Australia's Ruby Rush

One hundred and fifty kilometres to the east of Alice Springs in Central Australia, is a remote and rugged area of outstanding natural beauty, Ruby Gap Nature Park. A few 4WD enthusiasts and the National Park Rangers are the only people who enjoy the solitude.

On March 8, 1886, the explorer, David Lindsay, was the first white man to see this magnificent country during a survey for the South Australian Government. While digging for water in the sandy bed of the Hale River, Lindsay found a profusion of beautiful red gems. These were identified as rubies and for a brief time the rush was on, but it was more a trickle than a rush.

At the northern end of Ruby Gap Nature Park is a narrow and rugged, but strikingly beautiful waterhole, where the Hale River has cut deep through the rock. Lindsay discovered this passage on his wedding anniversary and named it after his wife, Glen Annie Gorge .

In the mining days the Hale River was so remote that few Australians ventured to risk their lives to search for the rubies. Even today access to Ruby Gap involves a long rugged journey and there are still no facilities. On foot the journey would have been so arduous that it is a beyond the comprehension of modern travellers. Despite the lure of the rubies only the most daring men, or the most desperate, were prepared to accept the hardships imposed by lack of water and a climate that at times must have seemed deliberately malevolent.

For those hopeful fortune seekers, the hardships began long before they reached the Hale River. Most of them walked from the terminus of the Great Northern Railway at Hergott Springs (now called Marree), over 650 miles (1,050km) to the south, with shade temperatures sometimes approaching 120oF (50oC). As they walked along the western fringe of what is now the Simpson Desert, they pushed a heavy wheelbarrow ahead of them, loaded with all the stores and equipment they would need for an extended stay in the wilderness. Those who set out after 1890 had it easier. The railhead was moved to Oodnadatta on January 7, 1891, so their walk was shorter, only 400 miles (650km). Such a journey would be daunting along today's modern roads, but for those early travellers there were no roads. Their path was at times insubstantial sand dunes and at others hard, boot-ripping gibber. For the most part the trek was waterless.

The only problem the optimistic travellers didn't have to face was becoming lost. They followed the line of the Overland Telegraph as far as the Alice Springs Telegraph Station. For days on end they would trudge northwards following the single iron wire on the row of telegraph poles that disappeared beyond the horizon ahead and behind them, safe in the knowledge that they were on the right track.

However, this was a deceptive security. If they ran out of water they would perish before help could reach them.

At the Alice Springs Telegraph Station the miners turned right to follow the MacDonnell Ranges, heading east. Four or five days later they arrived at what later became Arltunga. In those days there was nothing except fresh air, the scenery and the start of the rougher section of the trek. It took the best part of yet another week to reach the Hale River. Later camels were used to haul the equipment and basic stores, but the journey from Oodnadatta still took four weeks or more.

The early rubies brought excellent prices in London, one hundred times more than gold, but soon buyers became wary and began to question the quality of the gems. On 5 May 1888, the Adelaide Observer carried a report by P G Dodd and Son., of 146 Leadenhall Street, London. They had commissioned a laboratory analysis by Cannon and Newton to determine the quality of the Australian Rubies. The report was published on 29 March 1888.

It stated in part: Reference to our report of January 13, wherein we stated opinions different and finding no effort on our part would influence the usual buyers and detractors without guarantee they are rubies. Analysis by Cannon and Newton results not encouraging. Percent alumina = 23.44 %.

So in our opinion, Australian Rubies fall between garnets and rubies. Good garnets realise approximately 5/- [five shillings] per pound. Lowest quality rubies (Siam) approximately one hundred and twenty times that price.

Despite their brilliant appearance, the report showed that the Hale River rubies contained only twenty-three percent crystallised alumina [aluminium oxide, Al2O3]. In comparison, top quality rubies contain between seventy to ninety percent of that material, but the Hale River rubies were not garnets as is often reported. Garnets have no aluminium oxide. In addition garnets are fusible in a flame, but rubies are not. At high temperature rubies turn green, regaining their original colour on cooling. This was another test the Hale River rubies passed. However, although the laboratory proved that the Hale River rubies were in fact rubies, they were no longer fetching the inflated prices they had before the analysis. They were worth no more than garnets.

For the miners they were not worth a brass razoo.

All was not lost however. In 1887 alluvial gold had been discovered at Arltunga, 35 miles (55km) closer to the Alice Springs Telegraph Station and the miners turned their attention and energies to looking for the precious metal. A new settlement, Stuart, sprang up near the Alice Springs Telegraph Station to become the depot for Arltunga. Arltunga itself became Central Australia's first town. As gold became increasingly difficult to find, Arltunga's importance declined, and in 1933, Stuart was officially renamed Alice Springs.

One miner who did not move to Arltunga was Fredrick Alfred Fox. His isolated grave is in the Hale River, near the area where the rubies were mined. It is at the top of a small knoll overlooking Glen Annie Gorge and marked by a substantial headstone in smooth river washed rock. The date of his death coincides with the end of the ruby boom, 25 May 1888. The headstone has been artistically engraved, with a hammer and punch, to cut the letters in an unusual version of Old English Script.

Confusion exists about the name of the man buried at Ruby Gap. One account gives his name as Thomas Phineas Fox, but Thomas Phineas Fox died at the Winnecke Depot in 1897, aged sixty-four. Genealogical records show that the man who is buried at Ruby Gap is Frederick Alfred Fox.

We know nothing of the life of Fredrick Alfred Fox, or how he died, but several different stories exist. One suggests he was ill and died naturally. Another is that he was speared to death by Aborigines because he was interfering with their women. A third is that he committed suicide. How or why is not known.

If he did commit suicide, why did he choose to end his life while surrounded by such scenic splendour? What were his final despairing thoughts? Who were his friends who thought so much of this man that they searched for the slab of rock to make a headstone and then, painstakingly and delicately, chipped away with crude miner's tools to leave this haunting memory of him for us to find and wonder about?

The words on the headstone are


to the memory of

F. A. Fox

died May 25, 1888

aged 55 years


© Jim Ditchfield 1998

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