x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Rising gold prices spark new rush in western Australia

The sparsely inhabited has enticed prospectors with the lure of instant riches since Paddy Hannan struck paydirt in 1892. With the metal's price at an all-time high, prospectors are pouring in once more.

In the capital of Western Australia, gold nuggets dazzle the eye of the beholder at the Perth Mint, which refines most of Australia's gold.
In the capital of Western Australia, gold nuggets dazzle the eye of the beholder at the Perth Mint, which refines most of Australia's gold.

KALGOORLIE, AUSTRALIA // Brad Parslow used to pour concrete in Perth.

Now he roams the deserts of Western Australia, searching for gold. On good days he finds a nugget big enough to pay the month's mortgage.

More often he returns home empty-handed.

"It's exactly the same as fishing," says Mr Parslow, 38, who moved to the gold mining town of Kalgoorlie, 600km inland from Perth, last year. "You can go out in your boat all day and get nothing, then all of a sudden, if your luck's in, you land a really big fish."

He is one of thousands who have joined Australia's latest gold rush, heading west in the hope of making their fortune. While conditions are tough - the dust and flies are oppressive, and summer temperatures can climb well above 40°C - the potential rewards are immense, thanks to record gold prices.

After rising steeply in recent months, gold reached an all-time high of US$1,420 an ounce last week, and the outlook for 2011 is bullish. In Australia, the world's second-largest producer after China, the buoyant price has sparked feverish activity, as companies scour the landscape for new deposits, revive mothballed mines and expand existing operations.

Consumers, too, are caught up in the frenzy, with many Australians seeking to cash in by selling off their gold jewellery, trinkets and even tooth fillings. With world economies still wobbly, they - like nervous investors elsewhere - are also buying up gold.

Others prefer to hunt their own gold - and for them, the most promising region is Western Australia, the vast, sparsely inhabited state where prospectors first struck lucky in 1892.

The following year, an Irishman, Paddy Hannan, discovered one of hundreds of ore bodies located in and around present-day Kalgoorlie, which was later christened the "Golden Mile", the richest square mile of earth on the planet.

In Hannan's day, fortune-seekers carried little more than a pick, shovel and panning dish; nowadays, most are equipped with sophisticated metal detectors. But the driving force is the same. "More than the money, it's the thrill of the chase," Mr Parslow says. He reaches into his shoulder bag and produces a three-ounce nugget, worth more than 4,000 Australian dollars (Dh14,400) - not bad for a few hours' work.

While the majority of gold-diggers are men, increasing numbers of women are joining them. "It's the peace and quiet of being out in the bush," says Tracey McCrea, who leads prospecting tours in the countryside around Kalgoorlie, known as the Eastern Goldfields.

"You're away from everything, in the middle of nature, and it's very relaxing. The money side is just a bonus."

Long before Paddy Hannan's lucky strike - which brought people flooding into Western Australia, almost quadrupling the population within a decade - Aborigines had been walking the land and finding gold. While the metal did not interest them until they realised how much Europeans valued it, they quickly became proficient prospectors.

Aubrey Lynch, an elder of the Wongatha tribe, says: "As a child in the 1940s, I can remember walking around with my mother, speccing [speculating] for gold, with our hands behind our backs, stooping down to look at the ground. We were speccing for gold to live on, to go and buy tucker [food]. We also told the mining companies where our people had been picking up gold, then the companies went out and got themselves tenements."

During the global financial crisis, the Perth Mint - which refines most of the nation's gold - could not keep up with demand for gold coins. Kalgoorlie, meanwhile, was almost untouched by the recession, thanks to the gold boom.

"It was one of our busiest seasons ever," says Lecky Mahoney, who runs a gold dealership in the town with her husband, Ted. "We had days when you couldn't move in here, the shop was so full. And there were more lined up in cars outside, waiting to sell us their gold."

Most prospectors, of course, will never grow rich. One who did is Mark Creasy, who after two decades in the Western Australian desert identified a rich deposit which he eventually sold for 115 million Australian dollars.

Mr Creasy is still exploring. "It's the game that counts, not the actual pot that you get at the end of it," he says. "You just chuck the pot straight back on the table."

Rod Wilson, a former fox shooter from Deniliquin, in New South Wales, has been prospecting in the Eastern Goldfields full-time for more than 20 years.

"When you see that little sparkle in the dirt, it's really something," he says. But he adds: "Mainly I do it for the lifestyle. You're your own boss, and if you're persistent, it pays its way. I'll never be a multi-millionaire, but as long as I can stay alive and feed my animals, I'm happy."