Read an extract of The Lucky Country by Eamon Evans

What was the happy accident that created wi-fi? What was the well-placed piece of coral that saved the Endeavour from sinking. Or what was the stroke of luck that made Hugh Jackman Wolverine?

From the Gold Rush to Stephen Bradbury, Australia’s history is full of times when lady luck made a spectacular appearance. In The Lucky Country EAMON EVANS delivers tales of the Australians who were almost too lucky to be believed.

Read on for an extract.



Aussies who found hidden treasure

‘We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don’t like?’
Jean Cocteau, French poet

True wealth, said the Buddha, lies in contentment – in a life filled with peace, health and love.

There may or may not be some truth in this theory but it’s clearly in need of some work. True wealth, you see, can also lie on the beach. Just ask Leon and Loralee Wright.

Back in 2006, you see, these middle-aged South Australians were walking along a remote beach not far from Streaky Bay when they came across a grey and slightly odd-looking tree stump. On closer inspection, however, it proved to be something else. Something waxy and misshapen and weirdly light for its size. Something that was strange, gross and stinky.

Thinking that it might well be some kind of whale cyst, Leon suggested that they take it home. Agreeing that it might well be some kind of whale cyst, Loralee very naturally refused. Being the wife, Loralee won the argument, and the couple continued on their walk without it.

They remained curious, however. After getting home from their holiday, and eventually emailed a marine ecologist to find out what it was. He told them that they may well have found a big chunk of ambergris. He suggested that they hightail it back to the beach. A kind of hard, smelly mucous that sperm whales spew up. Ambergris may not look or sound all that great. But in the right hands it can apparently produce a great smell. Pretty much the key ingredient in pricey perfumes, just a tiny little slice of what’s essentially whale vomit can bring in about $300,000.

‘Lucky for us, the high tide didn’t pick it up and the wind carry it back to sea,’ said Leon of the 14-kilogram grey lump that was still sitting right where they’d seen it. ‘And, like, when we saw it – because you could see [it] very way off – yeah, we even got more excited. We were sort of dancing and clapping and cheering on the beach like we were very excited.’

But that’s enough talk about vomit and mucous. Let’s talk about toilets instead. Or more specifically, let’s talk about a toilet at Channel 9 studios in Melbourne; a toilet that may or may not be familiar to people who like to buy or sell coke. I cast no aspersions, of course. I merely note that it was also a toilet that happened to have $100,000 worth of hidden in a sanitary bin and down the pipes. A small fortune that precisely nobody laid claim to on 9 May 2014. The day it was discovered by a cleaner.

‘There was too much to count, I thought someone was playing a prank on me,’ said Chamindu Amarsinghe. ‘But when I touched the notes – all yellow and green – I realised it was real money.’ It was also his money, the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court later decided. On the grounds that the cleaner and part-time IT student had immediately reported the find to police. ‘There’s no reason why such honesty should go unrewarded.’

A more traditional way to strike gold is to, well, strike gold. To poke about for a nugget with a spade, pick or pan. According to writer Christina Sexton, worldwide, it’s said that ‘more gold was discovered between 1848 and the end of the 19th century than in the previous 3000 years’ – and it goes without saying that a lot of it came from down under. A remarkable stroke of good luck for a sparsely populated little colony that was still not too much more than a prison, the 1850s gold rush did not just put Australians on a path to prosperity, it dragged us all the way down the road. With 2500 tonnes flowing from Victoria alone, Australia’s rivers of gold led to new roads and railways, new shops and factories, new telegraph lines and industrialised farms. Minor ports became major cities. Random fields became quaint little towns. Migrants came here from all over the world, quadrupling the population in less than two decades.

But the rivers of gold did not always run very evenly. For every miner who managed to ‘strike it lucky’, there were many more who toiled away in the sun with no result whatsoever – unless you count back pain and skin cancer and crippling debt, a touch of scurvy and a case of black lung. As an Italian migrant of the time observed, ‘Ballarat was a Nugety [sic] Eldorado for the few [and] a ruinous field of hard labour for many.’

John Deason and Richard Oates are two good examples. By 1869, they had dug for eight years in the dirt and the rocks without finding anything except rocks and dirt. ‘Disheartened and disillusioned’ but determined to continue, the two Cornishmen decided to head further south. After a few days on a wagon, they decided to try their luck in Moliagul, a former boom town that had been ‘energetically and profitably worked’ for some years. Most miners had thought it ‘played out’ and moved on. Today, it’s just a handful of farms.

