Prospecting for Gold

Gold has always generated excitement and anticipation amongst prospectors all over the world. Its whereabouts can be a mystery, yet anyone has the potential to find valueable gold nuggets. This article by Les Lowe, who has been prospecting for over 20 years, describes the basic steps and facts as an introduction to gold prospecting.
Article By: Les Lowe
Created: May 2007
Latest Feedback: March 2015

Gold in Australia

Although gold was known to exist in Australia from the 1830s, it was in 1851 when a man named Edward Hargraves sparked the Australian gold rushes with his historic find in Bathurst NSW. By 1852, the volume of immigrants arriving on the back of the gold rush was greater than the number of convicts who had landed here in the previous seventy years.

Many of the gold fields around the country toiled by our early pioneers can be found today in various states of ruin, yet some have become amalgamated into modern mining sites. Some areas are no longer gold producing, whilst in many others the very same sites are still producing large finds. Techniques may have changed, but the gold is still there to be found.

Whats Out There to Prospect?

Prospecting typically involves the use of metal detectors, hand tools, pans or sluices in the search for gold, gemstones and other minerals. Australia is the second largest gold producer in the world, most of it from underground ore bodies operated by large multi-national mining companies. Australia is also a major producer of just about every other mineral and metal on earth. Targets for prospecting include: gold, tin, iron ore, diamonds, copper, lead, uranium and rare earths such as tantalum, a major component of mobile phones but there are literally hundreds more. Each target has its own signature, its individual ‘tell-tale’ and its own method of discovery. Of these, gold is probably the most appealing to the beginner, the easiest to research and the most convenient to sell. Australia today attracts large numbers of hobby gold prospectors, predominantly with metal detectors. With prospecting being a generally accessible activity (check legislation and access restrictions in each state), it is a hobby that goes well with camping, and caravanning and could be a great way to spend your leisure time if travelling around Australia.

It should be remembered that almost all of today’s major gold mines originated as a result of a prospector's discovery. Prospectors are flexible, travel light and are open-minded. They’ve led where mining companies have followed.

Where To Find Gold?

Geologically, gold tends to occur amongst the oldest rock formations on Earth and these are termed Archaean rocks. During The Archaean Period of 3.5 billion years ago, the Earth's crust cooled enough that rocks and continental plates began to form. It was during this time that the gold salts were deposited. Further geological, bacterial and environmental events caused erosion of rocks and a subsequent concentration of these gold salts to form gold ore bodies. Further chemical and bacterial enrichment caused the formation of gold nuggets.

Based on this knowledge, we should start looking for gold in areas of older geological activity, coupled with indications of past discoveries. It is often the case that gold is deposited close to breaks in the Earth’s crust known as fault lines. Buy a geological map of a known gold producing area such as Bendigo or Kalgoorlie and these old rock formations and fault lines become more vivid and form a picture of “reef lines”. It is along these fault lines or reef lines that we should start the search. This is how the diggers of the 1800’s did it and it’s not much different today.

Geological maps and the writings of past gold explorers are two valuable sources of information on where to find gold. There are also numerous modern magazines and books on the subject that the beginner will find more than useful to get you started.

Today’s prospectors also have many advantages over his predecessors, such as better transport, advanced technology and the huge amount of resources that are widely available from books, the internet and government departments. Most of all they have the encouragement of knowing that virgin patches of gold are still being found even after a 100 years of looking.

Australian Gold Locations

Australia is littered with areas that have produced gold. Research is vital when prospecting and will reveal not only new areas to try but also provide articles of interest to anyone that enjoys the bush. It will amaze you where the old timers managed to get to with a horse or on foot with a wheelbarrow. Often it was only the lack of water that stopped them. With 4WDs, camper trailers, HF radios and refrigeration we are now in a position to go further than the old diggers. Who knows what we’ll find in these more remote areas? Keep in mind however that today, many lands will be under the control of private owners. Ground access is often restricted and permission must be sought prior to any prospecting. Legislation varies between states.


Victoria would arguably rank second only to W.A. in the gold stakes. Victoria has produced some of the largest nuggets in Australia and indeed the world. Historically, Victoria has tended to bring forth the largest nuggets. Gemstones are also another likely find in Victoria for prospectors.

Gold areas within the state of Victoria are: Ararat, Stawell, Ballarat, Avoca, Dunolly, Wedderburn, Clunes, Bendigo, Rushworth, Castlemaine, Mansfield, Alexandra, Beechworth, Bonang, Bright, Benalla and Glen Willis.

New South Wales

Gold areas within the state of New South Wales are: Tibabooburra, Broken Hill to Menindee, Cobar, Canbelego, West Wyalong, Temora, Young, Braidwood, Albury, Kianora, Eden, Bega, Gulgong, Mudgee, Hill End, Sofala, Bathurst, Nundle, Tamworth, Bingara, Armidale, Ullara and Drake.


