How I finally cured my gold fever

As a child, he dug for treasure in the back garden. Aged 36, Max Anderson packed in his day job and set off for the Australian desert, armed with a spade, some old maps and an undiminished urge to hit pay-dirt
Click to follow

In December 2001, I ditched my job with a London newspaper to dig for gold in the deserts of Western Australia. I wasn't the first. Hundreds of thousands of Brits before me had set sail to strike it rich Down Under. When gold was found in 1851, the fatal shore suddenly became the promised land; one boatload of convicts, grumpy at being waylaid in Woolwich, mutinied and demanded they be "conveyed at once to the diggings".

In December 2001, I ditched my job with a London newspaper to dig for gold in the deserts of Western Australia. I wasn't the first. Hundreds of thousands of Brits before me had set sail to strike it rich Down Under. When gold was found in 1851, the fatal shore suddenly became the promised land; one boatload of convicts, grumpy at being waylaid in Woolwich, mutinied and demanded they be "conveyed at once to the diggings".

Today, Australia is the world's third biggest producer of gold. Never mind that most of it comes from chemical processes capable of drawing a rice grain of gold from a ton of rock - I thought I was in with a chance. So after flying to Adelaide, I bought a Land Cruiser 4WD, kissed a girl goodbye and drove 1,000 miles west.

In the quaint vernacular of the Victorian diggers I became a "new chum", a decent and hale fellow with a mote of hope in his eye. In the brogue of modern prospectors, I was a "fackn tourist" - a loud, mostly useless city-dweller full of bright ideas about finding the yellow stuff.

My bright idea amounted to scrutinising accounts written by the original desert diggers between 1890 and 1905, when nuggets lay on the goldfields "like spuds". Among the rip-roaring tales of bawdy-housing, booze-fuelled spending sprees and suicides, I'd winkle out the tried and true techniques, the hottest prospects. I was especially interested in a remote town called Kookynie: in 1902 it was home to 3,500 townsfolk and a string of mines, with another 3,500 diggers living in the waterless hinterlands. It was also home to the world's purest gold.

But when I arrived, Kookynie had clearly seen better days: it was a ghost town that had all but given up the ghost. Nine buildings stood in a wasteland of rubble - though one of these, at least, was a pub.

"I'd like to find some gold," I said.

"Yeah, there's a few round here who'd like to do that," said the publican.

Stuck on the wall of the Grand Hotel was the head of a kangaroo, sporting an eye-patch and a dangling fag. A delicate aboriginal spear was hung overhead, a rifle-scope taped to its middle. The publican was Kevin, a broad bearish man who growled that there was only one decent use for gold - fishing sinkers.

But there was another bloke sat at the bar. He was in his fifties, squinting intently at MTV videos and absently swallowing beer from small mugs. His wide-brimmed hat was pulled low. His huge glasses were fly-specked. His belly was swollen like a prize-winning pumpkin and it hung over white, spindly legs that ended in soiled boots. He was Lazy Les. Inhaling on his cigarette and peering hard at an MTV pop kitten, he said: "Y'got a metal-detector?"

"Er, no. I thought I could do it like the old-timers. I've got gold pans."

At this he creased his eyes and grimaced at the kitten, revealing rows of peggy teeth. "Paaaaaaaaaans?"

I bought him a beer. Later that night, after several more beers, he withdrew his pumpkin belly from under the bar and played energetic air guitar to AC/DC.

For six months I was woken at 5.30am by the screaming wheels of a diesel train hauling nickel to Kalgoorlie. I'd lie on my canvas stretcher bed until the sun cracked the horizon and started warming the red earth. When the parrots began chattering in the pepper tree over my tent, I'd swing my feet off the bed, plant them into small rivers of dust, and climb into cold clothes stiff with dried mud.

Then I'd go to work.

Lazy gave me directions to a derelict, wind-blown mine site, littered with twisted metal and guarded by a towering timber mine frame that leaned dangerously. He assured me I'd "git gold" in a dry creek bed.

So I hauled jerry cans of water from my camp, hacked spadefuls of dirt from the creek bed and mixed up thick orange soups in my gold pan. For three months, five days a week, eight hours a day, I crouched over my swirling dishes of mud, reducing them to slender crescents of black sands, inspecting each under the hot sun before tipping them out with a disappointed groan.

The Kookynie folk were baffled as to why I persevered for such little reward. But it was simple: I grew up in suburban Britain. And like most kids, I was obsessed with digging for buried treasure.

My parents' back garden in the Derby suburb of Allestree was regularly punctured with shallow - and sometimes not so shallow - holes. And inevitably, I found nondescript ferrous nodules and enough bits of pale blue china to suggest that somewhere between regolith and bedrock was a natural stratum called "willow pattern". But I had a head full of King Solomon's Mines, Tarzan's Valley of Gold and the shimmering, jingling cascade of coins at the end of The Golden Shot. And every awkward excavation I made with my oversized spade promised to come good.

Eventually I bottomed out. Or more exactly I grew up and accepted that the Midland soils were barren of valuable metals, either dug to death by previous generations or sealed with a generous layer of housing estates and NCP carparks. But I never quite shook the need to find treasure...

The months I spent at the deserted mine site, watched over by eagles wheeling in a searing blue sky, were filthy, frustrating and back-breaking. But they were also electrifying, because there really was gold beneath my feet. And with every pan, I felt perilously close to making real the very fantasies that had sustained me as a kid.

I looked twice at anything moderately pale-coloured in the pan. But then I saw gold for the first time, and understood why the prospectors said: "You'll know it when you see it." It sent me reeling.

