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Australia and New Zealand Luxury Lodges and Resorts

From Luxury Lodges

Updated October 2008: South Island New Zealand – Select Hotels
Updated November 2008: SLH Blanket Bay
Updated November 2008: Pure Tasmania/Federal Group

Over the past three years, Rod (sometimes with ‘Mrs Travel Writer’) has visited a wide range of New Zealand’s world famous luxury and exclusive lodges.

(see comprehensive spreadsheet)

Names like Huka Lodge, Grasmere and Blanket Bay feature prominently, while Rod has also visited the brand new Select Braemar Lodge at Hanmer Springs and sampled the delights of recently opened Otahuna Lodge near Christchurch.

In Australia, the list grows with visits and stays at El Questro, Arajilla, Spicers Peak, Hidden Vale, Bloomfield Lodge, Lilianfels, Q Station and more.

Features are written to commission only, so please contact me to discuss your publication’s individual requirements.

A New Light on the Old West

When we think of cowboys and indians, it’s all too easy to recall those gun-toting heroes of the old west purging the dusty plains of trouble-making savages, dodging arrows and riding off into the sunset. If there was ever a tired old cliché, that has to be it.

It may also seem unusual that a small ship or adventure cruise could bring you close to this part of the world, but Cruise West’s Northwest Passage itinerary delivers you into the midst of Oregon Country, the scene for its own particular brand of frontier spirit. Our vessel, Spirit of ’98, carries 100 passengers up the vast Columbia River toward the lesser tributaries of the Snake, Umatilla and Walla Walla Rivers, all the while retracing the paths of early explorers like Lewis and Clarke and recounting their interactions with the local tribes.

My first encounter with native American culture was meeting the elderly father of my tour host in Wrangell, Alaska. A respected tribal elder of the regional First Nation tribe [Tlingit] or as they were once called, Eskimos. I learned about their strong connection with the land, hunting traditions and resilient family structures. I also couldn’t help but notice the many parallels with our own indigenous cultures’ experiences with European settlers.

This once isolated NW corner of America has been something of an anomaly in the country’s development and expansion. After the controversial Louisiana land purchase at the very beginning of the 19th Century, the US Government under Jefferson, formed the Corps of Discovery to find out just what they’d got themselves into. Two young military officers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, were chosen to command the motley crew and find a path to the Pacific.

The journey of this intrepid pair and their cohorts is taught to every American school kid from year one onwards. Often downplayed in the telling is the significance of the American Indian tribes in their ultimate success. In particular a young native woman recorded as Sacagawea, often led the party through some of their most difficult moments and certainly helped smooth their passage through tribal lands.

Consequently, thanks to the skill of native interpreters and the benevolence of the tribes, Lewis and Clark were able to complete their mission and open the gates for western migration. The rest of the story for the tribes does not have such a happy ending. Thanks to some double-dealing by the newcomers and diseases like smallpox and malaria, the native tribes suffered enormously. Any lingering disputes were resolved at the point of a gun.

The strength and integrity of these people who populated the land some ten thousand years before the European arrival was demonstrated to me in just a few minutes when local Nez Perce arts council chairperson, Angel Sobotta, came aboard for a short talk. She spoke with such eloquence and elegant authority that the small audience was transfixed. We learned as much about her pride in her significant ancestors as her little family and young children. Even though she must have given this talk many times, her voice still quivered at the mention of her late grandparents that helped her recover and preserve the endangered traditions. Her message was clearly one of peace and reconciliation, and not just for her people alone, but for all the planet.

This retelling may sound emotive and melodramatic, but when travel companies talk about the now proverbial “transformational and experiential” products sought out by the new wave of adventure travellers, it’s hard to imagine something more effective and genuine than these encounters.

Fact File:

Established over 60 years ago by founder, Chuck West, the company that bears his name is one of the most ambitious adventure cruise lines around. Beginning in Alaska, Cruise West now offers itineraries as far afield as in Japan, Mexico, Antarctica and the Galapagos. The Seattle-based line just announced its most comprehensive sailing yet; the Voyages of the Great Explorers, a 335-day circumnavigation of the world.

Cruise West offers three variations within its Columbia and Snake River products, each visiting a different mix of natural and man-made sights.

The Northwest Passage is seven nights and eight days Portland to Portland. Prices begin at US$2999 per person which covers taxes / port charges / fees and onboard services.

Bookings can be made with any travel agent through a network of local sales representatives.

