After a day’s writing, my partner Nic hoists our one-year-old into his backpack and we set off for a walk. It’s late November, the air sultry, the pardalotes chirping. We amble down our drive, into the old stonewalled orchard at the foot of our property. The orchard is public land, part of the Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park, but we’ve taken to pruning the trees: three plum, two quince and one pear.
While Nic inspects the fruit, I look back at our beloved mud-brick cottage under the gums and think about all we still need to do to make it habitable for a child. With its open fire and dirt floor, I’d once thought the cottage was a goldfields-era construction. It was actually built in the 1980s as an artist’s studio by two teenage brothers.
Like the brothers, we’d come to Specimen Gully for the seclusion, but also for the gold: my partner had been writing a novel set in the 1850s goldfields and he’d wanted to live and work among the remnants. For several years, we came to the cottage purely to write. When our landlord put it up for sale, we bought it. And when we had our son, we moved out here permanently. It is home—one of just five in this valley, spread along the hillside between the National Heritage Park and the Moonlight Flat Pine Plantation.
The Victorian rush started just up the road, where three shepherds and a bullock driver discovered gold in 1851; a slate cairn marks the spot. By 1852, more than 40,000 miners worked the Castlemaine diggings. The Mount Alexander Goldfields became one of the world’s richest shallow alluvial goldfields, yielding four million ounces, mostly in the first two years and within five metres of the surface. Today it forms the largest non-Indigenous heritage-protected cultural landscape in Australia.
We meander on through in the warm twilight. Evidence of the past is all around: ditches from the initial rush, when independent miners used pick and shovel to pan the surface layer; shafts and water races from the 1860s, when mining companies blasted the quartz reefs below and battered the gold from it, leaving lumps of quartz scouring the hillside like shrapnel. Slate quarries from the late 1800s, collapsed in on themselves now.
Traditional Owners the Dja Dja Wurrung, who suffered a second wave of displacement during the gold rush, call land that’s been mined ‘upside-down country’. They say it’s still healing. Around here, all the trees were taken and a metre of topsoil washed away. One hundred and fifty-odd years on, it looks like picturesque native bush from the ridgeline above, but there’s little understory and the ground is still mostly rock.
Traditional Owners, who suffered a second wave of displacement during the gold rush, call land that’s been mined ‘upside-down country’. They say it’s still healing.
We take the After Dark Track into the pine plantation, past the gaping shafts of the old Cappers Gully Mine above the Shicer Fault. This where I first hear the noise: a deep rumble, vibrating up from inside the earth.
We turn a corner, and there’s the rig, straddling the track, fenced off with a string of orange flags. A couple of nondescript utes are parked nearby, two guys in high-vis yelling out to each other. They don’t see us. We observe the rig for a moment as it shudders productively. Our son points, as curious about the sound as he is about the thump of a wallaby or the shriek of a cockatoo.
‘It’s really close,’ my partner says.
In late October 2019, we received a letter in the mail.
It was a notice of exploration from gold mining company Kalamazoo Resources Ltd, informing us they would be conducting a drilling program in the pine plantation behind our house. The program would commence just a few days later and run until February 2020, with the rig operating 24/7.
This was the first we’d heard of Kalamazoo or its plans. The company had published the requisite notice of exploration in newspapers mid-year, but we’d missed both it and the community discussions.
A relatively new, speculative player in commercial mining, Kalamazoo was listed on the Australian Stock Exchange in 2017. Its interests in the Victorian Central Goldfields include the Castlemaine Gold Project (the CGP), which covers 310 square kilometres and consists of two exploratory licences. Our house falls within its boundaries, as do the townships of Chewton and Fryerstown. According to Kalamazoo, these licences cover ‘almost the entire historic Castlemaine Goldfields’.
Online, the CGP was being talked up as the next Fosterville, an open-cut-turned-underground mine near Bendigo, now the largest producer of gold in Victoria. Fosterville is held up as the ‘gold standard’: in 2019, it was the lowest-cost goldmine in the world. That year alone, its site exploration budget was $60 million. I imagined what our valley would look like with all the trees ripped out again, the infrastructure that would take their place for decades to come: open pits, tailing facilities, water dams.
‘I don’t want a Fosterville on our doorstep,’ I said.
‘It’s just hype,’ Nic pointed out. ‘They haven’t found anything yet.’
We tried not to get too concerned, but it was a disturbance neither of us had seen coming.
