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Gold rush fever strikes Switzerland

Competitors say it's all down to technique Keystone

Naturally occurring gold may be in short supply in Switzerland, but this did not stop hundreds of the world’s top prospectors from descending on the alpine nation.

This content was published on August 16, 2003 - 13:55

The occasion was the World Goldpanning Championships, which were held for the first time in Switzerland.

When it comes to Switzerland’s gold reserves, it's Zurich’s banks that come to mind rather than the modest town of Willisau, where the week-long competition took place.

But this failed to dull the spirits of the colourful amateur prospectors who travelled from all corners of the globe to pan for gold.

“Gold panning is an art we keep alive,” said Australia’s Fred Olsson, proudly wearing a broad-brimmed hat topped with a toy koala bear. At the push of a button the furry creature played “Waltzing Matilda”.

“We want to introduce it to the youth. It’s an old skill – like riding a bicycle. Once you know how, you never forget. If you can wash dishes, you can wash gold.”

Panning pool

With country music blaring in the background, Olsson and his wife entered a roped-off area half the size of a football field, where they took their place at a manmade “panning pool”.

The goal was to find the gold flakes that judges hid in the sand and gravel as quickly as possible.

Killing time before his first heat, South Africa’s Wayne Ridell was working on his technique in a practice pool - and letting slip a few trade secrets.

“You have to remove all the larger particles of gravel and sand, and keep shaking so the gold will sink to the bottom of the pan,” he revealed.

“It means continuous agitation and rotation to remove all the top soil and at the end - voilà - you’ve struck gold!”

Going for gold

Switzerland’s Marlies Lüdi, the defending European women’s champion, added that “different types of pans require different techniques”. This year she sifted for gold using a wooden pan - a birthday present from her husband.

Lüdi, Riddel and Olsson all agreed, though, that the friendships revived each year at the championships were more important than winning.

This year the event attracted 600 competitors, and Kauko Launonen, president of the World Goldpanning Association, admitted “it’s like trying to organise the Olympics”.

The popularity of the event even left its Swiss hosts baffled. “It’s just crazy to have 600 gold prospectors here in Willisau,” said a beaming Wendelin Hodel, president of the organising committee.

Napf region

Even though the association specifies that the championships must take place in a region known for its “gold history”, none of the events took place in the creeks or riverbeds of the nearby Napf region.

That is where people have been finding gold flakes for centuries, and where passionate prospectors like Lüdi are usually found when they are not competing.

For them, the natural surroundings are more important than the monetary value of any gold flakes they may drudge up.

“You’re lucky if you can find more than one gram at a time,” said Lüdi, who has been panning for 13 years.

“I’ve been looking for gold for 45 years,” added Olsson. “Sometimes you find some, sometimes you don’t.”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Willisau

Gold

The World Goldpanning Championships ran from August 12-17.
About 600 competitors from more than 20 nations took part.
The Swiss Goldprospectors Association counts 400 active members.
Willisau, where the event took place, is located in the Napf region, where gold was first found by the Celts.
“Napf gold” occurs as flakes, and is characterised by a porous surface and a brilliant yellow colour.

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