Gold areas within the state of Queensland are: Cloncurry, Georgetown, Forsayth, Croydon, Percyville, Wenlock, Cohen, Maytown, Palmer River, Charters Towers, Ravenswood, Mackay, Clermont, Rockhampton, Maryborough, Gympie and Stanthorpe.

Northern Territory

Gold areas within the Northern Territory are: Adelaide River, Brookes Creek, Pine Creek, Wandi, Tanami, Rabbit Flat, The Granites, Tennant Creek and Arltunga.

South Australia

Gold areas within the state of South Australia are: Euchunga, Barossa, Teetulpa, Tarcoola, Muckanpippie, Peake Diggings, Leigh Creek, Burra, Peterborough and Wadnaminga.


Gold areas within the state of Tasmania are: Corinna, Moina, Queenstown, Urquhart, and Mainwaring Rivers, Beaconsfield, Lefroy, Lisle, Forrester, Gladstone, Fingal, Mathina and Cygnet.

Western Australia

Western Australia may well be the state with the most widespread gold areas and the mining economy in general in this state supports a substantial part of the Australian economy. Whilst the mines of Kalgoorlie are known all over the world for their prodigious gold output, large amounts of alluvial gold have been found in the Pilbara area of Western Australia For the hobby prospector there are still gold nuggets to be found within the state.

Gold areas within the state of Western Australia are: The Darling Ranges, Boddington, Donnybrook, Kalgoorlie, Norseman, Menzies, Leonora, Laverton, Wiluna, Leinster, Sandstone, Mount Magnet, Cue, Meekatharra, Cobra Station, Mount Newman, The Ashburton River, Karratha, Roebourne, Nullagine, Marble Bar, Halls Creek, Great Sandy Desert – Telfer and Ruby Plains.

Gold Prospecting Methods and Equipment

Since gold was first found in Australia, prospectors and miners have used endless Australian ingenuity in finding better methods of recovering alluvial gold. These include, simply picking gold up from the ground to using gold pans, dolly pots, bulldozers and huge dry blowers, wet plants and sophisticated electronic metal detectors.

The methods, laws and equipment used are broadly similar and generally transferable to all other Australian States. However, there are legal, procedural and documentation differences and it is recommended that detailed inquiries be made of the relevant government department in each state.

The Dolly Pot

Old time prospectors that were looking for reef or hard rock gold deposits rather than alluvial gold nuggets were known as “reefers” and made use of a simple crushing device known as a dolly pot. It works similar in principle to a mortar and pestle. If it was thought that a rock could contain gold, it was placed on the bottom of the dolly pot and battered into granules and powder. This powder was then panned off in a gold pan to reveal any gold that was present. Many of the gold mines that are still producing gold today, such as The Super Pit in Kalgoorlie and Sons of Gwalia in Leonora, mines in Bendigo (Vic) and Bathurst (NSW) were found using this method. If the line of fine gold ran right around the bottom of pan it was termed “ringing the dish” and was a cause for great celebration as the rock sample represented the start of a payable gold mine.

Dry Blowers

This type of equipment is commonly used in Western Australia because of the arid nature of the land and an almost total lack of water. Air is used instead of water to separate gold from dirt and rock. Dry blowers have evolved considerably since the original concept, whereby the prospector would use two big steel gold pans. One of which was filled with rocks and dirt whilst the second pan was laid on the ground. The pan containing the dirt was held about chest height and its contents poured into the pan on the ground. On a day with a good wind, which is common out in The Goldfields, the wind blew away the loose, fine dirt and the heavier rocks and gold nuggets fell into the bottom pan. Modern dry blowers with engines, large capacity air blowers and several riffles or catchment trays can process around 25 tonnes an hour and have to be fed with loaders or tractors.

Wet Plants

In areas where water is more readily available, such as The Pilbara, wet plants are commonly used after the Wet Season cyclones. Stream water is often used in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales. A type of wet plant is the "sluice box", which is a wooden trough-like box with a series of obstructions or baffles, called "riffles", along its bottom edge. It works using a flow of water which washes the streambed materials through the sluice and over the riffles, which trap the gold out of the material. Since gold is extremely heavy, it will work its way quickly down to the bottom of the materials being washed through the box. The gold then drops behind the riffles and remains there to be collected.

Metal Detectors

For the recreational prospector, the weapon of choice is the metal detector due to its portability, low impact, relatively low capital cost and the ability to access and search in large tracts of ground without having to apply for expensive mining licences. Metal detecting is considered by government departments to be “low impact operations”. However, it is subject to specific permit requirements and it’s very important that you check the legislation in your particular state regarding these permits. An example is the Section 20A Permit which is issued in the state of Western Australia. This permit allows the holder of a Miner’s Right, permission to prospect on crown land within an existing exploration licence. There’s a lot of information regarding permits and legislation on state government websites.