I expected to hear the rig. But even though one site was just 400 metres away, we did not hear the drilling unless the wind blew from the south, when it registered as a low hum. We were protected by the ridgeline above us. However our neighbour, whose house is built on bedrock, likened it to ‘a sonar vibration’ that palpitated inside his chest and messed with his heartbeat. Each morning he emerged from his front gate, face crumpled and hair askew, after yet another sleepless night.
The deprivation began to add up. So did the uncertainty. I wondered if this was the beginning of solastalgia, a term coined by academic Glenn Albrecht in response to the affects of coal mining and climate change on his hometown in the Hunter Valley. Solastalgia is ‘existential melancholia experienced with the negative transformation of a loved home environment’. Simply put, it is homesickness while you’re still at home.
Unlike our neighbour, Nic and I had some reprieve. In mid-December we took our son to New Zealand for summer.
I imagined what our valley would look like with all the trees ripped out again, the infrastructure that would take their place for decades to come.
Just before Christmas, we checked Kalamazoo’s share price on a whim. It had skyrocketed. The company had found ‘an exceptionally high-grade intersection’ of gold at the drill hole nearest our house. The sample had returned 261 grams of gold per ton of ore. One section of the sample had returned 1,620 grams per ton. This didn’t mean a lot to us, until we learned that eight grams per ton is considered high grade in underground mining. The figure is less, some 1–4 grams, for open-cut mining.
Kalamazoo’s CEO Luke Reinehr was quick to point out that it was early days, but called the assay ‘extremely encouraging’. On 4 January, the Weekend Australian tipped Kalamazoo as one of its 50 investment ideas for 2020. Ten days later, Canadian gold explorer Novo Resources and billionaire investor Eric Sprott each subscribed to 10 million Kalamazoo shares at 40 cents per share, raising $8 million. The capital would be used to expand Kalamazoo’s drilling program. The market responded accordingly: Kalamazoo’s share price leaped again. The hype was gaining traction.
Back in Australia, a second round of drilling began in March, concentrating on the Shicer Fault. While we waited for the results, Nic and I discussed our long term options, searching for some agency in what felt very much out of our control. So much was unknown, unknowable. COVID-19 soon exemplified that. As we bunkered down in self-isolation, it also acerbated our sense of place.
One night, I took our son for a walk in his pram. The stars were out, the moon verging on full. We strolled by moonlight down our drive, away from both the drilling and the protective ridgeline, into the valley. About 100 metres from our property, the thrum grew like a 747 and I could’ve mistaken it for one, had the flight path above us not been empty. I glanced up at the hillside, at the lights of the houses flickering through the trees. Then I saw another light—the rig—an equal distance from where I stood, but in the opposite direction. That rammed home just how close the Fault was.
While I knew of gold mining’s prevalence in other states, I’d always thought it a thing of the past in Victoria. The industry had lain largely dormant from the 1920s to the 1980s, when the rising price of gold sparked a resurgence, but since then its growth has been constant. It is estimated 650,000 ounces of gold will be extracted in Victoria in 2020—about half the amount extracted per annum in the 1800s. And we’re likely to see further growth.
Gold is currently part of a deliberate push to open up more of Victoria to mining. The State Government’s Mineral Resources Strategy 2018–2023 says it is ‘targeting significant mineral discoveries through increased mineral exploration investment over the next decade’.
According to the Ministry of Resources, 14.2 per cent of Victoria is Crown land exempt from mining, while another 7.6 per cent can be exempted by the Minister for reasons such as environmental importance. Under the new strategy, the Government has commenced ‘the application of a more strategic approach to exempt areas.’ It appears that having 80 per cent of the state available for mining is not enough.
Mineral exploration and gold mining in Victoria tripled in the past three years and rose 79 per cent in the year to March 2018. Despite objection from miners, a 2.75 per cent gold royalty was introduced on large-scale operations in 2019, bringing Victoria in line with all other states. And last October, the Andrews Government announced the North Central Victorian Goldfields Ground Release tender, opening the potential for exploration near Fosterville (Kalamazoo has tendered for two of the blocks). Covering the release, Australian Mining reported that the Geological Survey of Victoria—the Government’s geo-science agency—had estimated only half the gold that may exist in Victoria had been found, ‘putting the state in prime position for a second gold rush’. The Minister for Resources Jaclyn Symes took it a step further: ‘We’re seeing Victoria’s next gold rush.’
The land for tender includes Dja Dja Wurrung country. While the State Government is engaging with the Dja Dja Wurrung as part of the company selection process for the first time, chief executive Rodney Carter told the Bendigo Advertiser: ‘We can’t stop this type of activity on country so I think it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that it’s the best it can be.’