It was literally a pin-head of metal, but so unmistakably lustrous that I never needed to second-glance again. When the ancients held gold they thought they were holding the sun, which meant god and immortality. When I held up my pin-head, dabbed on a fingertip - and all the pin-heads in the months after - I saw a dragon on its heap of coins, a pirate kicking back the lid on a chest full of doubloons, a wagon of gold bars defended by the US cavalry.

Each night, I returned to the pub to place my film canister of yellow specks on the bar, raising a few laughs and earning a few jibes. But it also worked some magic.

The people of Kookynie saw me as a bit of a prat, but at least I wasn't a "big-noter", at least I was "having a go". Kevin, who'd done his years as a digger, noted my growing understanding of the metal's devious properties: how its shocking density influenced its dynamics of travel, how the swirling pan was a micro-cosmic replay of gold moving through a shifting landscape, a geomorphic drama 2.5 billion years in the telling. And he began to quietly give me encouragement, clues, ideas, advice...

In time, I also unearthed the history of the goldfields, and not only through books. Kevin's wife Marg visited my campsite, sometimes when I was cooking breakfast over a small fire. She'd hand me freshly baked muffins and talk about the history of the town, pointing to the places where residents had lived during the 1900s. The brothel was here; a race track was there; further on was the old cemetery, one of the graves turned backwards since the occupant had done himself in. "They used to chuck themselves into flooded shafts," she'd say of victims demoralised by alcohol and failure. "It was the quickest way. Besides, it let the coroner record 'death by drowning', which spared relatives the shame of suicide."

After a while, I was called on to help out in the pub. When I wasn't adding to my £1.50 fortune in gold specks, I earned money by dragging rotten bags of garbage to the dump, scraping inch-thick lamb-fat from the bottom of a spit-roast or raking a tiny patch of lawn. Which was quite a privileged job. It was the only lawn for 50 miles.

Kookynie wasn't all plain sailing. Ron the ex-truck driver wore a biker's goatee beard and sleeveless shirts that showed his biceps like bruised hams. I thought him volatile, not least in the way he railed against "bastard gold-filching tourists".

But Ron had a reputation for having an uncanny sense of gold - a commodity so elusive that many diggers bestowed it with metaphysical qualities, capable even of choosing its keeper. "But Ron... it just comes to him," said one digger. "Some blokes will spend all day on a piece of ground and find nothing. Ron, he follows his instincts and finds it."

Kevin's coaching had changed me from a bumbling green-horn speck-collector to someone who understood the mechanics of prospecting - the art of following a trail of gold until you find the payable source. Men like Ron, said Kevin, were out there, not scavenging for nuggets, but trying to piece together clues until he located the lode, the place where you sink your gold mine. He told me I could do the same, only I'd need a detector. "And don't forget, a detector in the right hands is just a sophisticated pan." So I bought a detector - off Ron.

Perhaps my biggest misapprehension was that the wilds of the goldfields were untrodden. Not so: the old-timers had been everywhere, and after taking their gold, they'd left behind great screes of metal detritus. With a detector plate at my feet and headphones on my ears, I had to find needles of gold in a great aural haystack of sound.

I set about detecting every conceivable form of metal, from bullets to ore trucks, hob-nails to roofing iron, and on several occasions the metal eyelets in my boots and two tons of Land Cruiser 4WD. I grew so sick of bending to dig crap out of the warm red soil that I was close to giving up.

So when Ron offered to show me how to use the detector properly, I didn't need asking twice. One day we crashed through the bush in his armour-plated vehicle to places I could never find again. He showed me how to read the landscape, taking information from its geologies and landforms: "You see that ironstone, an' how it sort of passes through the laterite...?" We got to know each other and forged something valuable in the goldfields, a friendship.

And he helped me find my first nugget.

People do different things when they find the first one. Some run round in circles. Others gibber nonsensically. Still others cackle like Croesus and gloat sweetly. I did as I'd been shown by Ron: I calmly popped the button-sized piece of gold into my mouth, swished it about to loosen the red dirt, then spat the whole lot into my palm. And watched as a gleaming, gorgeous gob of buttery gold emerged from the frothing blood-coloured saliva.

And then I ran round in circles, gibbering nonsensically and cackling like Croesus...

Detecting became Zen-like, a process of sweeping and creeping, sweeping and creeping, inching through the soundscapes of the West Australian deserts. I started to find nuggets by myself, reasoning them out of the parched hillsides and gullies. And I'd never been so deliriously happy in my life.

By the time my hands were ingrained with dirt, I was part of Kookynie - I was the bloke who lived over the railway line, under the pepper tree. I went into the business of finding bigger gold. I went bush for three weeks to see an incredible home-made dry-blowing machine at work, a contraption that uses air instead of water to separate gold from dirt. And I helped Ron process seven tons of gold-bearing ore at a bizarre hillside mill, where I saw him work with mercury until his fingers were so swollen they wouldn't fit into gloves.

After five months I drew up a profit-and-loss column. My black column listed $2,000 in gold. My red column listed about $10,000 in expenses, mostly "damage to vehicle" and "beer".

Like so many of my countrymen combing the deserts before me, prospecting wasn't paying the way. And I'd begun to hear a siren call wailing from the east. It was the call of a girl. Now I'm back living in a city. My fingers are no longer trellised with dirt, my clothes are always clean; I no longer read the landscape for signs, unless they're telling me how fast I can travel or what I must buy; and I no longer get a nightly fix of beery treasure yarns and bar-room bullshit - I've got TV for that.

But like a malaria victim returned from the tropics, I'm periodically revisited by the fever that gripped me in Kookynie. And when it strikes, I'll go to the kitchen and retrieve the glass jar from the top of the fridge. I'll empty its contents on to the table. And surreptitiously pop a nugget into my mouth.

'Digger' by Max Anderson is published by Picador at £10.99