Panning for gold

April 23, 2013

Braidwood, Australia

By Daniel Munoz

For 59 year-old Wal Krikowa his hobby has become his passion. The recent volatility affecting gold prices is the least of his concerns. After decades of doing what he calls “the business”, his passion for prospecting gold on weekends has remained unchanged. His experience tells him it all just comes down to luck. Worrying about whether he finds anything is just a waste of time.

Wal and his wife Liz always start their gold prospecting trips with a strict routine. I arrived at their beautiful house in North Canberra on a recent Saturday morning. We hit the road and a short time later we stopped at a local petrol station for what I first thought was a morning cup of coffee. But there was an different motive to this visit. Liz is hugely superstitious, and the stop was part of their ‘luck routine’ before prospecting. She admitted to me between sips of the local brew that another one of her superstitions is to place four soda cans into the same bag, the same way, at the same time before leaving the house. “Everything needs to be perfectly in place to find gold,” she said with a wry grin.

As a football fan, superstition is no stranger to me. I know of coaches who wear the same tie or smoke the same amount of tobacco before every match just to re-enact the same procedures of their previous victory.

After traveling for over an hour we arrived at the Shoalhaven River, located in what’s known as the Southern Highlands region of New South Wales. Wal immediately began to set up a device he called a ‘highbanker’. He designed it himself to filter river rocks and pebbles with a sole purpose – to accelerate the process of finding gold.

Meanwhile, Liz conducted what she calls ‘panning tests’, looking for small iron stones and black sand associated with gold. She conducted the tests by putting dirt around the stones in her pan, washing away the bigger pieces and keeping the smaller and heavier ones in the bottom. The ideal outcome is that after washing away all the remaining black sand, what will remain in the pan will be beautiful, golden flakes. It’s a clever and simple process, knowing that gold is the heaviest of all the elements found in the dirt. If between 15 and 20 tiny flakes of gold are found, then its time for the “highbanker”.

The “highbanker” objective is simple: wash a massive amount of dirt and put the heavy and small stuff into a rug trap. To do that, it needs to have the appropriate angle, the appropriate amount of water and the appropriate grids.

The gold is inevitably trapped, the rug is washed and all its content is patiently panned. Liz is the best at this process, not a single small flake escapes her.

Like the couple, hundreds of Australians can be found spending their weekends panning for gold in many rivers and small towns across the country. With such a beautiful, clean environment of fresh country air and crystal clear waters, I certainly think it’s a nice way of relaxing, with the added bonus that at the end of it, lies the potential for some extra cash.

But this is not necessarily the end of the story. Wal and Liz don’t just hunt for gold in the river. They also search for other precious stones of the region including sapphires, opals and precious gems. But that’s an entirely different operation and one they are saving for a ‘rainy day’.

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