A new gold mine in Central Victoria was not just likely to find support from the State Government: it would be a direct result of policy.
Local governments, which control neither mining licenses nor National Parks, have little say either: Castlemaine Mayor Christine Henderson told me that her understanding was the State Government ‘has a policy to stimulate investment in mineral extraction in regional Victoria’, and ‘is responsible for ensuring such operations provide a net positive benefit to the state and regions.’
All of this suggests that a new gold mine in Central Victoria was not just likely to find support from the State Government: it would be a direct result of policy.
Gold might be beautiful, but there’s nothing beautiful about the extraction process. Environmental group Earthworks estimates that 20 tonnes of rock needs to be discarded in order to make a single gold ring. And according to National Geographic, gold mining generates more waste per ounce than any other metal.
Firstly, there’s the volume of waste material that must be removed per tonnage of gold-bearing ore (the strip ratio). Then the gold needs to be extracted from the ore or mineralised rock. As of 2016, more than 80 per cent of the world’s gold was extracted via cyanidation, a process that uses cyanide to leach the gold out of the rock. The ore is crushed into a slurry, then cyanide added to make the gold soluble. After the gold is separated out, the remaining cyanide is disposed of in various ways, the most environmentally friendly with bacteria that breaks it down in holding pools (used at Fosterville). What’s left of the slurry is called tailings, which must also be disposed of. This can cause erosion, and sediment lodging in rivers and streams. Regardless of how cutting-edge the technology, there’s always an environmental cost.
There’s also the problem of old goldmine sites: the use of mercury in the extraction process until the 1930s, plus the release of naturally occurring arsenic from abandoned tailings, have caused significant levels of contamination in Victoria, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
While the environmental impacts of mining are well documented, the emotional and psychological costs are less understood. The notion of solastalgia is widely accepted, but remains understudied on both Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations. The spiritual-cultural impact for Traditional Owners is generally not captured in risk assessments either.
Governments prefer to focus on economic benefits. And they are substantial: in 2015–16, Australia’s gold exports were valued at more than $16 billion. As of 2017, Australia was the second largest producer of gold in the world, with Victoria accounting for 3 per cent of our production. Australia has more gold reserves than any other country. Our society has been and continues to be built on the wealth of extraction.
Before COVID-19, the price of gold was rising steadily. It is likely to keep rising in the following recession, because gold usually rises in a market slump. The economic impact of the virus will leave both the State and the Federal Governments seeking to replenish their coffers, potentially at the expense of the environment. In March, a moratorium on onshore gas exploration was overturned in Victoria, while fracking and coal seam gas were permanently banned, and in April the Andrews Government followed the Morrison Government’s lead and exempted logging from federal environment laws for another decade.
However unlike coal or uranium, which at least have some functionality, most extracted gold doesn’t serve any real purpose. Only 10 per cent is used in industry, primarily as electronic connectors. The remaining 90 per cent is turned into jewellery or stored as investments. It just sits in vaults, in the same elemental state as it did underground. Rare enough to be prized, but not so rare as to diminish the hope of finding it, gold is only valuable because people have deemed it to be so.
If Kalamazoo wanted to mine our property, what rights do we have? Not many.
We might own the land, but we do not own what’s below ground. In 1852, Victoria’s first mining law was passed, asserting the Crown’s right to all gold discovered therein. Today the Crown by right of the State owns all minerals in Victoria. Now, as then, ownership of those minerals can be transferred by mining licence.
Under the Mineral Resources (Sustainable Development) Act 1990, we would need to consent to entry in order for a mine to proceed. But ‘consent’ is perhaps not the right word. If a landowner refuses consent, the matter can be taken to VCAT or the Supreme Court to decide compensation. Landowners are entitled to compensation for various losses and damages, but they are not entitled to deny access.
Rare enough to be prized, but not so rare as to diminish the hope of finding it, gold is only valuable because people have deemed it to be so.
Kalamazoo’s Eastern Exploration Manager Luke Mortimer tells me the company does not appeal against landowners who object to exploration on their property. ‘I don’t think it’s smart for a company to go where they’re not welcome.’
Mortimer gave the same assurance to the Chewton Bushlands—a unique, off-the-grid neighbourhood of 5–8 acre lots—at their association’s AGM last July. Spokesperson Kim Windsor confirms the agreement, adding, ‘We have not been able to get an agreement that adjacent public land would not be used to access private properties.’ In this instance, public land such as road reserves could provide access points for operations beneath private properties.
