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Victoria’s gold rush ended in the 19th century. So why do people still find so much gold?


An amateur prospector in Victoria, Australia, recently discovered a gold nugget large enough to hold in two hands, worth about A$240,000. It was a lucky find, but he had chosen the right place to look.

Central Victoria was home to one of the world’s largest gold rushes in the 19th century, which mainly focused on the “gold triangle” northwest of Melbourne.

While thousands of tons of gold were extracted from Victorian soil during that gold rush, there is still plenty left. What somesecond gold rushis now underway as major mining companies and amateur fossils adopt modern technology.

A rush and a bang

A road trip through Central Victoria’s Goldfields region will take you to thriving 19th-century towns like Bendigo, Ballarat and Castlemaine. They are beautiful cities, with elegant municipal buildings and ornate churches, the product of decades of wealth built on gold.

If you continue walking through Victoria, you will find ghost towns here and there, such as Steiglitz, or the optimistically named Eldorado. These were less fortunate – their gold soon ran out.

Victoria’s first gold rush took place in the 1850s and 1860s. Miners and prospectors poured into Victoria from all over the world and colonized the land of the traditional owners.

An 1862 engraving shows an encampment on the Victorian goldfields.
Samuel Calvert / State Library of Victoria

Some of these early prospectors searched for small gold nuggets sitting on the ground, or searched for flakes of gold floating in waterholes and creeks.

Others sought the underground source of the gold. They knew that underground gold does not occur randomly, but would be found in certain rocks.

When they found aureus rocks breaking the surface, they dug for more. Then they crushed the rock to extract the gold. It was skillful, difficult work that took a brutal physical toll.

How to hunt for gold

in Victoria, most underground gold is found in “quartz reefs”: bands of hard white quartz. Formed some 400 million years ago, these aureus reefs may be miles long, but they are usually less than a meter wide and drop steeply into the ground.

The places where these reefs break the surface were hard to find. But if the prospectors were lucky and discovered a new reef, they could follow it a long way, both above and below ground. The deeper the miners dug, the greater the risk of mine collapse, flooding or other disasters.

Read more: How gold rushes helped create the modern world

Victoria’s remarkable gold rush history has been the subject of one World Heritage bid. You can learn about the gold rush on Sovereign Hill in Ballaratthe Eureka Center in Melbourneand the Golden Dragon Museum in Bendigo, among other things. These places tell moving stories of the gold rush era: of colonial thievery, of cruelty and exploitation, of skill, courage and hope.

Across the Victorian goldfields, the gold rush died out by the end of the 19th century. Yet the most prosperous gold mines, such as the Central Deborah Mine in Bendigocontinued to produce gold well into the 20th century.

But after the gold rush was over, the gold was still there underground. It was just harder to find, or harder to get to.

The second gold rush

Victoria’s second gold rush is less flashy and more high-tech than the first.

Mining companies from all over the world flock to Victoria, believing that modern methods will allow them to find and excavate more of Victoria’s unusually pure gold.

Modern mines operate with an up-to-date understanding of how rocks are formed and how the outer part of the Earth deforms during the movement of tectonic plates. They use these ideas to predict the three-dimensional shape of the aureus quartz reefs as they slope into the ground, making them easier to find deep underground.

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Modern gold mining is a much more high-tech operation than the gold rush of the 19th century.
Fosterville Gold Mine / Agnico Eagle

Modern drilling methods make it easy to sample rocks, using machines such as giant apple corers. And with today’s techniques, more gold can be extracted from the quartz in which it is contained.

Today, Victoria’s gold mines are producing about 650,000 ounces of gold per year, or about 20 tons. By comparison, at the height of the first gold rush, what 3 million ounces or about 90 tons were produced in 1856.

Many working mines hold open days for interested visitors, such as the Fosterville gold mine near Bendigo.

What you need to know when hunting for gold

Amateur gold hunting is also thriving on the Victorian goldfields today. “Fossicking”, or recreational prospecting, is a popular way to enjoy walks in the bush, with the possibility of taking home some gold or other treasure.

Dedicated fossickers may well invest in a metal detector, to the tune of several thousand dollars. For a more traditional approach, gold pans and screens provide hours of patient enjoyment and are significantly less expensive than a metal detector.

Potential fossickers should check their local regulations to see if they require a permit. Once you have a permit, you must abide by its terms, which may place restrictions on fossil activities, such as where you can look, what you can keep, and whether or not you can sell finds.

A photograph of a small gold nugget resting in the palm of a hand.
Fossicking may not make your fortune, but it can still be a fun hobby.

You are still responsible for obtaining permission from the appropriate landowners. As with any outdoor activity, you should be aware of the risks around you, including those of the weather.

In popular fossicking areas, you may be able to get advice on all of these things, as well as tips for finding gold, by joining a fossicking club.

If you’re not lucky enough to live in a goldfield, don’t despair. You can still enjoy amateur prospecting or treasure hunting, looking for other precious metals or minerals, or even treasure of gold coins.

Read more: Discovering a Viking treasure: a day in the life of a metal detectorist

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