It’s attractive, and I promise to take some pictures later when I find a striking piece. But for now I need to keep trekking, because the track is leading me along a spur to a point on the map I wanted to go. Where a secondary creek flows into mine on a sharp bend. I’ve decided that’s as far as I’ll go. If there are no prospects, I’ll have a sandwich, take some photos, and go back. Luckily, the end of this maybe-real, maybe-imaginary track ended in a magic spot.

Flat ground beneath my feet? What a treat! I set myself up on a log, careful to check it for snakes, spiders and ants (in that order). I get my A7Rii on the tripod, pull out some basic equipment (small pan, small trowel, small crevicing tool) and assess the creek. Through a hedge of bracken, high grass, stinging nettle and downed branches, Dark Corner Creek hammers into the vertical rockface of the opposing ridge, forming a deep ovoid pool before rushing off again for a hundred metres before bashing into the next spur. My miner’s intuition tells me that any gold entering this area would drop into the pool. But I’m not equipped to prospect the pool, that would take a wetsuit and snorkel aka ‘sniping’ equipment. I go a bit wobbly-kneed at the thought of lugging all that gear in here. So I set myself the futile task of prospecting the tail end of the pool, expecting to find nothing. Well, I was almost right.

I wish! No, I found one tiny speck. A tiny roughie in the top three inches of the gravel bar, and nothing else for maybe three hours of heavy work. Before I left home I described this as a reconnaissance trip. To review a creek I’d looked at before but never really assessed. Make or break, and like a wannabe starlet trapped in a lift with Harvey Weinstein, you’ll forgive me for wondering if the price is too high. Cost-benefit ratio calculated, I stop for my delicious sandwich and pack up. Nup. There’s gold here, the fact I found a tiny rough-bit in a shitty spot proves it, but it’s just too hard. Hard country makes hard men — but hard country also breaks them. Especially when it’s literally teeming with these bastards:

Jack jumper ants, everywhere. The Guiness Book of Records accredits these as the most dangerous ants in the world. Venomous in a way anaphylactics dread, the Jack jumpers are huge, an inch long if not more, waving their serrated jaws at me. Not only do they stand their ground at the approach of something a million times their size, they actually advance on me. But at first I don’t see them. I put my pack down to photograph a budding stem, and suddenly they’re on me. So I’m slapping them off, hopping around like an idiot in a panic, my thick clothes avoiding the bites. Then it’s the backpacks turn. I go to pick it up and half a dozen ants rear up on their hindlegs, those huge, ugly yellow mandibles gaping. I find a (ant-free) stick and smack them off. Nervously, I cinch the pack on, expecting a searing bite somewhere, but miraculously I’m safe and scarper the hell out of there. I survived the Jack jumper ants … and the drop bears!

Back at the car, I strip down to my t-shirt to cool down, relieved to have survived that rocky, steep, anty hell, and go down to where I’d first crossed the creek. In a lazy sort of way, I scrape a bit of dirt into my pan from between two fins of worn bedrock. A bit of desultory panning, and I find myself standing a little perplexed at the gold in my pan. I turn to stare upstream, through the (NO ENTRY!) barbed and buzzing fence to clear, hilly country through which the creek runs. It’s coming from up there somewhere. I see exposed bedrock, a boulder-strewn ford, gravel bars. But all, sadly, on private property…

Anyhoo, I end my day with a half-hearted trip to upper Mitchell’s Creek, the most played-out auriferous creek in the state. The sight of a guy with a bobcat digging a trench into the bank not a hundred metres from where I’m panning underlines the decision I make each time I end up on the Mitchell. Not worth it. Just not worth coming back here, even if I’m desperate. Back in the car heading for home, I make another mental note. While this virus is raging through the community, maybe it would be better if I just stay home. I haven’t had contact with another human being today, not one. But even so. I’ll spend my time researching a better place. Maybe the mystical southern reaches of New South Wales, where the creeks hold not only gold, but gemstones too: sapphires, rubies, even diamonds.

Diamond fever.

But for now, I’ll stay at home.

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