For a comprehensive catalogue, see

Ship Details:

Vessel: Spirit of ’98

Cruise Line: Cruise West

Star rating: 3 Stars

Max Passenger Capacity: 96

Entered Service: 1984, refurb 1995

Facilities: All cabins have private facilities, some have minibar. Bar/library/lecture room, dining room, sundeck/outdoor dining, exercise machine, Internet, elevator

Getting There: V Australia flies daily to LA from Sydney and now three times per week from Brisbane with easy domestic connections through Virgin Blue. Fares from Australia to Portland start from $1299 return. For full conditions and promo fares, see

Samoa: Coming Out of My Shell

Location: Samoa
Visit date: May 2009
1000 words
Author’s images:
Stock images also available.
See Samoa on Google Maps

Coming Out of My Shell

Hunted and harassed around the world, have these delicate sea creatures found sanctuary here in Samoa? Roderick Eime delves beneath the waves in search of these enigmatic and delightful animals.

The determined reptile bore down with a single-mindedness only coming from eons of pre-programmed behaviour. This ancient sea creature pursued me with just one thing on its mind, and with the scent of food in its nostrils, wasn’t about to let me get away.

“Oh, give it to him for heaven’s sake,” came the plea from Gardenia, my otherwise patient Samoan guide, and with that I relented and released the fragment of pawpaw into the water. Within seconds Crush’s ravenous jaws were munching contentedly on the bright yellow chunk of fruit.

Sea Turtles, in this case Green Turtles, are about the most serene and kindly-looking animals anywhere on the planet. Most times anywhere else, you’d be jumping out of your skin at the rare sight of one, yet here among the Samoan islands the delightful critters abound.

Crush is my name for the largest turtle here in the pool at the little village of Satoalepai on the far north coast of Savai’i, the largest and northernmost of the two Samoan mainlands. The local family sell tickets to tourists and visitors for ST$5 (about A$2.50) and you are supplied with all the ripe pawpaw the turtles can eat and all the time you want to swim and canoodle with the lovable creatures. I’m told the juvenile turtles here are coaxed from fishermen for a few tala and allowed to grow to maturity before release. But the story varies depending on who you ask. Either way, the dozen or so current residents are in good shape with plenty of room in clean water.

As an amateur SCUBA diver, I also enjoyed a few dives in the crystal clear waters here on the very edge of the South Pacific. Each dive yielded at least one turtle encounter with one underwater exploration near the far eastern tip of Upolu (the other island) delivering eight turtles including the biggest damn Greenie I’ve ever seen. The 200kg monster crept out from under a ledge as I swam past, scared the daylights out of me and nonchalantly swam off.

Most of the world’s turtles are on the World Conservation Union (IUCN) endangered species list as a result of over-fishing, deadly driftnets and environmental degradation, particularly to feeding and nesting grounds. In spite of a US National Park Service assessment that places the animals in regional decline, my own unscientific observations would beg to differ. In the lagoon at Fagamalo I was even treated to the gold medal sighting of a critically endangered Hawksbill Turtle grazing unperturbed on algae at about 10m as I photographed it from every angle possible.

“She’s there most times we dive,” says Fabien Lebon, the expert dive guide on Savai’i, “ ‘bonjour Fabien’ she says ‘so just one diver today, oh okay’ and keeps eating. My daughter calls her Vanessa.”

In Samoa the animals have some nominal protection thanks to their mythical status as a saviour of lost seamen. The local name “I’a sa,” translates directly as “sacred fish”. Then there’s the old Samoan legend of the turtle and the shark which recalls unhappy Fonuea, an elderly blind villager, who cast herself and her daughter Salofa into the ocean to be reborn as sea creatures away from the unkind hands of humans.

“Lalelei!, Lalelei!, Lalelei!” the villagers still cry coaxing the pair to reappear at the foot of the cliff. But don’t point or they will immediately disappear, reminded of the cruel treatment that caused their despair.

When caught, turtles weep profusely and this sometimes engenders enough sympathy to throw them back to the sea instead of on the fire. True, despite both legend and legislation, turtles are still caught for food, although much less so in Samoa than other islands such as Fiji where they are gathered and slaughtered live in the Suva markets to the horror of onlookers.

Samoa challenges any writer to avoid the common clichés of “hidden gem”, “best kept secret” or “tropical paradise” precisely because it matches them all exactly. The great novelist, Robert Louis Stevenson, sought refuge and inspiration here in his final years and is laid to rest overlooking Apia.

