Monthly Archive for December, 2007

Lust for Dust

Here in Rubyvale, the lure of the sapphire is real. While the fabled el Dorado may have streets lined with gold, Rubyvale’s dusty pavements are littered with gems.

“Here you go,” says Kym with a cultured tone not often found in the Australian outback. Her finely manicured hands load a fat pile of “wash” into my sieve with a rough, well-used shovel. This where my search for a sapphire begins; with a pile of dirty gravel.fossicking in Rubyvale

“Back in 1979, Smiley Nelson was walking home from school across the some of the fields mined by the big commercial operators,” says Tony, our guide, “and he kicked up a huge yellow sapphire weighing 2019 carats. It passed through a number of owners in the intervening years and I recently heard that it sold as a 1,400 carat, cut stone in New York for $1.2 million.”

I take the sieve, about the size of a big Frisbee, and plunge it into a 44 gallon drum full of water, jiggling and bouncing it vigorously just below the surface. This action, I’m told, washes off the clay dust and helps sort the stones into like densities. The theory is the valuable stuff will end up in the centre. Next, the whole lot is upended carefully onto a sorting bench.

Picking through the little coloured stones, my heart leaps in excitement as a produce a mighty bauble about the size of a garden snail. Kym takes about a half second to assess it and tosses it into the bush without a second look. “Quartz, darling … worthless. Keep looking.”

My delicate city fingers, used to no more mistreatment than a feather-touch computer keyboard, are soon painfully abraded and stinging. But wait, what’s this? A little pale pinkish stone peeps out from between two coarse chunks of ironstone. It’s my sapphire.

Kym and husband Dale operate the Miners Heritage, the region’s largest walk-in mine for tourists and, lucky me, I can have my new found gem cut and set while I take the underground tour with Dale. Deep in the bowels of the mine, the temperature is a constant 25 degrees, but the hard toil can have you working up a sweat in no time. Dale jabs at the coloured bands of gravel embedded in the walls with the end of his pick.

“These ancient creek beds are where you’ll find the best stones,” says Dale, “washed together after thousands of years of rain, long before man walked these lands.”

The Miners Heritage is one of several tourist mines in the region, catering to the waves of itinerant travellers passing through in search of weekend fun or even a small fortune.

Peter Brown was one such chap. Back in the late ‘70s, he arrived in Rubyvale in a smoking old Volkswagen combi and was immediately gem struck. Today, he and wife Eileen operate the award-winning Rubyvale Gem Gallery in town. Inside their homely cottage is a showroom more like a big city boutique with shiny display cases full of lustrous gems in their 22 carat settings and gift boxes. Instead of fossicking buckets and gift shop trickets, Eileen serves Devonshire tea and there is even a small cabin for overnighters. Behind the counter, Peter cuts and sets the stones extracted from his private mine nearby. “Let’s go take a look,” he says.

Unlike the Miners Heritage, Peter’s mine is not for casual visitors. We don hard hats and clamber down the rickety metal ladder. “You’ll need to duck here. Watch out.”

Further in we are presented with his piece de resistance; his grotesque pneumatic digger. Around the corner a generator throbs away, providing life to this mechanical cave monster. “Stand back,” he warns, and the beast erupts into a fierce crescendo of vibration, devouring chunks of the grotto wall which tumble onto the floor like a messy Cyclops munching giant fruit cakes.

The show’s not over and in rolls a little metal dump truck, obediently gathering up all the soil and rocks in a noisy, robotic performance. The self-powered unit ambles and stumbles erratically along a makeshift underground railway before disgorging its load into a vertical bucket shaft that transports the material to the surface where an even bigger, uglier monster awaits.

Peter’s surface rig is something out of Mad Max. This bizarre junkyard sculpture shakes the very ground it stands on as the tonnes of dirt and rocks are violently sorted in a painfully loud drum-rolling process that culminates in a trickle of pebbles on a small conveyor belt. The contraption is shut down after just a few minutes and Peter inspects the output, picking up a satisfying lump that immediately brings a smile to his dusty jowls. “That’s a good day’s work,” he announces, “that’ll make a thousand dollar piece.”

If it were only that easy, and back at the rustic and authentic Rubyvale Hotel we share a few yarns with the crusty locals over a beer and enormous steak. These guys, weathered and tempered by the ferocious dust and heat, are the sort of blokes you’d cross the street to avoid, but we manage a cautious discourse after shouting a few cold ales. The story everyone loves to tell, each with their own personal twist, is the tale of the Autumn Glory, a 100 carat rough stone that when cut to a 30 carat gem, revealed a completely unique stone of a highly unusual golden honey colour.

“This bloke, down on ‘is luck, turned up ‘ere one day about 15 years ago,” says Jack through thin, sunburned lips. Even as a fellow Aussie, I have trouble understanding his thick accent as he barely opens his mouth for fear of inhaling a fly, “and waddaya know, ‘e finds this flippin’ brute in a lizard ‘ole – by accident!”