VLF/TR Metal Detectors

Prior to 1995, metal detectors used the VLF/TR or “Very Low Frequency/ Transmit, Receive” technology. This type of detector was very successful in locating pieces of gold at relatively shallow depths. This lack of ground penetration was caused by the highly mineralised nature of the ground in Australia, particularly Western Australia. The Goldfields of Western Australia holds a concentration of iron and metallic solutions in its matrix. It is this high metal and mineral background content that makes Western Australia some of the worst ground in the world in which to operate a detector and resulted in VLF/TR machines being capable only of finding the comparatively shallow gold.

Pulse Induction Metal Detectors

The introduction of improved detection technology in 1995 from the Australian company, Minelab, saw the goldfields of Australia revitalised. In fact, 1000’s of ounces of gold was found across Australia as a result of this new pulse induction technology that was an Australian innovation.

This PI or Pulse Induction technology proved to be the solution to the problem of mineralised ground. It simply punched through the iron and salt and sent its electrical pulses even deeper into the dirt. Gold patches that were considered finished as far as professional prospectors were concerned were re-visited. Deeper and larger pieces of gold were found. The old patches were found to be more widespread than anyone ever thought. New patches were found in previously untouched areas. This latest pulse induction technology has started a new gold rush. The improved deep searching capabilities and the ability to search effectively in what was considered to be undetectable ground is bringing forth new gold finds in area that have never been previously looked at. Many experienced prospectors have recovered the outlay of a new machine within weeks of their purchase. Novices have surprised themselves by finding gold in areas that professional prospectors left years ago. People are now venturing out further into new geological precincts with positive results.

New PI machines that are under development include the Pulse Devil. Still in its early stages it could provide even greater opportunities for the gold prospector.

Additional equipment would include a good quality pick along with the usual items that serious bush travellers should have such as a GPS, a water bottle, a good strong belt to carry those things and strong footwear, hats and sunscreen.

Cleaning Your Find

Gold will be found in many forms, but the 2 most common types found by recreational prospectors are nuggets and “specimens”. Specimens are gold held together or within a matrix of rock such as quartz or ironstone. Gold pieces are often covered in dirt and it’s a good idea to clean them up if you intend to sell your nuggets or specimens.

A toothbrush and some diluted washing up liquid is a good start and may wash off most if not all of the dirt. After the first brushing, soak the piece again for few hours and have another try at using the toothbrush. Do not use a wire brush, even a soft, brass, wire brush will scratch the gold and reduce the appeal of the nugget. If the dirt and stains are persistent, try using a cleaner such as CLR which is commonly available at most hardware stores.

Leaving it in its Natural State

In most cases it’s better to leave the nugget with some rock still attached to it. The black of ironstone can often enhance the appearance of the nugget, whilst bright gold, captured on a pure snow-white quartz background is simply stunning. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to clean your gold and let go of its natural beauty.

There are also times when gold which is held in rock and whilst still valuable, may simply be too unappealing. In this case, it’s better to crush it and sell it to a gold buyer such as The Perth Mint who buys rough gold for smelting.

Keep Or Sell?

It is not illegal to own gold or to sell gold in Australia. There are several gold dealers across all states that will buy your gold. The most prominent of these is The Perth Mint and their partners, Golden West Refiners.

Nuggets are often made into pendant jewellery to keep as family heirlooms. These can be done by a jeweller or with practice; you can make your own. Wholesale jewellery suppliers can provide the required solder and parts.

Prospecting for Other Minerals

There are many other deposits of minerals, metals and semi-precious stones in Australia. Some of these are in demand commercially such as lead, zinc, copper, platinum. To prospect for these, the same basic methods such as research, geology and known locations can be used, but each commodity has its own signature. Study these signatures and then search for them and you could be selling valuable ground to mining companies.

Prospecting Tips

  • Contact state government departments regarding the types of permits you need for the type of prospecting you wish to do. They are very knowledgeable and really understand the difficulties faced by beginners.

  • Always ensure you have permission to access the area you wish to prospect. Contact pastoral leaseholders prior to entering the area.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask mining companies about access to their mining and prospecting areas. They are generally receptive to requests in exchange for the knowledge of your discoveries, particularly on their Exploration Licences.

  • If confronted by others asking you to leave the area, you have the right to politely ask for identification and evidence of their authority. It would be worth taking note of the details.

  • When using a metal detector, always dig every target. What sounds like a tin can has often been a decent nugget.

  • After digging out a nugget, always backfill your hole.

  • Don’t expect to find a fortune on your first day, because you won’t.

  • Enjoy the exercise and have fun!

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