Gold panner's large rewards from small discoveries

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Gold panner's large rewards from small discoveriesMax Muir, who worked on the Victorian Railways all his working life, says many railway employees have hobbies such as fishing or golf—pastimes that can be enjoyed either alone or in groups, and at odd hours if need be. In Muir’s case, he developed the hobby of panning for gold. A life of shiftwork tends to rule out hobbies and interests that are geared towards consistent attendance at a certain time.

Occasionally, he searches for gemstones. Now 69 years of age and retired, he still likes panning and “gemstoning”, as he calls it, and he has evidence of his finds all around his home in Ballarat, Australia’s premier gold town.

During the interview for this article, Muir speaks in his slow and smiling manner with three small vials of gold specks before him on his kitchen table. The vials don’t look like they would provide the basis for his retirement, but Muir is proud nonetheless. He does not sell the gold nuggets and gemstones that he has found while fossicking, nor does he do it for money.

When panning, he likes the way he loses himself in the motion of swishing dirt and water, as well as the joy of being outdoors. “You’re totally absorbed by what you’re doing,” he says. “You’re relaxed.”

Muir first tried panning when he was a boy in Buninyong, a town just south of Ballarat. At that time, there were no such things as detectors. The search for gold was done with pans or sluices.
“It was remarkable how a little speck of gold in a pan would excite you,” Muir says.

In recent decades, Muir has panned for gold all around Victoria, in waterways such as the Slater Creek and Misery Creek near Ballarat and the creek that runs through Spring Gully, at the back of Bendigo. He might use a pan or sluice, but never a detector. Any prospector’s search for gold is aided by rains that flush out the tiny nuggets. For this reason, the best time to pan is just after a sodden winter. The current drought has precluded Muir from fossicking for gold for 12 months.

Gold panner's large rewards from small discoveriesIn years gone by, Muir, his wife Dorothy and their family of three children went on holidays in which Max would search for gemstones and Dorothy would try to add to her collection of teaspoons. In recent years, Dorothy has occasionally accompanied Max on day trips, but it’s against her better judgement. “I’m scared of anything that might wriggle,” she says.

When Max goes fossicking alone, Dorothy inquires about his success when he arrives home. If Max has found gold, Dorothy asks whether she needs a magnifying glass to see it. Max grins. If he’s found nothing, it’s been a good day. If he’s found gold, then all the better.

“If you come home with colour, you’re rapt,” he says. “And if you don’t get colour, you come home quite content because you’re relaxed.”

In the Muirs’ backyard, in the Ballarat suburb in which they live, Max opens the lid of a green Wheelie bin and shows me tins and tins full of gemstones. Queensland agates are in one tin and “yowies” in another. Max picks up some stones and cradles them in his leathery hands.

In his garage, Muir has a gemstone saw worth $2000 as well as a trim saw. A polishing machine is in a corner. Max takes jars of small stones out of drawers and off shelves and explains a little bit about each one. He uses few words, but it’s clear that he has a wide appreciation of nature’s gifts.

Gold panner's large rewards from small discoveriesThe opals that he found near White Cliffs, in the north-west corner of New South Wales, seem to interest him more than most. As with the landscape in that part of the country, his explanations are spare, but they provide fuel for imagination. The jars are held out for a photograph.

On my way out the front door, Max opens a drawer and fetches vials of small stones. On a shelf are pictures of his family. At 65, Max became a great-grandfather. The thought pleases him. As someone who searches for gold and gemstones, he knows the unpredictable nature of what can happen with the passage of time.

He puts a chunk of petrified wood in my hand and explains that it became fossilised over millions of years. He found the wood near Portland, in Victoria’s south-west corner. “Use it as a paperweight,” he says.



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Hi i'm new to ballarat, loved your story, its like your back in the old days, love it, i would like to try my hand at fossicking, but have no idea where to start

wendy walsh | 31 December 2011  

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