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Wednesday, 6 May 2015


This area is one of the most interesting gem producing regions in New South Wales. It’s also one of the most frustrating because of the difficulty in gaining access to the river and its tributaries. The map is extracted from the Records of the Geological Survey of NSW 14(1), which contains a valuable article titled “Sapphires in the New England District, New South Wales”. If you would like to download a copy, the DIGS reference is R00050764.
Backwater-Kookabookra area, 40km south-east of Glen Innes
A further complication is that the river is sometimes called the Mitchell River; adding to the confusion is the fact that the nearby Mann River also has the Mitchell River as an alternative name!
There is plenty of information in issues of “Gold, Gem and Treasure” magazine, the Australian Lapidary Forum (ALF) website (here) and on DIGS (here). By all means search them out. To simplify things, here are links to two blogs by ALF members, dealing with visits to Kookabookra - Jewellery Pirate here and Snowman3195 here.
Practically every tributary of the Sara (Mitchell) river is worth fossicking. Unfortunately, they are nearly all either on private land, in a National Park or simply nowhere near a road or track. If you wish to get onto private land areas, you are going to have to approach landowners for permission. Many of them will have already had enough of trespassers, shooters, people who dig holes and don’t backfill them, fire lighters and fence cutters, so be prepared for an earful.
It isn’t at all obvious from the map, but the river rises on the upper left of the map (west of Bullwarra), passes under the Backwater road (signposted as the Mitchell River) and flows south of Mt Mitchell via the Horse Shoe Bend to Kookabookra and beyond. The creek south of it is coloured green to indicate that it carries sapphire. The fact is, so do most of the streams and gullies on the map.
As a guide for readers, I’ll say something about the three areas I have actually been to. Firstly, upstream of the Backwater road bridge. We checked this out once for a possible Minerama trip but rejected it because of our poor finds that day. This was on Bullwarra property. The area was mined for gems, probably in the 1970’s, and all I found was a few bits of sapphire on the track (evidently spilled with gravel on the way to the treatment plant) and a nugget of cassiterite (tinstone) two or three centimetres across, which I saw lying on the ground. We were unaware of the fact that Cockatoo Creek was also gem bearing, otherwise we would have checked it out too. There is an interesting report of Amsil Sapphire’s prospecting in 1974 to be found in DIGS, reference number R00046776. The presence of gold and cassiterite (tin) in the wash is normal for the area. Whether any mining was ever carried on in this creek I cannot say.
The Horse Shoe Bend section of the river is accessible by 4WD vehicles along the Horse Shoe Bend fire trail, which is reached by following McGarry’s Lane and Aqua Park Road eastwards off the Backwater road, a little south of the Yarrow Creek bridge. The descent is quite spectacular, with Crown Mountain (granite outcrops) straight ahead at the beginning of the trail. From the fossicking point of view, the problem is that most of the area is now in the Warra National Park. See this article from National Parks and Wildlife (here). Although much is said about the flora, fauna, history etc nothing is said about the reason many people would want to go there – fossicking. I have been there only once and found gold and small gemstones in the river easily enough. Another DIGS document (Reference number R00046781) makes for interesting reading at this stage. It’s a summary of the prospecting done in the area by Mr W Madgwick of Glen Innes in 1974. There is private property all around and trespassers are certainly not welcome.
Sara River at Kookabookra. Photo by Wwoofa, ALF
Most of the information available concerns the third area, at Kookabookra. This is well known as a fossicking area which produces quartz crystals, black tourmaline (schorl), gold, cassiterite (tin), topaz, sapphire and zircon. Fortunately for our generation, the early miners were only after gold and tin and discarded the rest. The actual area is well described in the blogs I listed near the beginning of this blog. This land is, I believe, a crown land lease held by the adjacent landowner who has given permission for fossickers to work there. Please respect this permission and do not trespass elsewhere, camp, light fires or leave rubbish behind. There is a further accessible area at the Sara River bridge a kilometre or so downstream, on the Ward’s Mistake road. This branches off the Pinkett road on the right a short distance back towards Glen Innes.
The Mitchell River Dredge from the Pinkett history book
This stretch of the river was extensively dredged, especially in the depression years. Sue’s grandfather worked as a woodcutter for the Mt Mitchell  (Mitchell River) dredge and her mother began her schooling at the nearby Kookabookra school. If you can find a copy, the little book “Pinkett, Mogg’s Swamp, Kookabookra Past and Present” (1988) makes good reading. As for the other two places, here is another interesting document from DIGS (Reference number R00028578). It is a compilation from the Annual Reports of the NSW Department of Mines (1875-1941) summarising mine outputs in the area.
My gem hunting/mining You Tube playlist may be found here. I have three other playlists - the Blue Mountains, Glen Innes and New Zealand.

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