Prospecting can be exciting. The possibility of finding gold, gems and minerals is thrilling. Many prospect as a hobby and if they know where to look for gold, all the better. But what starts as an escape from daily life can quickly turn dangerous if proper precautions are not taken.
There have been an increasing number of prospectors going out into the bush and getting lost. A 63-year-old man went missing for a night in remote bushland in Western Australia after he went for a walk. He and his son had been prospecting around 20 kilometres west of the Thunderbox gold mine in Leonara.
A missing prospector was found dead and his companion was taken to hospital after their 4WD became bogged in mud near Broken Hill in outback NSW. William Coles, 78, and Raymond Davis, 81, were believed to be going to a sheep station north of Broken Hill when their Holden Jackaroo got stuck in mud.
They had plenty of food and water with them, and medical authorities looked into whether Coles died from a pre-existing medical condition.
A 46-year-old man went missing in the Western Australian Goldfields in January after he wandered away from his camp site 70 kilometres north-east of the Goldfields town Menzies. A 13-day search ensued, yielding no results.
The most experienced bushman can go missing when prospecting. Taking precautions, making a checklist, brushing up on direction concepts, and carrying the right equipment can prevent mishaps and perhaps save a life.
Also, when people walk, they take a bigger step with their right foot than the left foot if they are right handed. As they keep walking, they will eventually go around in a complete circle and come back to where they started.
John Wilkshire is a member of the Prospectors and Miners Association of Victoria (PMAV) and the Prospectors’ Home Club in Sydney. He has been a member of the Sydney club for 20 years and has been prospecting since the 1970s.
He told Australian Mining complacency is one of the key reasons why prospectors get lost. He wrote an article in The Eureka Echo, the Journal of PMAV about a friend who got lost while prospecting. He said many of PMAV East Gippsland branch members, including him, met in Western Australia in winter last year for a trip.
At Duketon, near Laverton, one of the party members, who he calls ‘Vern’, went off to detect. As he was about to leave the campsite, Wilkshire enquired if he had a two-way radio, compass, water, food, snakebite, bandage and matches.
His response was “stop nagging me; I’m only going for two hours”.
Vern had none of those items except the GPS and a box of matches. He was still sure he would be safe because he had his new GPS with the camp co-ordinates marked on it.
Yet when he looked to use it to get back to the campsite, he found the only waypoint in his GPS menu was at Laverton, 120 kilometres to the east. This was a place he had been to a week ago.
The camp co-ordinates were nowhere to be seen on the GPS.
“The GPS here works on satellite and it gets a fix on four or maybe six satellites up in the sky, up in space,” Wilkshire said.
“The prospectors are not waiting for the satellites to lock on. And that causes the machine not to malfunction, but to misread. It might send you to Germany or somewhere like that.”
Vern’s other option was to follow the sun. But he had not looked at a hard copy map of the area to get an idea of where the camp was in relation to the sun.
He was now lost.
“He made every mistake he could make,” Wilkshire said.
The first thing prospectors should do when they get lost is remain calm. But Wilkshire said they do the opposite.
"They completely lose all common sense. They panic and they cannot think."
It is essential for prospectors to carry a hard copy map to determine their location in relation to points of a compass, roads or tracks. They must also mark the camp location on their GPS.
It is also a good idea to observe the sun’s location before leaving the camp.
“When I walk out in the morning or the afternoon, I look at where the sun is and I say, okay, the sun’s on my left cheek. When I come back I’ve got to have the sun on the right cheek. It doesn’t tell you exactly where you’re going but it gives you an idea you’re going in the right direction,” Wilkshire said.
Being properly equipped is key. It is important to carry UHF radios or walkie talkies, matches and cigarette lighters for warmth, a watch, and food and water. Spare batteries for the GPS will also come in handy.
Vern did not carry any of these things except the GPS. But he lost the GPS in the outback when he set it down on the ground while resting. He had left his three UHF radios in the car.
According to the president of PMAV Rita Bentley, prospecting in Victoria is safer than in harsher outback regions like Western Australia. She said the state is more closely settled and many regional towns developed from goldfield tent cities.
Victoria does not have the vast open spaces of the outback. The outback climate is also hotter and everything in the area can start to look the same.
She also implored prospectors to take every precaution possible before venturing out.
“We urge everyone to ensure they are thoroughly prepared for any excursion to areas they aren’t familiar with and never go into the outback along and without giving someone full details of your plans,” she said.
Vern eventually saw a herd of cattle, which was travelling on a well-worn cattle track. He followed the cattle. Shortly after he heard a motor start and ran towards the sound. It was a windmill, where a station hand had started the generator.
He was only four kilometres from camp when he reached safety.
“This country is not to be messed with. It can kill you in a short time. Carry all gear necessary for your own safety,” Wilkshire said.
If you’re prepared for an emergency, you will have better prospects.