Poet T. S. Eliot, his mind fixed on human salvation whilst in the midst of misery wrought by WWII, penned:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

 ‘Little Gidding’ from Four Quartets, 1943

For me, however, untroubled by the enormity of war’s horror and with a little less grandiose vision, Eliot’s words neatly encapsulate a weekend visit to a Queensland town made famous, well locally at least, as ‘the town that saved Queensland’—so called because of a gold discovery in 1867. A rush that ensued created a town that began life as Nashville, later becoming Gympie after the local Gubbi Gubbi term for the ‘stinging tree’ Dendrocnide moroides, well known in the district’s rainforests. The term ‘stinging’ does not do its appellation justice – take it from the author, the sting is not that of a ‘stinging nettle’, but a biological hell delivered by incredibly irritatingly itch-inducing prickles with an enduring reminder that will last for months.

I grew up in Queensland’s Maryborough (not Victoria’s) on a high bank of the Mary River, a wise choice by a maternal grandfather given the regular flood the town endures. Gympie lies upstream on the Mary, roughly 100 km to the south. Both Gympie and Maryborough are linked by their nascent history thanks to the rich gold deposits of the former – Gympie had the goods, and Maryborough had the means to get it to the world – namely a port and later heavy engineering factories to make the gear to bring the ore from great depths, then crush it and extract the gold by mercury amalgamation – more of this later.

Gympie was always a place on the Bruce Highway that you drove through on the way to Brisbane. After studying geology a while ago when plate tectonic theory had only been around for a decade or so, I knew quite a bit about the Cretaceous geology of the Maryborough Basin with its coal seams, impressive sedimentary strata and abundant bivalve fossils but nothing of the hard rock gold geology of Gympie an hour down the road.

In November of 2022 having discussed gold at Gympie with a retired gold geologist, a field trip was planned to explore the district and find out more of the town’s geology and mining history. What a revelatory weekend with the first penny drop being that the town is literally built on not one but hundreds of old gold mines and accompanying shafts, adits and workings. While the town has mostly moved on from the historic mining days, which ended nearly a century ago, the past catches up on occasion, and a reminder is broadcast to the town when, yet another backyard collapses into an abandoned mineshaft.

Queensland Government Image


On that 2022 visit to Gympie, however, a major epiphany occurred on my tour of the Gympie Gold Mining and Historical Museum. On viewing the photo below, the sentence: ‘It is worth noting that for every kg of gold recovered, there was a loss of 1 kg into the environment’, leapt out of the display. Really, was this correct? There were over a hundred tons of gold won at Gympie in its hey-day.

Mercury amalgamation


What followed was a rapid judicious checking of facts regarding mercury loss and scanning of the scientific literature for the concern of what the phrase ‘into the environment’ implied. Mercury loss was found to be broadly correct and the literature for the latter, whilst better known in other localities globally, was pretty much non-existent for Gympie other than a single paper from 2003 with errors and no follow-up.

The intrigue of the fate of that mercury continues, and now, eighteen months later, I am about to embark on research towards a PhD on the topic of Gympie’s gold and mercury’s fate. My fate led me early on to the Mercury Australia website, where I became aware of the driving force behind the group, Larissa Schneider, who was receptive to what I was relaying about Gympie. Larissa has been a constant stalwart and encouraging figure ever since first inviting me to make a presentation to the Mercury Australia Symposium last year and then planting the seeds of turning my informal research into a PhD study. It is at this juncture I have Larissa as principal supervisor, with Simon Haberle and Susan Lawrence in co-supervisory roles.

So, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot: Gympie and its gold is my ‘know the place for the first time’ moment. Perhaps anybody accessing the wealth of information on the Mercury Australia website might be encouraged, as I was, that an old abandoned mine site could be worth following up. Making contact with the Mercury Australia could be a highly rewarding, potentially life-changing positive event. You never know what it leads to.


Below is another photo of Gympie


Scottish Gympie the most productive mine, discharged tailings into a dam built across a local gully. Flow is to the left, west to the Mary River.

Tailings in the Mary River, 1902


Site today. Mercury retort building is the prominent structure in centre view, now Queensland Heritage listed.


Mary River’s great flood of 1893, largest recorded in a history of regular flooding.


Gold smelting paraphernalia, Gympie Mining Museum


More gold smelting paraphernalia, Gympie Mining Museum


Geologists and historians pouring over historical and modern gold mining displays.

Left to right, Matt Houston (geologist); John Ferguson (co-author of ‘The Gympie Goldfield 1867 – 2008’); Allan Blackman (Gympie mining historian).


By Gavin Miller