“I really think,” I broke the ponderous, road-trip silence, “that the moral of the story of the fall of Troy is that you definitely should look gift horses in the mouth.”
He peeled his eyes off the road to look at me, bemused by my philosophical outburst. There was a pause as he fixed his gaze back on the winding tar ahead, weighing up his response, “…I don’t think that’s what the saying’s about.”
“No, you can tell how old a horse is by looking at its teeth.”
“Then surely you should look…when the gift giver isn’t there. You should definitely question people giving away horses.”
“Mmmm,” was all he replied, “I suppose you probably should.”
The car droned lightly on as we lapsed back into sleepy, pensive silence. We had no music; the radio code was lost when the car’s timing belt was changed years before and I had never bothered to find it.
We had woken up at 3 in the morning in the hopes of catching the sunrise on the Great Eastern Drive, and because it was a long drive. We wanted to be there before lunchtime. There was no colourful sunrise that morning. The sky went from dark, to pale green, to daylight. We were too full of coffee and new adventure to be disappointed.
Sunlight struck the waves over the Tasman Sea, churning up a hundred diamonds. I squinted out at them, it was whale watching season and I hoped to catch a glimpse of one, to make the very real possibility of not finding anything else on this foray less disappointing. The sea around Tasmania looks temptingly warm. The sun bathes it in gold and the azure ripples undulate to the tune of crashing waves. It is easy to imagine it to be warm, from the inside of the car, but I know, from experience, that it’s not the sort of water one ought to paddle in without a wetsuit. Tasmania is very close to Antarctica.
When I stepped out of the cabin of the car into our destination I did not really know what to expect, and yet, somehow, it still failed to meet expectation. Litter glittered in the morning sun and an abandoned tire was tenderly lapped by the gently flowing river. Wasps buzzed merrily about, and footpaths wound off in every direction into the rainforest. Most of them ended at the riverside, I knew that without having to follow them. It had been a five-hour drive from Hobart, a little more if you counted rest stops and the general failings of my Mazda 121. The engine was poorly tuned which made it shudder and groan on hills, much to the consternation of the caravan of log trucks that built up behind us, like the litany of petitions against their work.
The bridge that marked the end of the public prospecting site, the bridge that we had just crossed over, was a small, single lane bridge along a dirt road. It seemed pusillanimous for something rumoured to be the location at which one of the most valuable sapphires in Australia was found. A prospecting license is required to hunt outside of the public spot and laws apply; anything found on property owned by mining companies is the legal property of the mining company, disruption of national parks and nature reserves is strictly prohibited, no prospecting on private property without permission. All very sensible, completely unpoliced laws. “Come to terms with your own inner legality,” was the counsel we had received on the matter. We stuck to the single kilometre of river reserved for use by the general public. We weren’t sure that we would enjoy sapphire hunting and were reluctant to invest in a license prematurely. We also hoped to sell anything valuable that we happened upon. A legally obtained find seemed like a better investment opportunity.
We had very little information to go on. We knew that it was possible to find sapphires in the area, topaz too, zircon – which I had never heard of before, gold, and zinc, which are not gemstones. We also knew that rubies and sapphires were both corundum. The same stone by another name. Sapphires come in a vast array of colours, even brown. A ruby is only a ruby, rather than a ‘pink sapphire’ if it is deep red in colour, ‘pigeons-blood red’ they call it. Trace elements in the soil determine the colours, Chromium makes them red, Titanium makes them blue. Rubies are named after the Latin word for red, ruber, and they have been known as such since antiquity. Tasmania is known for its pale blue sapphires, while the rest of Australia supplies dark blue stones which are less internationally prized. Gem hunters are notoriously secretive with their spots and techniques. I had no idea what a sapphire looked like in its natural habitat.
We had been shown a few sapphires. Sitting in their cushioned display boxed, carefully faceted and polished, they were giving nothing away as to how they would look in a bed of river dirt. “You’ll know them when you see them.” was all the advice our resident gemmologist offered. “It’s a great time to go; they’ve been blasting up river.” another gem hunter told me, with a deep sign of envy at my planned adventure. I had panned for gold before and found it agonisingly tedious, so I hoped that my new gold panning sieve, bought for the specific purpose of sapphire hunting, would prove a less disappointing toy than the one of my youth.