Remote and almost unattainable, Samoa lies at the limit of most regional airlines’ reach, while conveniently avoiding mention in most tourist texts dominated by closer cousins Fiji, New Caledonia and Vanuatu. Samoa’s lack of pervasive tourism infrastructure is a key selling point. The relatively few resorts are low impact, relaxed and uncrowded. Vigorous touts, tacky tourist haunts and Chinese-made souvenirs are rare, leaving most attractions to the native ingenuity of the locals.

P&O Cruises have rediscovered Samoa thanks to its cruise-friendly port (Apia), engaging excursions, rich culture and relaxed atmosphere and have doubled their scheduled visitations over the next year. Elite surfers and committed sports divers too have jealously kept Samoa under their beanies for years.

For me, I’d be happy if Samoa retained its seclusion, cherished its low profile and remained ambivalent about the growing interest in its natural and scenic treasures. But that won’t happen in a world crying out for new experiences and destinations far from the madding crowd. Please, if you go, tread lightly, be polite and don’t hassle the turtles.

Doing it:

The Samoa Tourist Authority has a wide range of travel, tour and accommodation options to suit all budgets. Visit their website at

Getting There:

Polynesian Blue, International Airline of Virgin Blue flies direct from Sydney to Apia (Samoa) three times a week. Formal connections are also available via Brisbane with fares starting from $429 per person, one way on the net. If you’re looking to keep entertained, simply hire the digEplayer. Your own personal in-flight system features movies, TV show
s and a board array of of music for an additional $15. For extra leg room, book the Blue Zone seating option for an additional $45 on top of your fare. Check out for current specials, bookings and all your travel needs.

The writer was a guest of Samoa Tourist Authority and Polynesian Blue.

Across the Nullarbor Plain – A Modern Australian Pilgrimage

Commissioned for Tourism Australia

Long after the original wanderings of Australia’s indigenous inhabitants, Europeans began to rediscover the vast Australian landscape. These monumental overland treks are now part of white man’s folklore as much for their audacity and bravery as their sheer foolhardiness.

In 1861, Burke and Wills staggered north into oblivion while Ludwig Leichhardt vanished in the middle of the country in 1848. However, one Englishman stands out as an accomplished explorer with an enviable, if unusual record of achievement. In 1840, soon after the formation of the colony of South Australia, Edward John Eyre gathered a large party and set out from Adelaide to cross the continent to Western Australia.

Unlike Burke and Wills, Eyre recognised the value of Aboriginal guides and many would argue his success was a direct result of their ancient bush skills. Just he and one trusted guide, Wylie, eventually completed the journey after four and a half arduous months. None too impressed, he described the land as “a hideous anomaly, a blot on the face of Nature, the sort of place one gets into in bad dreams”.

Today, the vast and foreboding Nullarbor Plain (named so because of its lack of trees) is criss-crossed daily by aircraft, trains, coaches, enormous trucks and humble holidaymakers alike.

After five years of difficult toil, the Trans-Australian Railway was completed in 1917 creating the first land route between Adelaide and Perth. In the typical short-sightedness of the time, the gauge matched neither at either end of the line, so it wasn’t until 1970 that the entire line was converted to match. The Indian Pacific’s 64 hour transcontinental crossing is now recognised as one of the truly iconic railway journeys of the world.

The railway line was still a novelty when, in 1919, Captain (later Air Vice-Marshal) Henry Wrigley flew a flimsy BE2 biplane across the continent. Today, for a few hundred dollars, anyone can travel the entire breadth of the country in jetliner comfort in a matter of hours.

Yet even with the oversupply of easy and economical options, many diehard and intrepid travellers choose to traverse the land by road using the national highway that so appropriately bears the name of the first European to do so, Edward John Eyre. The land route is the one that defines this journey, described by some as a pilgrimage, since it examines firsthand some of the hardships and deprivations endured by the tough pioneers who forged the corridor.

In 1877, a telegraph line was created between Adelaide and Albany, a feat that mirrored Eyre’s 35 years before and repeater stations were constructed along the route. Many still stand today, while others are crumbling ruins. The former station at Eucla is probably the best known as it appears and disappears again beneath the shifting sands and has been the subject of many moody photographs. Eyre station, near Cocklebiddy, is now the site of a bird observatory and weather station and is occupied year-round.

