Swiss Alpine valleys get leisurely 'gold rush'

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The Independent Travel

With a slight drizzle, a chilly breeze and a sunless sky, it was not quite the perfect summer's day to spend hours alongside the Upper Rhine river in eastern Switzerland's majestic Alps.

Yet several determined gold panners were doing just that, standing in knee-high fishermen's boots, armed with pails and spades and heads bent in concentration as they swirled gritty water in flat pans.

The site at Disentis has earned a reputation for yielding not only specks of the precious metal but, on rare occasions, whole nuggets.

"To find gold, one needs a lot of patience and time. But gold is something special," August Braendle, the local expert in the art, told AFP.

"Gold has a certain magic, when one is holding this heavy yellow metal in the hand, that is something special. You get a gold rush," he said.

With gold prices skyrocketing as investors flock to the safe haven commodity in a wobbly world economy, panning for the shiny metal is back in fashion.

In June, gold prices climbed to a record, breaching 1,265 dollars an ounce. Today it still hovers above 1,220 dollars an ounce.

The price hike "could be a driving point bringing some people here because it is a hot topic in current affairs at the moment," said Braendle.

"But I don't think that it's a main reason for most, because the gold we find here has a special value," he said.

Gold discovered in this quiet Rhine setting fetches a "naturally higher" price than that on the bullion market because it is panned by hand, Braendle asserted.

Gold panners typically dig up buckets full of grit from the riverbed then run this through a sluice - a metal contraption placed in the river - which holds back heavier sediments, including any gold. Contents of the sluice are then emptied into a flat pan and swirled around to filter out the gold specks.

Braendle points to his gold ear stud and pendant. "These here are all from this river."

He's even found his way into local lore with the nickname "Gold Gusti", thanks to the biggest nugget he has found yet - 48.7 grams - that is locked up tight in his bank vault.

His nugget was also a record for Switzerland but that was quickly smashed when another gold panner, Peter Boelsterli, found one weighing 123.1 grams in the same river.

"There are still many secrets here," insisted Braendle, who quit his job with a computing firm in Zurich and moved to Disentis in 1995 to immerse himself in his passion.

- 'For me gold is everything' -

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He now works as a gold panning guide during the season - May until mid-October - and at the mountain railway over winter.

"For me gold is a hobby, it is work, it is everything," he said.

Another gold panner in search of a legendary find is Anton Bitter, who has laboured at the site for the past two years.

Holding up a small tube the size of a finger containing flecks of gold floating in river water, the father of four said panning has become a leisure activity for his whole family.

"My son said that when he finds enough gold to make a wedding ring, he will get married," said the 58-year-old.

Most admit that gold panning in Switzerland - a high-wage, low-unemployment country - is backbreaking work for too little return.

Gold finds in Switzerland are, after all, rather rare. Exploratory drilling by a Canadian firm in 1982 found only 0.7 to three grammes per tonne of material, according to the Swiss Gold Prospector Association website, signalling a low-content zone. Areas richer in gold tend to turn up double digits figures.

Typical at Disentis was Isis Organista, who travelled from neighbouring Germany with her boyfriend and his brother. After an entire day at the river, they found far less than a gram.

"Here in Switzerland, gold panning is just for fun," acknowledged 46-year-old Stefan Grossenbacher, a professional gold searcher who holds gold-panning classes in the Napf valley, near the central Swiss city of Lucerne, during the summer then heads to New Zealand to mine for gold during the northern hemisphere's winter.

"Nobody can live just on the gold they find here," he said.

For many gold panners, like a group of novices supervised by Grossenbacher, it's just a good day out in the wild.

Michael Ganz said he came to spend time with a friend. "Here we can talk and have fun at the same time, in a way it's better than playing football or tennis," he said.

Solitary gold panner Jean-Pierre Steiger, decked out in cowboy hat, high boots and vest full of pins from gold-panning world championships, planned to spend most of the day in the river tucked beneath two rocky cliffs.

"Here I have the nature to myself. What could be better?"

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