Miners back in Australian gold rush, minus the shovels

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 February, 2006, 12:00am

Nearly 200 metres beneath the ground, the beam of a miner's lamp picks out a glittering yellow shard embedded in a freshly blasted band of white quartz. 'That's a little ripper,' said engineer Mark Shannon, as colleagues, working in ankle-high grey sludge, prepared to set more explosives. 'That's exactly what we're looking for.'

More than 150 years after thousands of Chinese and European miners flocked to the Australian state of Victoria in search of gold, prospectors are once again striking it rich. Better equipment and sophisticated geological mapping are enabling modern mining companies to find gold deposits that were beyond the reach of their 19th-century forbears.

Backbreaking work with picks and shovels has been replaced by huge drilling machines, powerful bulldozers known as 'boggers' and monster trucks capable of hauling to the surface 40-tonne loads of ore.

Victoria once produced 40 per cent of the world's gold, and eight companies have recently returned to the 'Golden Triangle' bounded by the towns of Ballarat and Bendigo. Wide avenues, elegant buildings with wrought iron balconies, and imperial statues are testament to the extraordinary wealth which was dug out of the ground.

Around GBP2.4 billion (HK$32.5 billion) worth of gold was mined in Victoria between the 1850s and the first world war, when a lack of manpower and coal made it impossible to keep the mines pumped free of water. Mining leases had also become so fragmented that they no longer justified the capital investment, and have only recently been bought up and consolidated into much larger parcels.

The new generation of mining companies believe that as much gold remains beneath the surface as was extracted during the first gold rush. Victoria still boasts one of the richest gold-bearing regions in the world, and it is expected that A$710 million (HK$4.06 billion) worth of the metal will be extracted each year.

'The old workings went to a depth of about 200 metres, but we'll go underneath them down to 800 metres,' said geologist Joel Forwood, of Ballarat Goldfields, which poured its first ingot in December. 'Mining in the past was a disorganised treasure hunt. Computer modelling means we can be much more accurate about where we think the gold is.' The company hopes to extract 200,000 ounces of gold a year, worth about A$142 million at today's record prices, the result of declining production in South Africa and increasing demand from the burgeoning middle-classes of India and China.

The chance discovery of gold in 1851 transformed the fortunes of the fledgling state of Victoria.

It attracted tens of thousands of eager prospectors, from Cornish and Welsh miners to veterans of the California gold rush.

About 25,000 Chinese miners arrived on the goldfields, many of them forced to walk 400km from neighbouring South Australia after the government of Victoria banned them from landing on Victorian soil. By the late 1850s, they made up a third of Ballarat's population and nearly a quarter of Bendigo's.

They were often subjected to racism, and were forced to live in separate camps on the goldfields, with their own stores, joss houses and temples. The Chinese legacy is everywhere in Ballarat and Bendigo, the pre-eminent gold boom towns of the 19th century.

In Bendigo, tourists flock to the Golden Dragon Museum and the Chinese Gardens. The town's joss house, built of timber and hand-made bricks, is the oldest still in use in Australia.

In Ballarat, hundreds of Chinese graves marked by plain grey head stones crowd a corner of the New Cemetery, the Gum Loong Friendship Garden.

At the Old Cemetery, a kilometre away, there are more Chinese graves, their head stones marked with red and green Chinese characters. Sometimes the names are spelt out in Latin script, too: Hee Tung, Pang Ham, William Lung, Ah Sam.

Ballarat and Bendigo started off as shanty towns where the lucky few who found gold spent their money in tented brothels, dingy gambling and opium dens and makeshift bars selling illegal 'grog'.

Gold bullion was transported to Melbourne by horse-drawn coaches which were vulnerable to ambush by bushrangers, despite their police trooper escorts. In one of the few links with that era, a dedicated goldfields detective has been appointed to combat theft and fraud. 'Armoured security vehicles carry the gold nowadays, but we still have a problem with theft in the mines,' said Detective Senior Constable Patrick Bannan.

One of the new mines will tunnel directly beneath Sovereign Hill, a replica 19th-century mining town which attracts half a million tourists a year.

Actors dressed as British redcoats march up the dusty main street to the beat of fife and drum, past replicas of colonial banks and pubs. The heritage attraction is particularly popular with Chinese and Japanese tourists.

'Conditions were pretty awful,' said Roger Trudgeon, curator of the adjacent Gold Museum. 'Some tunnels were so cramped that miners were on their bellies, scratching away at the rock. The roads were so bad that horses drowned in the mud. It was a horrible, dirty, messy place but it was the making of Victoria economically.

'There were 50,000 miners in Ballarat in the 1860s. Nowadays a modern mining company employs a couple of hundred people.'

At the bottom of Sovereign Hill is a replica Chinese miners' camp, with a red-walled wooden temple and tents containing basic sleeping platforms, clay bowls, cooking utensils and wooden pillows.

'The Europeans didn't like the fact that the Chinese went over the old diggings and managed to find gold that had been overlooked,' Mr Trudgeon said. 'It led to a lot of tension. The fact that there were virtually no Chinese women on the goldfields also caused friction.'

The vast majority of Chinese miners eventually returned home, but a few stayed and their descendants still live in the area. The bar brawls, brothels and bushrangers may have long gone, but Victoria is reconnecting with its freewheeling past. 'We've always had a reputation as a gold town so this gives us back our authenticity,' said Ballarat's mayor, David Vendy.

'Miners here became so rich that they imported ice from Canada and drank more champagne than anywhere else in the world. Now we've got a second gold rush. The buzz is back.'