The telegraph line was eventually moved up along the railway in 1927 to avoid the hungry dunes and with the outbreak of the Second World War, the need for reliable roads became imperative. In 1941, a continuous road was built in just six months by 150 men deemed too old for military service. The straight dirt road replaced a series of winding tracks and soon saw increased traffic and as the newly mobile post-war nation went about exploring their country. Breakdowns were frequent and motorists were often stranded for days on end as spare parts gradually caught up with them.

In 1976 the highway was sealed end-to-end and the floodgates opened. Travellers, road freight and tourist buses quickly became commonplace on the flash new surface. Road stops expanded, motels appeared and new levels of service gradually sprung up catering to an affluent population eager to enjoy the very wide open spaces.

Planning a trip across the Nullarbor is straightforward. Make sure your vehicle is fully checked for roadworthiness; in particular tyres, cooling system, engine and steering. Trips of this length are best shared with two or three drivers and allow four or five days to complete it safely and fully enjoy the many highlights along the way.

For example, surfers will be well aware of the locations between Ceduna and Fowlers Bay that are legend amongst board riders. Cactus Beach, a rough twenty kilometres south of Penong, is probably the best known of them all and it is quite common to see the sun-bleached wave hermits camped among the dunes behind the breakers.

Land-based whale watching is a unique feature of the South Australia sector. At the Head of Bight (the most Northerly extent of the Great Australian Bight) up to sixty extremely rare southern right whales calf and mate from May until October and are visible from the Twin Rocks Lookout.

Sections of the old dirt highway still remain and to truly understand the tribulations facing earlier travellers, why not drive a few kilometres along the dusty path?

The spectacular Bunda Cliffs stretching between Nullarbor and the Border Village are without doubt one of the highlights of the journey. These incredible geological features were created some 50 million years ago and are composed of limestone laid down when the Nullarbor Plain was once an ancient seabed.

After crossing the Western Australian border the arrow straight road drops down onto the Roe Plains, frequented by Wedge Tailed and Sea Eagles nesting in the nearby cliffs bordering the Hampton Tablelands. Mundrabilla revels in rumours of alien and UFO sightings, but one thing is known for sure. In 1966 one of the most famous meteorite finds were made north of the highway.

Continuing the space theme, large, flaming chunks of Skylab plummeted from the heavens in 1979 landing near the ruins of Balladonia station, while beneath the hard, ancient surface extensive limestone caves can be carefully explored.

Yet above all, the drive across the Nullarbor is a genuine adventure and for many it is a lifelong ambition. It typifies the most inhospitable country our 19th century pioneers faced and is a mind-boggling reminder that for tens of thousands of years, the resilient indigenous people made this region home, thriving in its scarcity.

To challenge – and conquer – the Nullarbor is to live the Australian outback experience.


Ancient Times

Aboriginal presence on the Nullarbor can be traced back as far as the earliest evidence of human settlement. The Pitjantjatjara, whose domain extends as far north as Ulurua are a prominent group, as are the Wangai, who earned respect for assisting early prospectors and miners, especially around the towns of Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie.

The whale watching point at Twin Rocks is on Yalata Aboriginal Land and permits are required before venturing off the highway. The community is located near the namesake roadhouse.

Fast Facts

The Eyre Highway extends from Port Augusta in South Australia to Norseman in Western Australia. Total distance: 1670 kms

Best time to drive: May to October when temperatures are mild

Did You Know?

The first Perth – Adelaide air service began on 26 May 1929 and the original stopover airstrip and hangar at Forrest (FOS) is still in use today by civil and military aircraft.

Further Information:

South Australia, including Eyre Peninsula Tourist Association
+61 08 8682 4688

Norseman, Western Australia
(08) 9039 1071

Drive Guide

Nullarbor National Park

Interesting Accommodation:

Fraser Range Station

Cool New Auckland

By Roderick Eime

Tamaki-Makau-Rau – ‘the maiden with a hundred lovers’ – may not sound like the most flattering of descriptions, but the Maori have a definite fondness for the region that provides a bounty of seafood in a setting of lush, rolling hills and a temperate climate.

Auckland was named in 1840 by the first Governor, Capt William Hobson after his commanding officer, Lord Auckland. It is the world’s largest Polynesian city with around 63 per cent of residents from European descent. 11 per cent are Maori, 13 per cent Pacific Islander and the growing Asian population is around 12 per cent.

