How to salt a gold claim: Part 1, Queensland interlude

Looking through a box of my old field notebooks the other day I came across one which contained a cartoon sketch I had made of an old Queensland prospector and remembered the story behind it.

Ukalunda prospector cartoon 2

In 1984, as an employee of a multinational mining company, I was seeking properties with significant potential for gold discovery. On a 250,000 scale Queensland Government geology map there was a small black dot with the magic symbol Au printed beside it in small letters – an isolated occurrence, far from any known Camp. No further data was recorded. The location was about 200 miles inland from the coast, near the base of a Permian sandstone unit. I thought it might be a palaeoplacer[1], and this this excited me because the biggest gold camp in the world (Witwatersrand in South Africa) is a palaeoplacer.

I drove inland to check it out. The area was a rolling open landscape with dry creek beds, isolated stands of eucalypt and dusty unmetalled roads – cattle country, very like that pictured below. First stop was the local station[2] homestead: some ranchers object to strangers driving over their land and can get nasty if you don’t seek their permission first. Their isolation can make them misanthropic, or perhaps the cause and effect is the other way around. As it turned out, this particular cattleman was friendly and glad to see a new face. He invited me in for a welcome cup of tea and a slice of his wife’s home-baked cake.

Outback Qld 1

We talked about the endless drought, the floods of five years before and the price of beef. By the second cup he told me about Scotty Morten[3]. Scotty was his nearest neighbour. It seemed he was the prospector who had discovered the gold many years before and still held a small Mining Lease over it and lived onsite. Scotty had initially exploited the gold himself through a small underground mine before Joint Venturing the Lease to a succession of Exploration companies.  “But” said my new friend, “you gotta watch that old bastard[4], he ran rings round them companies”.

Scotty was a master at claim salting, I was warned. He had several techniques: he would offer to pan a sample from his mine, and never failed to get a strong tail of gold in his dish, but the gold would have dropped from the ash of his roll-your-own cigarette, or fallen from the band of his battered Akubra[5] when he took it off to wipe a sweaty brow. Scotty could even salt a whole rock face with gold: it seems he filled shotgun shells with sand and gold dust and blasted the face, which he would then point out to a geologist as a good place to collect a sample.  One company, I was told, used explosives to expose a new face in his mine to collect a bulk sample for testing, but made the mistake of using fracture provided by Scotty. Easy to add a few pinches of gold dust to a bag of anfo[6].

I camped that night in a nearby dry river bed and looked forward to meeting Scotty the next morning.

He was a short, lean and sinewy, bird-like man of about 70 years, dressed in a faded blue singlet and jeans, an ancient sweat-stained Akubra4 on his head. His face, burnt and battered by long outdoor exposure, featured large ears, a nicotine-stained moustache and a pair of surprisingly large and innocent-looking eyes. An ill-rolled cigarette was permanently affixed to his lower lip. A shotgun and rifle leant against the wall in a corner of his shack. Scotty spoke in a slow Queensland drawl. He had a natural courtesy, but was a man of few words, giving the constant impression that he knew more than he said[7].  

I introduced myself and explained my interest. Scotty politely offered to show me around. I could tell that I wasn’t the first company geologist to have driven up to the door of his shack and asked for a tour.

An adit[8] had been driven into the base of a low (50m high) mesa. About 100 meters in, two largish chambers had been hollowed out – a few hundred tonnes of rock having been removed. The rocks were flat-lying, pebbly sandstone and conglomerate, well weathered and oxidised – easily mined with pick and shovel with perhaps a bit of blasting now and then. Piles of “ore” were heaped outside the mine entrance, beside an old rusting crusher and some wooden sluices.  On top of the mesa were signs of previous big-company exploration: several large vertical drill holes with roundels of 30cm diameter diamond drill core scattered on the ground. The biggest core I had ever seen.

I collected six  approximate 10kg samples from underground: some were from places that my host indicated as “high grade”, some from places I selected myself. The rock was friable and easily broken with a pick.  Scotty helped me carry the samples outside where I panned half of each sample in a water trough that my host had set up for this purpose. Four of my six samples yielded a few colours of gold. Scotty looked on, silently contemptuous of my efforts and of my dark-green plastic hi-tech panning dish bought the week before from Prospectors Supplies in Sydney. “Let me have a go there” he said “there’s a technique to panning a good tail of gold, son”. Hat on head, and cigarette in mouth, he produced his own panning dish – a dented and rusty pressed-tin affair – and proceeded to pan each of my sample splits. A good tail of gold appeared in every dish.


Had Scotty contaminated my samples with a few added pinches of alluvial gold? Well, perhaps he had:  although, forewarned, I was watching him closely and could not be sure. On the other hand, I have no doubt that he was a much more accomplished gold panner than I, and his neighbour the cattleman could have been telling an exaggerated story to a (presumed) naïve stranger. And there was another consideration: the hand lens showed the millimetre-sized gold grains had fine leaf-like shapes and a light colour indicating a primary origin and high silver content . Alluvial gold is typically a deep dull butter-yellow (i.e. a high fineness) with smooth rounded shapes. Scotty had told me that he had an alluvial claim down south which he worked in the winter months and I would have expected him to use this material if he had wanted to salt the samples. But then again, perhaps wise to the tricks of geologists (as I thought I was wise to his) he knew enough to salt the mine with gold hard-won from the actual mine?

But, ultimately, it did not really matter. Panning a few samples hacked from a rock face is an indicative test only. At the very least, I considered that my efforts showed the property contained some gold. 

I did not think the deposit was a palaeoplacer, but an epigenetic[9] deposit. That was indicated by the physical nature of the gold as described above, and the presence of pyrite (oxidised) throughout the rock and porphyry intrusions nearby. Not that that affected its economic potential. The host rocks were gold bearing and would have been worth a more detailed look, but I felt that previous explorers had probably done enough to test the potential for a company-sized operation. That is the sort of decision you have to make, using limited knowledge and balancing probabilities – always aware that you might be wrong.

So, I did not try to option the property but learned something of the tricks of the gold salting trade. And I rather liked the old bastard.


[1] An ancient alluvial deposit.

[2] Ranch

[3] Not his real name

[4] When an Australian calls someone an “old bastard” it is generally a sign of grudging admiration and approval.

[5] A wide-brimmed felt hat – an Australian brand icon, beloved of cattlemen and other bush types.

[6] ANFO – a pelletised mixture of ammonium nitrate (AN) and fuel oil (FO), widely used in mines as blasting powder

[7] Always more impressive than saying more than you know.

[8] A horizontal tunnel providing access to a mine (an old Cornish mining term).

[9] i.e. deposited later than the formation of the host rock.

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