I watched the little eddies that formed in our wake as we waded through the water. The sun caught and illuminated the tiny flicks of glittering gold and other metals that came in the same pockets as tin. I stared at the murky bottom of the Weld River as if I might catch a glimpse of one of them. I knew that was impossible, they are too dense, they would have been pushed under the top layer of soil by their own weight. I could have been standing on one with every new footfall and never have known.
I knew the theory behind sapphire hunting; you fill a pan with sand from the centre of the river, somewhere around rocks or logs – anything that alters the flow of the river—, you wash them in the sieves, vigorously shaking them. black spinel, a jet-black rock that is the same density as sapphires but more common and very distinctive should collect in the centre of the pan. Once the spinel is neatly centred one need only to tip the entire contents out on to a flat surface. If sapphires are there they will be obvious among the spinel, newly exposed at the top of the pile. I watched a Youtube video on it, but the lady in the video didn’t find any sapphires in her demonstration. “That’s prospecting,” she had said, with a boys-will-be-boys type of chuckle. I fossicked through the leavings of my previous gem hunters. Piles of their work lay in regular intervals along the bank, covering every flat surface. Whether they found sapphires or not was impossible to say, but they left their jet-black spinel where it was, surrounded by the regular, run of the mill, milky white and brown gravel. They looked like giant, messy eyes, watching our every move. I was fairly sure I knew what spinel looked like by the second pile I rummaged through. Stones all look very different if you take the time to examine them individually.
We had pilfered the long-handled shovel from my parents’ tool shed and set about scooping gravel into the pan. We chose areas where we could sit comfortably on the shore. There was a fallen tree that completely blocked the flow of the water, moss grew in a slimy film along it. We took it in turns, choosing sites at random to fill the shovel from while the other shifted through the findings. I tried tipping out the swill a few times, but when I did I watched stones tumble back into the water. I changed my technique. We were meticulous, every tiny pebble was carefully scrutinised for any sign of blue or translucency, any clue at all that it might be our quarry. Grey pebbles, in particular, were held up to the sunlight for interrogation.
They were out here, somewhere, the shards of shattered crystal wrenched forth by the great machines built for harvesting the metals that corundum crystals grew around. The drills were probably made of diamonds or spinel, most of them are. It could probably be considered ironic, using gemstones to uncover gemstones, but I’m not one to judge; my father tried to divine the winning lotto numbers using my mother’s diamond ring.
It had been over an hour, we were alone in the river, save for a few cars crossing the bridge that marked the end of the public prospecting site, the slap of our sieves, and grating of stones across metal were the only sounds that punctuated the birdsong and burbling water. The gemmologist was right, I did know it when I saw it. Cornflower blue, translucent and inexplicably shiny, lustrous even, the tiny fleck of stone was completely alien to the others. Tentatively, sceptically, I placed it on my tongue. That’s what we had been told to do, keep them in your mouth so that you don’t lose them. If you swallow by mistake you can be sure of where to find it later. It was cold, and hard, and it tasted like mud; my very first gemstone in nature.
“Are you sure it’s not glass?” He asked, gingerly picking his way through the slippery, loosely packed rocks, to my spot.
“No.” I answered half-honestly. Gem hunters are very superstitious, and I had no intention of jinxing myself. If it was glass it was not a problem. My mother collected glass. She kept them in various sized jars that adorned the outside tables and the bathroom, my tiny silver of blue could just as easily go in among her sea-smoothed and river-polished collection. I was certain though. It looked too naked, exposed, unsure of its surroundings, like when the moon is full and rises so bright that it seems, at first glance to be the sun, suspended in an inky pool of black, waiting lonelily for the rest of the night to catch up. It was too shiny to be glass. Glass grows cloudy and worn very quickly in these conditions.