The bustling city may have lost its mantle of political capital to Wellington in 1865, but maintains its rightful place as the economic hub of the country. As such, the crème of cosmopolitan life and all its trappings can be found in this friendly and dynamic metropolis.


Adrenalin junkies love the Skyjump. Almost 200 metres up the Auckland Sky Tower, thrillseekers are attached to a cable and lowered, no dropped, at 85 km/h to the ground below. Not for the faint-hearted. $195.

At 328 metres, Sky Tower is the largest tower in the Southern Hemisphere (sorry Sydney). $25 will get you admission to the observation deck and the lift ride takes just 40 seconds. On a clear day your can see over 80 kilometres in all directions. There is also the heart-stopping Vertigo Climb, where you can climb all the way to the top – 300 metres up. At time of writing, the climb was closed for upgrading, so check first.

Go canyoning in the Waitakere Ranges just forty minutes from the city. This activity includes abseiling, swimming and rock slides for the outdoor adventurer and an opportunity to explore the historic logging region from a different perspective. $135.

An easy walk from any point in the CBD is the historic Victoria Park Market. Built in 1905 as a rubbish incinerator, this heritage-listed site is the oldest example of Victorian industrial building left anywhere in New Zealand. The rough bricks and wobbly cobbles are part of the experience as you stroll around 100 shops and stalls packed with crafts, gourmet food, sportswear and brand name items on clearance.


Retail commandos will quickly find themselves at home in the well stocked malls and shopping centres. If you are looking for something special to take home, look out for traditional New Zealand souvenirs like superb Maori carvings in wood, bone and pounamu (greenstone or jade). You can also find jewellery and ornaments made from the iridescent paua shell (abalone).

New Zealand potters are world famous and many fine artisans also work in stone, wood, glass and metals. The vast wool industry provides wonderful hand-knitted sweaters, beautiful wall hangings, homespun yarns and top-quality sheepskins. Australia’s feral possums have been put to good use and magnificent scarves, beanies and cardigans are made from their super warm fur.

Volcanic mud products like soap, cremes and scrubs from Rotorua make a truly unique gift and deliver excellent results despite the unusual perfume!

Alongside top international boutique stores in the city, look for New Zealand’s own award-winning fashion labels, including Zambesi, NomD, Karen Walker and World.

Auckland Museum is one of the new genre of highly visual, interactive museums demanded. Packed with cultural, natural and historical displays, there are always special exhibitions. Three live Maori cultural performances take place daily including the celebrated and truly spine-tingling haka. You can catch the Charles Darwin “Revolutionary” exhibition until January 13 for just $15.

The glorious Hauraki Gulf to the east of the city is one of the most picturesque waterways anywhere in the world and is renowned as the 1995 venue for the America’s Cup. There is an abundance of pleasure boat and day-trip possibilities available, so ask your concierge or tour desk to help you choose from the many options available. Here are some ideas:

Bird lovers will delight at the Tiritiri Matangi Open Sanctuary where you will see some of the rarest birds in the world.
Kawau Island is fifteen minutes by ferry and a delightful location for a picnic or peaceful stroll. The magnificent manor was built in 1845 for the manager of the now-derelict copper mine established nearby.

Great Barrier Island contains one of the last stands of kauri timber left in New Zealand. Great for bushwalkers.

Play America’s Cup skipper aboard one of the authentic racing yachts, NZL 40 and NZL 41, available on the harbour.

Enjoy wine tasting and beachcombing on Waiheke Island, just 30 minutes by ferry.

Sunbathe and swim at Motuihe Island

Spot common and bottlenose dolphins, Brydes whales and orca from one of the Dolphin Explorer’s daily marine mammal eco-safaris.

Back on land, children will enjoy the acclaimed Auckland Zoo or Kelly Tarlton’s Antarctic Encounter and Underwater World at Orakei. A free shuttle pass leaves the city every hour. See one of the few King and Gentoo penguin displays outside of the Antarctic. Adults $28.

Auckland’s nightlife and dining options are world class with an array of sophisticated entertainment, boutique and club venues.

Your own Stamford Plaza has developed four new restaurants as part of the recent total refurbishment. Choose from:

Kabuki Teppanyaki Restaurant: The spectacular Teppan style combines the very best of New Zealand produce with the plated elegance of international cuisine.

Knights on Albert: Featuring the best breakfast buffet in town, an express lunch buffet and an exclusive a-la-carte evening menu, the new stylish lobby restaurant, Knights, is open from early morning until late in the evening.

