Olympian spirit spurs search for Klondike's crock of gold

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The Independent Online
A PAIR of brawny forearms come bristling through the gloom of the narrow tunnel. A beard the shape and size of a shovel quickly follows - then the glow of the eyes, set just off the parallel, seeming to focus on a distant point over my left shoulder.

A hunched figure pushes the old rusted trolley down the tracks, deep into the blackness beneath the Blue Mountains. Somewhere in these hills, there is gold - and Noel Rawlinson, the last gold miner of Ophir, New South Wales, is determined to find it.

This was the Australian Klondike, the island continent's first workable goldfield, discovered nearly 150 years ago. For the past 15 of them, Noel has been chipping out a lonely living from the bare earth.

A while ago, he hit upon the one priceless nugget of imagination that might just end up making his fortune. For when the modern equivalent of a gold rush comes to the "lucky country" in two years' time, competitors at the Sydney Olympiad will be competing for medals forged from the pure base metal found at Ophir.

It's Monday and water is dripping from the Heath-Robinson collection of rails, pulleys and hoists that, between them, form the capitalisation of the Gunnadoo gold mine.

The name represents the expeditious approach required to establish, from scratch, an untidy collection of tin shacks huddled deep in the gully between slopes of wet forest ("Gunnadoo this, Gunnadoo that").

Emerging from living quarters that make the spartan conditions of an Olympic village seem luxurious, the old gold miner rescues a hard hat from the lean-to, redoubt of the resident flock of peahens in the persistent downpours of this Australian spring. The Gunnadoo spirit seems, temporarily, remote, as another week of toil beckons.

A dentist's chair is another incongruity amid the clutter. Propped against it are the tools of the trade - a humble pick and shovel, same as the convicts who first came here in 1851.

For years ships refused to dock at Melbourne or Sydney because their crews would desert, heading off into the inhospitable bush, drawn by the glister of gold. This morning, as a meaty fist closes around the haft of each implement, and the plastic brim of the helmet diverts the rivulets from the bushy eyebrows, a pang of gold fever stirs.

The paydirt lies under 80 feet or more of unyielding basalt, in the beds of what used to be surface rivers. At any moment, a stroke of the blade might hit a fold or crevice where the "nuggety gold" accumulated in eddies as ancient waters drained the hillsides.

On Tuesday, he takes a break from "hard yakka" to visit the nearby town of Orange. A mining settlement of 30,000 souls, it is full of characters. Four hours from Sydney, there is nothing west of here for 2,000 miles.

Visits to the post office and store by a burly caller from the hills occasion little comment. There is mail to post to suppliers, and the time of day to pass with officials from the local council. In conjunction with two neighbouring counties, they have struck a deal with the Olympic authorities to buy the six kilograms needed to make the medals for the Games. Everyone is looking forward to a dinner at the local hotel where sporting personalities will launch the appeal to pay for it.

Back in the homestead the following day Noel is joined by his apprentice - his son Jason. The gleaming grains just cover the palm of the 17-year- old's hand after another lesson in panning. The day's takings of a thriving business bring a grunt of satisfaction from his father. At 61, he is looking to hand over the reins to a younger man.

But Jason's ambitions lie with other more lucrative gold mining operations. Father and son grow tense whenever this subject is mentioned.

Cadia, owner of the world's biggest earth grinder, which is capable of churning out half a million ounces a year, has guaranteed the six kilograms if supplies from Gunnadoo mine run short. Noel comes away from this discussion determined that Gunnadoo will come through. The dream of a crock of gold has kept him hard at it throughout the winter downpours. He is determined to achieve his goal.

Friday brings a trickle of tourists, who have heard of the Olympic connection, the amazing story of the one-man gold mine and his boy apprentice.

Beneath the iron grey of Noel's bristles, the chin juts proudly as he begins another history lesson for the assembled tourists in the half-light of the tunnel. He explains how transportation to Van Dieman's land - as Australia used to be called - met the Australian dream in the glint of a panhandler's gold.

For a minute, for tourists clutching their $3 bag of gold-bearing gravel, the dream survives.