Apparently this guy, Wal Shadworth, was completely intoxicated by his find, turned down several offers and finally is convinced it will sell overseas for much more. He sends it off to some shady dealer in Texas and never sees it again. The hunt for the lost “Autumn Glory” continues to this day. Another stone, a 1000 carat rock, was found by a 14 year old in 1935 and was finally cut to become the famous 700 carat “Black Star of Queensland” in 1948 after being used as a doorstop in the family home.

With my beer laden belly sore from constant laughing, I wander to my cabin and awake in the morning to find the discomfort shifted to my head. Over a sombre, but hearty breakfast back in the pub, we muse over the peculiar allure that sends folk crazy, plunges them underground for years on end, turning them into burrowing hermits who shun civilisation in the quest of few rocks. This scenario is enacted all over Australia. From the historic 19th century goldfields of Victoria and New South Wales to the infamous subterranean opal towns of Coober Pedy and Lightning Ridge, man’s lust for dust continues unabated.

Back in the Land Rover, we head back to the airport in Rockhampton, but swing by the Miners Heritage to collect my trinket. Kym extracts a delicate pendant setting from the velvet bag, and the little violet stone winks at me with a tiny flash of light. I’m not about to throw it all in to go live in a cave, but the beauty of this modest gem, is undeniable. Mmm … maybe there’s a bigger one in that bucket over there?

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Where: Rubyvale, Queensland Central Highlands. 300 kilometres west of Rockhampton.

Best time to visit: Annual Gemfest in neighbouring Anakie each August. [www.gemfest.com.au]

Where to stay: Rubyvale Hotel and Cabins Ph: +61 7 4985 4754
royalhotelrubyvale@bigpond.com

Regional information:
www.capricorntourism.com.au

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What is a Sapphire?

Sapphires belong to the family of precious gemstones that includes rubies, emeralds and diamonds. Rubies are actually red sapphires created by chromium impurities in the sapphire’s aluminium oxide composition, while emeralds are beryllium aluminium silicate with chromium and exclusively green.

Sapphires, while commonly regarded as a blue gem, can actually occur in a wide range of colours. Purple are lower grade, while pink or salmon coloured gems fetch higher prices than regular blue stones. Diamonds are exclusively carbon in composition and their unique crystal (allotrope) is the hardest naturally occurring material but not the most valuable, which is the ruby. Cut Sapphires are valued at about A$10,000 per carat.

Sapphires are created deep inside the Earth and brought to the surface through volcanic action. The Central Queensland Gemfields, situated around the appropriately named towns of Emerald, Rubyvale, Sapphire, Anakie and the Willows Gemfields, is the most productive area in the world for beautiful sapphires. Here the stones can be found on or just below the surface and in ancient alluvial beds as a result of explosive distribution many million years ago. This is ideal for casual fossickers.

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The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Mr Tony Walsh and the staff at Capricorn Tourism, Rockhampton, in the creation of this story.

Why Green is the New Black

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Everywhere you turn lately, it seems, people are talking about climate change, global warming, carbon offsets and lower emissions. What’s fact and what’s fluff? Roderick Eime looks at the arguments.

It would appear that even the most resistant critics have bent to the notion that the burning of fossil fuels is at least contributing to the climate change sweeping our planet. The jury is divided on whether it is the primary contributing cause or just part of an overall planet-wide cycle. Either way, pouring carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels like oil and coal and other greenhouse gases like methane and carbon monoxide is not helping matters. Agreed?

Shop Your Way to Carbon Neutrality?

Barney’s, the trendiest of New York department stores, has heartily embraced environmental branding. It’s a symbol of how chic environmentalism has become and how quickly causes can become trends. Do America’s retail-entrenched society and notoriously “faddist” shoppers think they can alter the course of impending environmental disaster by shopping in stores painted green? It seems that getting the message across to a fickle and shallow public is as simple as altering their shopping patterns. But stamping a can of cheese spread with ‘carbon neutral’ is noguarantee of environmental responsibility.

Beware the ‘Greenwash’

Kris Madden of the Eco Media Group, is a consultant to government and industry on eco- and sustainable tourism, warns not to fall into a green trap.

“Although I acknowledge the contribution to global warming that mechanised travel can make, I’m still more than a little suspicious of all these carbon offset schemes popping up,“ warns Kris, “there is no framework of operation, no benchmarks and no real checks and balances under which these schemes operate. One has to wonder whether there is a real environmental benefit from some of them, or whether it’s just ‘greenwash’.”

The ‘greenwash’ to which Kris refers is the sceptics’ appraisal of these efforts to create a greener environment. In the competition for consumer sentiment, true carbon consciousness and fake green window dressing will be difficult to isolate as more and more businesses fly the “carbon neutral” flag.

“Sure, it’s better than doing nothing and it certainly raises awareness of the problem, but I fear it is more important for some of the worst offenders to be seen to be reacting to the climate change issue than actually making a difference.”

Tree planting is one example. Although reforestation is a critical activity in many areas, trees planted today will take at least twenty years to reach maturity. The critics will argue that attention needs to be directed at “now” schemes. What can we do to offset emissions today?

Think Globally, Act Locally

Kris reminds us that the popular catch phrase is just as important, if not more so.