Knights Lobby Bar: The new Knights Lobby Bar is a stylish place to meet friends and relax with a drink.

Grasshopper: A Thai Fusion restaurant, Grasshopper is a 200-seat outlet, open seven days a week for lunch and dinner and is under the operation of the owners of “Mai Thai”, generally regarded as Auckland’s best Thai Restaurant.

Otherwise, you may wish to try:

Pasha Restaurant in the Shed on Princes Wharf is the current hot ticket for the ‘in’ set. Styled on the romantic spice traders of Asia, you can nibble on roast cumin and coriander aubergine puree with vegetables and olives ($18) while celebrity spotting over at the bar.

For a special occasion, The Dining Room at Mollies in St Mary’s Bay is an excellent choice. Deliciously quirky, exquisite cuisine is accompanied by live opera and a troupe of delightfully eccentric staff led by owner, Frances Wilson. This multi-award winning restaurant has ambience and style in spades. All inclusive menu is $140pp.


Major Artists coming to Auckland:
28 November – Lionel Richie live in concert
19 January – The Police live in concert

Arriving in Auckland: (source:

Auckland International Airport is located 20 kilometres south of the city in the suburb of Mangere and is New Zealand’s largest and busiest airport. There are separate terminal buildings for both international flights and domestic flights.

Auckland (AKL) is serviced by Jetstar, Air New Zealand, Qantas, Emirates, Freedom Air and Pacific Blue (Virgin).

The bus costs $15 (adult one way) and takes approximately one hour, while the popular shuttle service costs about $26 for one person and $32 for two. This is a useful alternative to a taxi which costs about $60 but takes on
ly 30 minutes.

Travel around Auckland:

The Explorer Bus is an easy, hop on, hop off sightseeing tour with full commentary visiting Auckland’s 14 main attractions. $30 all day.

The Link. Auckland’s own commuter bus service covering the city area. $1.50

Over 20 hire and rental companies service Auckland. Choose from roughies to limo or even motorbikes. Some basic road rules vary in New Zealand, so be sure to brush up on local customs.

Fullers Cruises offer a comprehensive cruise and ferry service covering almost the whole gulf.

Auckland is fully catered for with taxi, hire car and limousine services and its well-planned and maintained roadways make it simple to find your way around. Founded in 1947, Auckland Co-op Taxis has over 700 vehicles.

More visitor information:

Auckland i-SITE Visitor Centre – Princes Wharf
137 Quay Street, Princes Wharf, Auckland

i-SITE New Zealand is situated on Quay Street, Princes Wharf, on the corner of Hobson and Quay Street in downtown Auckland. Tourism Auckland i-SITE Visitor Centres provide expert local knowledge and free, objective advice on travel throughout Auckland and New Zealand.

The Ultimate Australian Souvenir?

Finding your own take-home treasure in the real Australian outback.


Strolling along Dampier Terrace in Broome, you know you’re in the expensive part of town. Lined up along the street adjacent Roebuck Bay are all the big names in Australian pearling; Linneys, Kailis and Paspaley.

Sprinkled amongst the big ticket families are galleries, stores and retailers all catering to the fascination with Pinctada Maxima the Australian South Sea Pearl. Renown for their size and lustre, the Aussie pearl grows happily in the tidal-fed, nutrient-rich waters, producing some of the finest pearls anywhere in the world.

When buccaneer and explorer, William Dampier first sailed along the coast in Cygnet in 1688, he collected botanical specimens and a few shells from the beautiful but otherwise desolate landscape. He returned aboard Robuck in 1699, but still failed to recognize the rich lode that hid tantalizingly below the waves.

It wasn’t until the latter part of the 19th Century that pearl shells were harvested for their jewel, but like the mainland gold rushes decades before, pearling took off in a big way and by the 1930s, the prized shell was in danger of becoming extinct, forcing the government to enforce harvesting regulations.

Today visitors can indulge their passion for pearls by perusing the many square metres of glass cabinet space devoted to the shiny, finished product or immerse themselves in the history and glamour of the tiny bauble cultured and presented in such an unlikely, remote location.

Or for interpretive tours, see The Pearl Luggers or award-winning tour operator, Willie Creek Pearls.

More information:

Dust Lust

“Here you go,” says Kym White with a cultured tone that seems incongruous in the Australian outback. Her finely manicured hands load a fat pile of ‘wash’ into the sieve with a rough, well-used shovel. Any search for a sapphire thus begins with a pile of dirty gravel.

