Back Roads: Feb 20

Guest presenter Lisa Millar is blinged up in Queensland's Gemfields for a little bit of drag bingo.

This week, Back Roads heads to central Queensland and the renowned Gemfields.

Guest presenter Lisa Millar discovers this is a place where shanty towns dot the surface, but what lies underneath is hallowed ground….and the holy grail is the precious sapphire.

Gem baron Ray Richardson takes Lisa on a tour in his classic 1957 pink Cadillac. Ray made a pile in the 1970’s and 80’s when sapphire prices were booming and talks about those crazy days, when the Gemfields had a reputation as the wild west.

Lisa also meets a couple of newbies, Debbie Wouters and Steve Pitts, from Victoria. They fell under the spell of the Gemfields on a visit in 2022 and now spend their days digging away underground. Lisa joins Debbie in her search for what she calls the “sparkles”, taking a nervous ride down a narrow 45-foot mine shaft. The couple mine using simple hand tools, not big machinery, keeping alive a 150 -year -old tradition. But small- scale miners like them are worried proposed new mining rules could “blow it out of the water and destroy it”. While gem hunting is seductive, it’s not the only attraction. The Gemfields has long been a magnet for people wanting to live cheaply, off grid and under the radar.

And something Lisa didn’t expect to find in a remote mining area is a Mardi Gras festival. She joins local drag queen Heidi Hole at ‘Blingo’ night at the Rubyvale pub. Heidi is the alter ego of Willow, a singer songwriter and former soldier. It’s a long way from the days when he did it tough as a young gay kid growing up on the Gemfields. A sign this place might love its traditions but it’s also ready to embrace change.

8pm Tuesday on ABC.

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