There’s gold in them thar hills – there really is! On riverbanks across New Zealand it’s just waiting to be picked up. All you have to know is where to look and how to pan it.

New Zealand Gold History

The first reports of New Zealand gold came in the 1830s when settlers near the entrance of Coromandel Harbour discovered the metal on Beesons Island. This discovery, though, attracted little interest and it was not until a larger discovery at Collingwood-Takaka in 1856, and then the Otago strike in 1861, that New Zealand truly found its place on the 19th Century gold mining map.

Although some New Zealand gold was located in hard rock and required significant processing, much of it, particularly in the South Island, was found in river gravel. This alluvial, or placer, gold was what individual gold miners flocked to the country for. All a man needed for a chance at fairytale wealth was a pick, a shovel and a gold pan.

There’s Still Some Left

Though it is generally accepted that the great deposits of placer gold were exhausted during the 1860s and 1870s there is still gold to be found in New Zealand rivers today. Usually, it occurs only in quantities sufficient to add a little excitement to a day’s recreational prospecting. But with gold now around US$900 per ounce you never know how much of the mortgage you might be able to take home if you stumble across some isolated and untapped stretch of river!

How to Pan for Gold

Panning for gold is a simple process, but one that takes a little practice to master. It relies on the principle of specific gravity – the density of a substance relative to the density of water. The higher the specific gravity of a substance, the greater its propensity to sink to the bottom of a container of water. As gold has a very high specific gravity, this principle can be used to separate it from the material within which it is found.

You’ll need:

• A gold pan – a shallow bowl with sloping sides purpose-made for the task. These bowls were traditionally metal, about 30cms across. Today, lighter, plastic versions have become popular.

• A water source – generally this will be the river you’ve decided to prospect.

• Gold-bearing (hopefully!) riverbed material.

The Process:

• Find a stretch of river that is at least 25cms deep and where the water runs fast enough to wash debris from you pan.

• Fill your pan ¾ full of river gravel and hold it just below the surface of the water. Your aim is to wash away the mud, clay, gravel, sand etc. but retain whatever gold is mixed with this material.

• Shake the pan from side to side – this will raise any large rocks to the surface where they may be picked out with your fingers and thrown away (make sure they aren’t nuggets of gold!).

• After shaking, progress to gentle circular movement so that the material in your pan moves in a circular motion. As the material moves it is lifted from the base of the pan and is carried away by the flowing water. The gold, being far heavier, works its way to the bottom of the pan.

• Once the material in your pan has been reduced to lighter gravel and sand, tip the pan away from you slightly and continue your circular swirling to move this finer material out over the edge of the pan.

• A slight forward tossing motion may be added at this stage, but take care – you don’t want to wash away gold along with the debris.

• When you have only a couple of handfuls of material left in your pan, lift it out of the river. Keeping about 2cms of water in the pan, continue washing until you have removed all remaining debris. Now, if you’re lucky, the only thing left in your pan will be…gold!

Note: towards the end of the washing process you may notice that your pan contains material that looks like black sand. This is generally made up of magnetite – a metallic mineral which, like gold, has a high specific gravity. This can be very difficult to separate from fine gold, but as it very often accompanies gold it is a good indication that you’re panning in the right place.

Where to Pan

So, now you know how to pan, what you need to know next is where to do it.

In New Zealand there are plenty of sites in both the north and south islands that offer fertile ground for the recreational gold prospector. The west coast of the South Island, though, provides the most consistent rewards. Historically, the area between Queenstown and Dunedin has seen the richest strikes – the Shotover River was once called “the richest river in the world”.

Wherever you choose to pan, look for features that might indicate gold-bearing material. Gravel banks on the inside bend of a river or on the downstream side of a bluff or rock outcrop are prime targets as they tend to trap gold dust as it is transported by the river.

Fossicking Areas and Permits

Generally, a mining permit from Crown Minerals, Ministry of Economic Development is required for panning or gold mining. However, certain areas in the South Island have been designated as “gold fossicking” areas where you can engage in recreational gold mining without a permit. A list of these areas can be found at:

Good Luck!

Now you know the basics of amateur gold prospecting. Some time spent in local libraries or on gold mining websites will help you pick a site that might yield riches. After that, it’s a matter of getting out and panning along your chosen river or creek until you discover that one spot everyone else has missed.

But even if you don’t find a fortune, it’s still a rewarding experience. You spend the day enjoying the outdoors, and finding even a little gold in the bottom of your pan is great feeling.

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