Back in 1979, young ‘Smiley’ Nelson was walking home from school across some of the fields mined by the big commercial operators and he kicked up a huge yellow sapphire weighing 2019 carats. The stone passed through a number of owners in the intervening years and recently sold as a 1400-carat cut stone in New York for $1.2 million.

In tiny Rubyvale, inland from the Queensland coastal resort town of Rockhampton, the streets are not paved with gold so much as strewn with gems. The lure of the little rocks is real and many folks just passing through end up staying.

Kym and husband Dale operate the Miner’s Heritage Walk-In Mine where travellers can stop by and try their hand at the time-honoured art of sieving dirt.

Take the full sieve, which is about the size of a frisbee, and plunge it into a 44-gallon drum full of water, jiggling and bouncing it vigorously just below the surface. This action washes off the clay dust and helps sort the stones into ‘like’ densities. The theory is that the valuable stuff will end up in the centre. Next, the whole lot is up-ended carefully onto a sorting rack.

With a sharp eye, you might just spot the sapphire peeping out from the rubble. Kym is at hand to help you sort the ironstone, quartz and zircon then take your precious inside to be set into a ring or pendant immediately so you can wear your trophy home!


Phone: 07 4985 4444

More information at:

Dig Deep

You could be a location scout for the next Mad Max or Star Wars movie wandering among the mullock heaps dotting and scarring the bleak landscape around Lightning Ridge, Andamooka or Coober Pedy. And why would you? The opal.

Silica, with the colour the result of refraction of light off the microscopic particles forms opal. Opals were all formed during the Cretaceous period between 65 -140 million years ago, in an ancient inland sea called The Great Australian Basin. Now they are sought after with the same single-mindedness as gold or diamonds.

Opals occur underground at depths up to 30 metres and are retrieved by methods as simple as a pick and shovel assisted by secondary methods like bore drills and even dynamite. Ultimately though, it’s a slow, painstaking and dirty job.

Lightning Ridge deep in the New South Wales outback is the home of the black opal, the rarest and most valuable form of opal. The Australian Opal Centre [] is under development in the tiny town and in the meantime you can view some of the rarest and most valuable opals in the world. Top of the range gem quality black opal can fetch prices up to AUD $15,000 per carat.

For those wanting to get an authentic, dusty hands-on experience, scoot over to the famous underground town of Coober Pedy, north of Adelaide for the daily, four hour “Down N’ Dirty” tour.

Apart from historical and interpretive information, you’ll get a hardhat, torch and shovel and a chance to dig for opals just like the miners do. When you’ve piled the dirt high, then it’s time to start noodling (fossicking) for your gem.

Opals are valued on their foreground colour, brightness and pattern. Brightness is most important – the brighter and stronger the colours the better.

Coober Pedy: More information

A Gem in the Rough

Originally published in Emirates Portfolio: [See PDF]

The harsh Queensland gemfields attract their fair share of dreamers and drop-outs. Some find their El Dorado, but most luck out. Not Peter Brown.

Some success stories read like a fairy tale. When Peter Brown arrived penniless in the hot, dry and dusty Queensland outback town of Rubyvale in late ‘70s, his decrepit VW combi spluttering and smoking, one could be forgiven for thinking this was some lost hippy bum blowing in from nowhere.

But despite this clumsy beginning, Peter fell entranced with the allure of this tiny village three hours west of Rockhampton, right on the Tropic of Capricorn. Like the neighboring hamlets of Sapphire, Anakie and Emerald, the wealth was hidden in the dirt. Unlike the legendary El Dorado, Rubyvale’s streets were not paved with gold but littered with gems.

The young Peter Brown was transfixed by the tales he heard from the old miners at the bar of the local inn.

“The yarn that really got me going was one of the local favourites,” recalls Peter, “This 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. Then, no sooner had I arrived in Rubyvale than another kid, Smiley Nelson, kicked up a huge yellow sapphire weighing 2019 carats. This one became another legend, the Centenary Gem and eventually sold for a lot of money. So, the kids were finding these huge gems by accident. I was sure I could find some of my own.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Today, he and wife Eileen operate the multi award-winning Rubyvale Gem Gallery, set up in 1988 in response to demand from both new and repeat buyers.

