Natural History: The Himalayas – Where the Gold Flows!

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Ok, so the title of this article is a bit misleading! Gold doesn’t actually visibly flow in rivers through the Himalayas. But you can collect it if you look carefully and this is exactly what I went to find this summer in Nepal.

Dhan Majhi digging by hand

As a Geologist I have a fascination with rocks, minerals, sediments, fossils and of course precious materials, and I have always wanted to go into the wilderness to find my own, even if it’s just to have a small sample to keep in my collection. This summer I headed to Nepal to explore stories I had heard about locals who pan for gold in the rivers.

Gold camp

I landed in Kathmandu towards the end of the monsoon season when the rains make their way up from the Indian plains and stop at the Himalayas, dumping all their water on the mountains. This abundance of water makes Nepal the second biggest water resource country in the world (after Brazil). The rains fill the rivers and there are many landslides in the remote areas which block villages from the roads for weeks at a time. Nepal is famous for adventure sports like rafting but in the Monsoon season the rivers become too dangerous to navigate and with constant rain everyday it becomes too wet for trekkers. So in the summer months Nepal is much quieter for tourism but coming from the heat of the UAE it is a paradise of greenery, rain and cooler temperatures!

Maya using the riffle tray

Washing sediment

I chose the Trishuli river on the road from Kathmandu to Pokhara because it has wide curves with huge sediment deposits on the inside bends that have lovely sandy beaches with gravel underneath. There are no obvious nuggets of gold lying around, otherwise everyone would be out there collecting it, but there are tiny flakes and because they are so small and light they work their way down through the sand into the gravel layer where it meets bedrock. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and my local contact introduced me to a man and his wife who were Gold panning on the shore of a beautiful beach at the Borderlands – Trishuli Beach Camp Resort. My translator was Megh Ale, who is the founder of Borderlands Resorts, and he explained that the man was Called Dhan Majhi and his last name was a Hindu caste for Fishermen. His wife was called Maya (‘love’ in Nepali) and they had been coming together every summer to this same beach to pan for Gold. Normally they would take away just a few grams for several weeks’ hard work, but that was enough to supplement their income from selling fish and they saw it as a working holiday. Their camp up the beach looked very basic, just a plastic tarp over a stick frame and an open campfire with a few blackened pots, but they seemed very happy and relaxed!

Panning the sediments

Sperating the gold from last sand

Dhan Majhi agreed to be my teacher for a few Pans and he explained you have to start by digging a trench down through the sand to the gravel layer. He did this using a hand tool like a small rake to dig through the layers and used his hands to shovel up the sediments. You then collect this on a sheet and carry it over to the waters edge. Here you have to set up a riffle board over a catchment tray. The riffle board is made of thin bamboo rods woven together to form a mat with holes in it, which effectively sieves out the larger sediments and deposits in the catchment tray the finer gold bearing sediments. To sieve it you have to pour handfuls of water over the sediment and this washes the finer grade down through the riffle mat. The Gold is still not visible at this stage.

Crushing soapy leaves

Once you have sieved several sheet loads into your catchment tray you should have it about half full of sediment. The Catchment tray is sloped at one end so you can tilt it and this is to allow you to splash water up onto it to wash away the bigger sediment again. The finer sediment gets washed back on the tray and you continue this till you have reduced the sediment in the tray right down to the finer grade.

Gold Flakes sperated out

Next, outcomes the Pan, but in this case unlike its famous counterpart in America, it is a wooden board. The finest sediment is poured onto the pan and now the gold flakes start to appear. Maya went to the jungle edge and collected some leaves which she crushed on a rock and made a soapy liquid. This she poured onto the fine sediment and they told me it acts like mercury in that it pulls the gold flakes together as you very carefully wash the other sand gravel away. This process is quite meticulous and took Dhan Majhi a good 30 minutes to complete but when he was finished he had a pan with a very visible fine layer of gold flakes collected at one end! My first river Gold, untouched by human hands, and as Dhan Majhi explained we had to be very careful when it was dried not to touch it with our fingers or the minute flakes would stick to them and be lost.

The seasons find so far

I asked Dhan Majhi if I could see everything they had collected in the last two weeks. They produced a small metal pot with what looked like several finished pans worth of gold flakes. When I asked its value I was told around 4000 Nepalese rupees ($40). I asked my translator if I could buy the gold including what we had collected that day and I offered an extra 1000 nrs ($10) which made the old couple very happy! When we had made the exchange Maya shyly asked me if I would make the gold into a small jewelry item for my wife and she was very surprised when I told her that I wanted to keep it as Gold Flakes and that I would use it for teaching Geology!

Paying for my River Gold in Nepal

If anyone is interested in Gold Panning in Nepal, I highly recommend going to the Borderlands – Trishuli Beach Camp Resort for next Summer season as a short break. Feel free to contact me through the magazine for more information. Nepal is always a fascinating place to visit and although I didn’t come home rich I had an excellent trip with a shiny result!

Words + Photos by: Dan Wright

Dan Wright is a Wilderness Expedition Guide and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (FRGS). He has a degree in Environmental Science and works as the Project Manager of the ADAPT Adventure & Field Studies Center, based in RAK. Dan writes for a range of publications in Arabia and Asia on Environmental Issues and Personal Development. His wife Nirjala is the former Nepal National Mountain Bike Champion and their son Percy is an adventurer in the making! They spend all their spare time exploring the UAE.


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