“People can really make a big difference if they modify their own behaviour on a micro scale. Walk when they don’t need to drive, car pool and generally use less energy, especially around the home. It’s like earning your own offset credits and you can feel less guilty when you do decide to travel.”

Offset Your Carbon Consumption

It’s no surprise that motor vehicles feature highly on the list of greenhouse gas emitters, and car usage is something we can influence on a personal level. In reality, a great many of us will fly to our next holiday destination, either domestically or internationally, so what can we do to lessen this impact?

Virgin Blue, for one, offers carbon offset packages to passengers concerned about their own “carbon footprint”.

New Zealand airline Pacific Blue has announced that the first beneficiary of its carbon offset program is a Palmerston North renewable energy project where landfill methane gas is captured and used to generate electricity.

When we travel, whether it is by road, rail, sea or air, our desire for sightseeing and leisure is adding to the problem, especially when it involves long distance travel.

Can You Travel with Carbon Neutrality?

Environmentally responsible and sensitive travel is not a new phenomenon, but has certainly become a more widely recognised alternative in the last few years. Apart from travellers seeking out new and exciting destinations with an emphasis on nature and culture, travel operators are now enticing environmentally conscious travellers with taglines extolling their low carbon emissions and offset policies.

One of that rapidly growing number of tourism businesses claiming “carbon neutral” is Ecoventura, who operate a small fleet of expedition yachts in the Galápagos. This iconic group of islands west of Ecuador is one of the most precarious eco-systems anywhere on the planet and has attracted all sorts of attention over the decades, including poaching, over-fishing and habit degradation from human intervention.

The CarbonNeutral Company, one of the new wave of climate monitoring companies, has calculated the amount of carbon dioxide that Ecoventura emits and has come up with a number of projects to counteract those effects including funding for reforestation in Chiapas, sustainable energy projects in Sri Lanka and India, and methane recapture in the US.

Kerry Lorimer, an avid eco-conscious traveller and author of the Lonely Planet guidebook, “Code Green” offers this advice:

“Since virtually any type of motorised transport emits greenhouse gases, the obvious thing is to go for non-motorised transport such as walking, riding a bike or catching a train. Using public transport is another obvious way to lessen your personal emissions.

“Jet travel has had a bad rap for its high levels of greenhouse emissions. Look to the shorthaul and stay local where practical. If all you want to do on holiday is lie on a beach, do you really need to fly to the other side of the world to do it? For business, do you really need to have a face-to-face meeting? Could a video conference get the job done?

“And when you do fly, consider off-setting your emissions via organisations such as climatefriendly.com. Their websites have carbon calculators that can compute the amount of emissions for your kilometres travelled. You can then pay to ‘offset’ these through projects such as tree planting and community development projects.”

Look for Low Carbon/Low Impact Destinations

“Do your bit for domestic tourism – choose a holiday destination close to home!” adds Kerry Lorimer, “We have some of the most amazing travel experiences in the world, right in our own backyard, yet many Australians and New Zealanders think first of an overseas destination when planning a holiday.

“Walking or trekking holidays are one of the best ways to keep your carbon emissions to a minimum. Peregrine, for example, offers a range of trekking holidays around the world – close to home there are treks in Borneo, PNG and the Himalaya. The company is currently assessing all of its operations and has pledged that all its tours will be carbon neutral by 2009. Trekking is also a great way to get to know the locals and to reach views and villages that are otherwise inaccessible. There’s only one way to the top of a Himalayan peak!”

Although it may be difficult to label any single destination as “carbon neutral”, you can quickly determine your impact by assessing a few simple factors:

* How much carbon do I create to get there? Family travel and group travel in general is more efficient as resources are shared.
* How much carbon will I burn when I’m there? Will I walk around or drive? Will I be using lots of air-conditioning or camping? Will my activities be responsible?

For example, a camping holiday with your family, not far from home is a great idea. Look at some of NZ’s great destinations like Bay of Islands, Bay of Plenty and Queenstown for starters. Folks come from all over the world to see these places!

Be Informed and Make Your Own Judgement

Clearly there will be a lot of “smoke and mirrors” in this climate and carbon debate with some entrepreneurs seeing an opportunity to be the new emissions trading millionaires. If you feel inclined to contribute or invest in these schemes, then do so carefully. The ultimate responsibility, however, falls with the individual. Do you really need to run a computer simulation of your intended journey to visualise your impact? Or can it be boiled down to simple common sense and more considerate and simple day-to-day living? You make the call. It’s your planet.

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Some quick calculations by The CarbonNeutral Company [www.carbonneutral.com]:

Approximately one tonne of emissions is produced by 5000 kilometres of driving in an over 2.0 litre car.

The same amount of travel on commuter trains produces just 200kg.

A direct flight from Auckland to Los Angeles (10500km) produces 1.2 tonnes of emissions per person.

So, if you took the train every day to work instead of driving, you could earn enough carbon credits to offset your flight. For those who can’t do without their car, the company offers “offset packages” up to NZ$50 that come in a ribbon bound folder complete with certificate. The money is channelled to community projects and energy-efficient technology development.

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More Information: Ministry for the Environment


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Travography update Dec 2007