“We’d outgrown the home-based business and Peter was now pretty good at cutting and setting the stones himself,” recalls Eileen. But she’s being modest. Peter is one of the best known gem cutters in the whole region and his jewel settings are recognised throughout the world, sought after by serious buyers and dealers on every continent.

Inside their restored 1914 miner’s cottage is a showroom more like a big city boutique with shiny display cases full of lustrous gems in their 14 and 18 gold carat settings and gift boxes. Instead of fossicking buckets and gift shop trinkets, Eileen serves visitors Devonshire tea among wild lorikeets in the little garden pavilion and there is even a small cabin for overnighters. Behind the counter, Peter cuts and sets the stones extracted from his private underground mine nearby.

Unlike some of the town’s tourist mines, Peter’s is not for casual visitors. Anybody invited down the shaft must wear a hard hat and clamber down the rickety metal ladder.

Picks and shovels are a thing of the past. Today the hard work is performed by a cast of pneumatic robots, led by an unwieldy-looking mechanised digger. Around the corner a generator throbs away, providing life to this mechanical cave monster. When operating the beast erupts into a fierce crescendo of vibration, devouring great chunks of the grotto wall which tumble onto the floor in a messy heap.

The show continues when a little metal dump truck rolls in and obediently gathers 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 like something out of a Mad Max movie. 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 issued onto a small conveyor belt. The meagre output is then inspected by hand and the choice stones selected.

Peter and Eileen admit to pressure from overseas markets and lament that their fields were once the most productive sapphire producing areas in the world. “Today large quantities of sapphires are being mined in Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, Madagascar and China,” explains Eileen with a hint of caution. The earnest look and palpable silence clearly referring to some of the countries which hold little regard for the well-being of their citizens. Like some diamonds from Africa, sapphires, rubies and emeralds can raise money for unscrupulous regimes. Humanitarian considerations aside, Eileen believes the quality of cutting will always distinguish Rubyvale gems from their mass-produced, so-called “native cut” competitors overseas.

“And there’s nothing quite like spending a morning fossicking, finding one or two quality stones and having them cut and set to take home as a special souvenir,” says Eileen, the smile returning to her face.

Mechanical mining ceased in and around Rubyvale over twenty years ago, so the supply of stones is restricted to hand-mining and fossicking. This has the double effect of preserving the environment from over zealous extraction and maintaining the value of the stones.

“Sapphires can occur in any colour and shade imaginable,” continues Eileen, “so except for rubies they are described as ‘green sapphires’, ‘yellow sapphires’, etcetera. We mainly produce the blues, greens, yellows, and parti-colours (mixtures of blue yellow and green), but the odd fancy stones (pink, purple, orange) can also occur very rarely. Peter found a purple recently, but I’m keeping it!”

Hanging on the wall next to the counter are Peter and Eileen’s awards. Their multiple accolades include Specialised Tourism Services, Outstanding Contribution by a Tourism Operator and Significant Tourist Attraction which, when you consider the competition, it’s a pretty substantial endorsement.

“This is an outstanding result” said Alan Chamberlain, General Manager for Capricorn Tourism, the regional tourism authority, “Winning both the Regional and State Tourism award for Retailing and Specialised Services is high praise indeed and taking out both these awards is a well deserved recognition of Rubyvale Gem Gallery’s commitment to continuous improvement and service delivery.”

Featuring in the awards in each of the last three years, earns them Hall of Fame status. Not bad for a bloke who started out with nothing more than a keen sense of both beauty and business – a true gem in the rough.

What is a Sapphire?

Sapphires are precious gemstones along with rubies, emeralds and diamonds. Specifically, they belong to the corundum family, a crystalline form of aluminium oxide. Rubies are actually red sapphires created by chromium impurities, while the softer 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 depending on the presence of other minerals like iron and titanium. The Central Queensland sapphire fields are probably best known for their yellow and golden stones. These are rare enough to be highly desirable and sell quickly, while other fancy stones like purples and pinks are so rare, that most finders keep them. Depending on size and colour, a cut Q
ueensland sapphire can range between $100 and $2000 per carat.

Diamonds are exclusively carbon in composition and their unique crystal (allotrope) is the hardest naturally occurring material but not the most valuable which is, all things being equal, the ruby.

Sapphires are created deep inside the Earth and brought to the surface through violent volcanic action. The Central Queensland Gemfields, situated around the appropriately named towns of Emerald, Rubyvale, Sapphire, Anakie and the Willows Gemfields, are, some believe, still 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.

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

~ Rod's Travel Map ~

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