But, wouldn’t you know it, they found a nugget in no time at all. A nugget lying underneath just three centimetres of soil in a ‘well established (digging) area’ just 2 kilometres out of town. And when I say a nugget, I of course mean the nugget. The ‘Welcome Stranger’, AKA the biggest one ever found. A 97-kilogram chunk of gold that actually had to be broken up before being valued, because it was far too big to ever fit on the scales.

How did Deason and Oates instantly find what so many had missed? Well, in truth, it is hard to be sure. But the story goes that the Stranger was buried just on the edge of a busy wagon trail, tucked away amid the roots of a tree. A public place, of sort, that no one would ever choose to dig, unless they wanted to get into an argument with wagoners about twelve times a day. Legend has it that Deason only decided to dig there because of a lucky accident: his wagon wheels had slightly slipped off the track and in the process exposed a slight gleam.

Goldmining today does not give us stories like this. Dame Fortune barely seems to feature at all. It’s a much more specialised and scientific enterprise involving soulless corporations and more soulless people – plus cranes and scoops and trucks and haulers, and armies of geologists who actually know what they’re doing. William Howitt may have been right 150 years ago when he said mining was ‘a lottery, with far more blanks than prizes’, but in this day and age you’re more or less guaranteed to strike it rich … so long as you are already so rich you don’t actually need to.

The Hilliers, however, were quite far from rich. In fact, they were really quite poor. Travelling around Australia in a battered old van, this family of six relied on the father, Kevin, to find the occasional odd job as a handyman. But after sustaining a nasty back injury in 1980, Kevin was no longer able to do manual labour, or even sit for long in a car. The deeply religious family was forced to set up base in Bridgewater, an old Victorian gold town, and pray that their luck would soon change.

‘We had no worker’s compensation at that time, no money and no income,’ Kevin’s wife Bep recalls. ‘I was cleaning toilets in the caravan park so that we could stay there for free. People who were leaving the next day would come to me with food, potatoes, tomatoes, meat, and say can you use this? They could not know how welcome that was!’

Rather less welcome was a local doctor’s advice that the still recovering Kev take a walk every day. But he dutifully obeyed because nothing is more important than health. And took a metal detector along because wealth is good too. Armed with this equipment, the invalid dared to dream, and I really do mean that, quite literally. On 9 September 1980, Hillier had a dream that he would soon find a nugget. A long, thin nugget that pointed up at the sky, then thickened out, not unlike a palm with the index finger raised.

Ten days later, he found it.

‘I had my headphones on, but I heard something, and it took me a while before I realised it was Kevin screaming for me: “Darling! Darling!”’ said Bep.

I thought ‘Oh no, something’s happened,’ and I went to look for him. He was on the ground, crying. I’ve never seen him like that before. He had a big hole in front of him, about 14 inches wide, and you could just see a bit of gold. And he said ‘Darling, we’re filthy rich,’ and I’m praying, I’m praying to God!

Valued at roughly $5 million, and now on display in a Las Vegas casino, that 27-kilogram lump is one of the world’s largest nuggets. The Hilliers called it ‘The Hand of Faith’.

Another good name for buried treasure is the ‘Black Star of Queensland’. It certainly beats ‘crappy doorstop’. But when twelve-year-old Roy Spencer went for a walk in the remote, dusty hills around Anakie back in 1938 and came home with what looked like ‘a great lump of coal,’ his gem-mining father, Harry, saw nothing more valuable than a largish black crystal. A geological oddity that was not valuable enough to be worth cutting down. But a geological oddity that, on balance, was probably worth keeping, because the family needed a doorstop.

It remained a doorstop for the next nine long years. Nine hot, punishing and not remotely prosperous years, in which Harry Spencer tried to find gems in this remote stretch of Queensland. But apparently didn’t try too hard to find out more about them. In 1947, however, the cavalry arrived in the form of an unusually enterprising jewellery merchant from Los Angeles. Having taken it upon himself to cross the Pacific on the off-chance he could find stuff to sell, Harry Kazanjian alerted the Spencer family to an important fact: sapphires can actually come in all sorts of colours. They aren’t just red (i.e. rubies) or clear. Hearing this, Spencer asked his wife to fetch the family doorstop. And discovered that the family had struck it rich.

