|"They were only shallow workings-just gouger holes".|
Central Australian gold locality about 90 kilometres north east of Alice Springs in the eastern MacDonnell Ranges and discovered in 1887 as a direct consequence of the failed Ruby Rush. At the time probably Australia's remotest and toughest gold find and if ever a place earned the title of 'Strugglefield' Arltunga would be it. Drought ridden with fickle ground water, sparse but sometimes rich gold and bank breaking cartage costs from Oodnadatta. Nevertheless the field can claim to be Central Australia's first, albeit only occasionally payable gold find.
The South Australian Government Geologist, H. Y. L. Brown inspected the near deserted field in mid 1890 and found less than thirty men struggling to make rations. lack of water, Inefficient machinery and methods so primitive that the diggers sluiced their paydirt, when they could, through troughs of hollowed logs. The practical and honest Brown regretfully reported no future for Arltunga unless the water and machinery problems could be solved.
Mining and prospecting continued in a desultory fashion until plans were announced in late 1896 to install machinery and equipment recommended years before by Brown. The Government promise of efficient plant to support the field lead to a minor rush in 1897, (a significant year that) abandoned claims and mines were re examined and new ground prospected. The following year Henry Luce pegged the richest gold in the MacDonnell Ranges, the White Range Gold Mine.
After an epic haulage from Oodnadatta the partially erected battery and steam engine had to be dismantled and relocated when a well ran dry, the battery operated in fits and starts until 1902 when a major breakdown stopped operations for six months, but late in the year the refurbished plant was recovering over 400 ounces of gold per month and the Winnecke field, 40 kilometres to the north west was discovered.
This truly obscure gold field became the bait in Central Australia's first gold scam, although most of the fraud took place in Adelaide, the questionable assays of the Paddy's Goose claim were meant to temp English investors to finance a railway to Alice Springs and beyond. Wild speculation drove ten pound shares to over a hundred pounds in a matter of days, until the uncompromising Brown gently exposed the fraud before it became established.
Despite this setback to the areas reputation there were several hundred men fossicking through the Arltunga, Winnecke and White Range goldfields by 1904. Yet the following year less than a hundred remained, thereafter Arltunga and the surrounding fields steadily declined, the Winnecke battery closed in 1913, then Arltunga in 1916, by the time Coote visited the field with Fred Colson in mid October 1930 he found just three men, Trooper Johnston and the enterprising Shagrew and his mate.
Coote's gold fever heated up at Arltunga, Shagrew had purchased the Government Battery tailings dumps for fifty pounds and by using a cyaniding process had recovered 700 pounds worth of gold. From this Coote calculated "an exceedingly rich return" of nearly three ounces to the ton for ore put through the battery. He concluded the surrounding potholes representative of Arltunga, could not have supplied the ore and turns his attention to the nearby White Range-"one of the biggest gold propositions in the world".
Coote noted the widespread evidence of small scale mining at Arltunga and repeats the story of the police Sergeant, who made a fortune by paying Aboriginal women to fossick and pan for him. In return for gold by the pickle jarful, he gave "tobacco, gaudy cloth and cheap beads", however in Coote's version the shady Sergeant Scott sounds like Alice Springs recently retired and much loved Sergeant Stott. He too came to a tragic end shortly after retiring from the Northern Territory Police Force, Coote had no sense of consequence when naming names.
Prior to Murray Hubbard's expose of Lasseter's whereabouts in 1897, many have wondered if Lasseter had passed through the Arltunga goldfields on his way west and may have obtained his rich specimens there, that speculation is now academic but it is possible that some of the outrageous press regarding spectacular finds in Central Australia, especially the Paddy's Goose fiasco at Winnecke and White Range had come to Lasseter's attention. Idriess was at least aware of Arltunga's existence, although he misses the lapse of ten years in Lasseter's story between the Ruby Rush of 1887 and the minor gold rush of 1897, but then Idriess and facts had a comfortable relationship.
And to bring Coote back to earth, there were probably less than 15000 tons of ore crushed from the three fields and about as many ounces of gold recovered, although the total gold produced to the time of Coote's arrival may have been a couple of thousand ounces more, bearing in mind Coote's police Sergeant, not all gold is reported and recorded, in any event Arltunga was a very minor gold field and the richest mining took place in the Adelaide Stock Exchange.
Arltunga was involved in two mining 'frauds' within ten years, first the worlds finest rubies that became magnificent garnets in 1887 and the minor gold rush and Paddy's Goose of 1897…because of the remarkable affinities with Lasseter's story and that novel by Idriess, one wonders if Arltunga played perhaps an inferential role in a third fraud ??.
© R.Ross. 1999-2006
Coote E.H. Hell's Airport. Chap.33.