It’s worth mentioning that under the Act, a distinction is made between landowners of ‘affected’ land—land to which entry is required—and ‘non-affected’ land, land adjacent to a mine site. Both are entitled to compensation, but affected landowners are most often the recipients.
I ask Mortimer about neighbouring properties. What if the mine was, say, 400 metres away? In that instance, what could landowners like us expect? ‘We’d have to talk to all the people involved in that scenario,’ he tells me, ‘and work towards a negotiated settlement that would then be put to Government.’
It’s hard to know what to make of Kalamazoo’s gesture. At face value, it appears to be one of goodwill, but in practical terms, the law remains on their side.
Should production proceed, the best-case scenario we could hope for is a small underground mine. Publicly, Kalamazoo has stated it is not interested in pursuing an open-cut mine. When I ask why this is so, when the cost of underground mining is approximately three times more expensive, Mortimer tells me, ‘I don’t think the community wants an open-cut mine there. We’re realistic about this.’
Kalamazoo’s reasoning is partly because its exploration area covers large tracts of the Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park. While National Heritage Park regulations do not preclude mining, they do exclude the first 100 metres, as well as any registered heritage sites.
These restrictions do not apply to the Moonlight Flat Pine Plantation. Mortimer said Kalamazoo began drilling there, because the plantation’s owners were happy to sign a land access agreement. He said Kalamazoo is yet to receive permits for other parts of its exploration licences. ‘There’s gold everywhere. We’re still working out where we want to go.’
As much as I’d like to believe the drill sites aren’t that significant, I know there is nothing random about Kalamazoo’s choices. It makes sense to look where there is a known history of gold, to combine previous exploration data with technologies such as GPS, seismic surveying and 3D modelling to best predict what lies below—what, in the 1800s, was inaccessible.
When I think of our ramshackle abode, I know we could not easily replicate what we have on any payout we would be likely to receive.
I also know that, at this stage, there’s scant evidence to suggest that a mine will proceed. But if it does, there’s an added benefit to this location: the lack of residential property. Kalamazoo only has five homes to contend with in this valley. For them, that’s a small price to pay.
For us, the value of ‘home’ cannot be calculated in purely financial terms, yet this is largely what happens. When I think of our ramshackle abode, I know we could not easily replicate what we have on any payout we would be likely to receive. Nor do we want to.
After much deliberation, my partner and I decide to buy some shares in Kalamazoo, an act which compromises our beliefs, but gives us a critical sense of agency. It is an insurance policy of sorts, to offset the loss in value of our property should a mine go ahead. If it doesn’t, we stand to lose our investment, but retain our home. I don’t like that this is the best option we have—nor that for many people in our situation, this isn’t an option at all.
I’ve never bought shares before. Sometimes I watch the prices go up and feel a little thrill. Then I remember.
During isolation, waiting for the drill results, we tinker with home renovations. In our backyard, there’s a pile of crusher dust leftover from paving. Our son drives his yellow dump truck in and around the pile. Then we realise his toy is a replica mining truck and he’s reenacting a mine site.
Like us, our neighbours are doing DIY. One talks about re-roofing his house. ‘But what’s the point if I’m not going to be here to enjoy it?’ he says. ‘I don’t want to move, but I don’t want to live next door to a mine either.’ We are waiting out COVID-19, but we’re also waiting out Kalamazoo.
It could be a long wait if the drill results are positive or inconclusive. Kalamazoo’s exploratory licences are for five years. It takes approximately 7–10 years, Luke Mortimer tells me, from discovery to production. Then there’s the life cycle of the mine itself.
We try to go about our days with a sense of normalcy, to be patient in the face of change. We write, as we’ve always done. We watch our son learn to discern between the call of a kookaburra and a cockatoo.
And we wait.
At the end of April, Kalamazoo’s share price takes a sudden dive. The drilling results are out. The AFX report states that while the program generated high-grade gold intersections, ‘mineralisation in this area does not currently demonstrate sufficient widths or continuity to meet Kalamazoo’s stated target criteria…’ The company’s focus would now shift to other areas.
Our relief is sudden and joyous. I look from Nic’s smiling face to the valley outside and feel light knowing we can continue to build our life here.
I call our neighbour. ‘Let’s celebrate!’
‘I’m celebrating already,’ he says.
That night, over beers on the verandah, I recognise the burden we were all carrying from its absence. Our son, blissfully unaware, hoots and points at the kangaroos grazing in the orchard below. Nic and I discuss selling the Kalamazoo shares we bought. While we still own them, we are backing the potential loss of someone else’s home. This prospect appears to be over for us, but for others in Central Victoria the problems associated with gold mining are just beginning.