Gold Rush Trailblazers: Women Prospectors Ignite Gold Fever in Australia’s Outback

The popular series inspired the 49-year-old to hire a detector when she was on a weekend camping trip to Maryborough, a small town north of Ballarat in the heart of Victoria’s goldfields.

Jen Walsh and (right) the 52 grams of gold she dug up last month. (Facebook: Chicks with Picks)

Stepping a few metres off a bush track, Walsh found “the tiniest speck of gold”.

“It was an adrenaline rush beyond anything I had ever felt,” Walsh said.

“It really grabbed hold of me in a way that they speak of gold fever.”

That first hint of success would go on to change Walsh’s life in a dramatic way.

She quit her job as a learning support teacher at a Melbourne primary school and made the move to Maryborough to become a full-time gold prospector.

“My mental health in Melbourne wasn’t good at all, and when I moved to Maryborough I did not know a single person, so it was really scary,” she said of the move five years ago.

Trying to make her way as a newbie in the world of prospecting also threw up many steep learning curves, Walsh admitted.

“At first, I was very overwhelmed, even just by the language,” she said.

“People were talking about ground noise and reefs and things.

“And I was thinking, ‘The ground doesn’t make noise, what are they talking about?’

“It felt as if they were speaking a whole new language and I was lost in the first sentence.”

Jen Walsh founded the group Chicks With Picks to support other female prospectors. (Facebook: Chicks with Picks)

Walsh said she also initially felt a little intimidated in the male-dominated industry.

“Everywhere you looked, it was really just the men out there,” she said.

Walsh said she could remember asking for advice in the beginning about likely locations to prospect for gold.

“They would send you somewhere that was full of rubbish. They all hid and they didn’t tell you their spots, and everything was hush-hush.

“You felt really like it was a man’s world and there was always that slight intimidation where you couldn’t cross their ground.”

While it was a tough hurdle to overcome, Walsh said she gradually found acceptance within the local prospecting community and a special kind of peace that came with being surrounded by nature in the Aussie bush.

“I feel like I’ve been nurtured by Mother Nature and what’s around me,” Walsh said.

“Mentally, it’s just been so empowering to walk out into the bush and be able to look somewhere and then go – ‘Yeah, I’m gonna try here.’ It’s still exhilarating and it’s a reward every time.”

While Walsh is yet to hit the jackpot by finding any large nuggets – her biggest find so far weighs 23 grams – she has found “ounces upon ounces of smaller gold”.

With the price of gold at record highs, even small pieces of gold can add up to fetch good prices.

The gold Walsh finds is now her main source of income.

Last month, she dug up 52 grams of gold, which she sold for $5000.

But by far the biggest treasure found was the local friends and connections she had made in the gold-hunting community, Walsh said.

Inspired by her difficulties finding her feet, Walsh set up a group three years ago to help support female prospectors – Chicks With Picks.

The group holds regular gold prospecting events and its Facebook page now has almost 6000 followers.

Men and women regularly come together to take part in prospecting events run by Jen Walsh’s Chicks with Picks group. (Facebook: Chicks With Picks)

“It’s not all about the gold, it’s about the friendships as well,” Walsh said.

“We have so many people coming along from all different walks of life. It’s a beautiful bond we all share.

“I often call it my golden family because it really does feel like that – and it’s growing more than I ever expected.”

‘He is given respect. I have to earn it’

Tyler Mahoney is a 26-year-old, fourth-generation miner who spends her time chasing gold seams in the Western Australian outback at Kalgoorlie.

“I started going out prospecting with my parents as soon as I could walk,” Mahoney said.

“I remember we used to play this game with Mum and Dad where we would get to decide where they would go prospecting.

“We would walk through the bush and put big Xs in the ground where we thought gold was.

“One day, Mum found a bit of gold where I told her to go and I just thought I was the coolest kid on the entire planet.”

Tyler Mahoney is a fourth generation gold prospector in Western Australia. (Facebook: Tyler Mahoney)

The biggest nugget Mahoney has found so far weighs five ounces.

However, an ironstone load she unearthed a few years ago has proved to be her most lucrative discovery.

“An ironstone load is basically primary gold. It’s where the gold forms, in ironstone, and then nuggets break away from that,” she said.

“The ironstone load that I found up in the desert had about $100,000 worth of gold finds in it – so that was really exciting.”

But Mahoney, who also stars in the Discovery Channel’s reality TV show Gold Rush, cautioned it was not an easy feat to make a living out of being a full-time prospector these days.

“If I didn’t have my family and I didn’t come from generational prospectors, there’s no way I could be a full-time gold prospector and survive off it,” Mahoney said.

Tyler Mahoney says things are improving for female miners but there are still challenges that come with working in a male-dominated industry. (Instagram: Tyler Mahoney)

Mahoney said a combination of factors had come into play to make it harder than ever to find gold.

“The mining companies have all of the power, they have all of the good ground. It’s borderline impossible to get good ground these days.

“Also, the gold rush was over 150 years ago, and then we had a second gold rush when metal detectors were introduced.

“So the surface gold is becoming really hard to find, you definitely need machinery.

“If you speak to my parents, being a full-time gold prospector 20 years ago was a great job.

“It was super chill, and relatively easy to find gold – these days, it’s hard work.”

The biggest nugget Tyler Mahoney has found weighs five ounces. (Instagram: Tyler Mahoney)

Mahoney, who wrote the book Gold Digger: Chasing the Motherlode in a Man’s World, said pursuing a career in the male-dominated mining industry as a woman also came with its challenges, despite more females entering the field.

The casual sexism rife in mining was something Mahoney said she was aware of from a young age.

“I saw how my mum was being treated compared to my dad,” Mahoney said.

“Mum is actually a better prospector than Dad, but everyone assumes Dad’s got the knowledge and everyone would come to Dad for things.

“I remember thinking they don’t respect Mum as much as they respect Dad.

“And then I saw it as well.

“I could walk into a room with my brother, I’m older than him and have more experience, but he is automatically given respect – whereas I always have to earn that respect.”

However, Mahoney said things were slowly changing for the better.

‘We just have to keep fighting and just keep telling the women that we deserve to be there and keep taking up space,” she said.

“Mining is full of so many opportunities. So I really encourage any woman that is interested to get into it.”


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