We found several more in quick succession after that, spurred on by the first find, we spent a lot longer out there than originally planned. There was no consistency in their colour, they weren’t even all blue, but they were all equally distinctly gemstones. We kept them in our mouths and showed each other when we could. Excitedly regurgitating them into the other’s outstretched hand, we had been together long enough to not find the sharing of saliva particularly revolting anymore. We laughed at each other, crouched up to our waists in water swapping gemstones, storing them in our cheeks until a consensus had been reached as to its identity. We looked like I imagine dragons would, if they hunted for their own treasure. Each stone, having passed secondary inspection, was carefully spat into the pickle jar I had brought with us for the purpose. They made a soft clink as they hit the glass bottom. The smell of vinegar clung to the inside of the jar and rose up to our noses with each new contribution. A brief interlude from the smell of clay, stagnate pools, and putrefying leaves.
Our careful sorting system quickly devolved from using the sieves to pawing through the gravel on the spade of the shovel, or at least, my system devolved. I was impatient wherever he was using the pans, he worked slowly. I was, by now, confident that sapphires were far too foreign looking to be overlooked in the dirt. He couldn’t wear his glasses and we hadn’t thought to get him contact lenses, so he squinted, somewhat accusatorially, at the gravel, much less confident than I was that he was not overlooking anything.
Sapphire hunting was as physically strenuous as panning for gold. My arms ached from the swilling of gravel, my legs ached from crouching, my shoulders ached from hunching over the leavings of the river. It was much colder than my gold expedition in South Africa, although I had expected that. It was much more rewarding too; I had never liked gold, it didn’t suit my skin tone. The scenery for sapphires was better too, a rainforest, rather than an abandoned mine.
We stopped when my hands had turned from blue to blue with pink spots. It was our previously agreed upon limit. We had been lucky to have as much sunshine as we got, given that it was autumn, but the river wasn’t fooled or warmed at all by the golden sunlight. My fingers were stiff and swollen from the cold. I had neglected to mention it for about an hour, intent on finding the next sapphire and then the next after that. There was still the entire journey home to contend with. We found 12 sapphires in total. I counted them as he drove. I had put a little bit of water in the jar to move them more easily and to wash them a little. They danced in their watery chalice, bumped by the journey. My sapphire snow-globe
“I can’t believe we found them.” I said, shaking the jar gently so that they caught the dying sun. It felt as though we had uncovered a secret that we were never meant to find. The little blue secret that Mother Nature made all for herself and surreptitiously concealed first deep underground and then under the rocks and sand of the river. They weren’t worth any money, we knew that. They were barely any bigger than the grains of sand that had buried them. The largest was the size of half a grain of rice and literally ‘lack-lustre’. The zircon was a dull, ruddy brown that offset the shades of pale blue in the sapphires. There was one miniscule fragment of topaz, cold and clear like an ice cube that refused to melt.
We drove home along the Midlands highway, it was a four-hour drive, rather than the five hours that The Great Eastern Drive demanded. Our completely drenched clothes were bunched up in a plastic bag in the boot of the car, we were both barefoot – we had not thought to bring a change of shoes—the stench of the river still clung to us, it reminded me of all the days I spent fishing with my father. Our skin stayed cool and clammy for the whole journey. The car’s heater did little to warm us. The windscreen fogged. As the sun sank, languidly at first, and then in a few heartbeats, the autumn evening mist rolled in, blanketing the fields of sheep and cattle that we passed in a silvery shroud. The brilliant red of rosehips along the way stood out like rubies, strung out on a wire.
As the cattle lowed and lumbered to their sleeping quarters we could contain our excitement no longer. He pulled the car over, turned on the car’s internal light and held them up to that artificial sun. They were tiny, worthless fragments of gem stones, but they were breathtaking. We stared in dragon-eyed amazement at our treasure, nestled underground for centuries, forged under extreme pressure, second in hardness only to diamonds, Mother Earth’s private spectacle, now shaken loose and discarded for not being tin, or zinc, or whatever they were after. As we stared and gasped and rattled the jar we never thought to wonder whether they were nature’s gifts, or mankind’s plunder.