Currently valued at around $100 million, the 733-carat Black Star of Queensland is the largest black sapphire that has ever been found. Famously worn by the singer, Cher, during a (not great) skit on her (even worse) TV show. It can now be seen at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, in a star-shaped pendant encrusted with diamonds.

Good things, it seems, can sometimes happen to good people.

Though for bad people, the same rule applies. For a slightly less heart-warming tale of gemstone discovery, you need look no further than Kerry Packer. ‘Extraordinarily evil’ and ‘morally corrupt’, according to one former colleague and fan, this brothel-owning, big-game-hunting media mogul inherited a $100 million media empire from his just-as-vile dad in 1974. That empire would probably have been worth $10 billion by the time he died, if he’d just sold up straight away, bought an S&P share portfolio and spent the next thirty years on the beach. But he decided to work hard, day and night, at being a tycoon instead, and ended up with a little over $6 billion.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Take a moment to sigh. Then sigh again, because things are about to get worse.

Even that figure owed a bit to good luck. The first came in the form of the Hawke government’s decision to deregulate the television industry. A decision that financial analysts described as ‘a one-billion-dollar gift entirely free of tax’.

The second came in the form of Alan Bond: a ludicrously overconfident businessman who bought Packer’s Channel 9 at a ‘crazy boom prize’. ‘You only get one Alan Bond in your lifetime and I’ve had mine,’ Packer said, after receiving more than $1 billion in exchange for his network … and buying it back for a quarter of that price after Bond promptly went bankrupt.

With windfalls like this, Packer wasn’t just able to buy more yachts and jets and a penthouse for his mistress. He was also able to buy a place to breed horses for polo. Featuring a sprawling mansion, several pools, a go-cart track, a cinema and a golf course, Packer’s 30,000-hectare stud farm was already quite a nice place back in 1998. But it became even nicer the following year, when sapphires were found buried beneath it. Ranging in colour from red to pink, and still being dug up to this day, the total find was valued at tens of millions.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Take a moment to sigh. Then sigh again, because things are about to get worse.

For all Kerry Packer’s many faults – which include trying to break the worldwide sports boycott on Apartheid South Africa and threatening employees with a gun – he never actually called for Australia’s Indigenous peoples to be sterilised, so they could ‘breed themselves out’. That, of course, was Australian iron ore magnate Lang Hancock. Staunchly opposed to taxes and social welfare, since ‘the best way to help the poor is not to become one of them’. That crazy right-winger was also in favour of using nuclear weapons to make mining easier. Though he didn’t mind using people when it came to mining asbestos. As Larry Graham, MP for Pilbara, pointed out in 2002, ‘Half a century after it was widely known that working with blue asbestos caused serious, life-threatening and terminal diseases, the Hancock family still had employees working in the mine. It took a specific Act of this Parliament to cease those operations.’

But it was iron ore, of course, that made this crazy man crazy-rich – and continues to enrich his equally likeable daughter. He famously found the world’s largest deposit of the stuff in a remote, barren stretch of the remote, barren Pilbara. A lonely, desolate patch of desert about 1200 kilometres north of Perth. About 1400 kilometres south-west of Darwin and far, far away from anything resembling a town or a road.

How did he find it? The answer is luck. Or luck plus a pinch of bad weather.

In November 1952, Hancock was piloting a small plane from his asbestos mines in the north all the way down to Perth, when a storm forced him to detour through a gorge. ‘Flying low, I followed the gorge,’ he remembered. ‘I noticed the walls. They were made of iron ore, but I figured it had to be poor grade. At the time, they said Australia didn’t have any grade iron ore … (but) I followed the iron ore in the walls for 70 miles.’

What a wonderful story for people named Lang. Let’s hope that hell has iron ore.

This is an edited extract from The Lucky Country by Eamon Evans



Eamon Evans authorEamon Evans is a Melbourne-based author who has spent all his working life writing for the online and print media. He has written many books and he has also been an in-house writer. Working at Big Pond Sport, SBS, ArtsHub, and the Weekly Book Newsletter. As well as the electronic bulletin of the International Federation of Arts Council and Culture Agencies.

Visit Eamon Evans’ website

Mount Buggery to Nowhere Else by Eamon Evans 

Author: Eamon Evans

Category: Lifestyle, Sport & leisure

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Affirm Press

ISBN: 9781922848437

RRP: $32.99

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