December 2016 – January 2017

The Nation Reviewed

The hand of faith

By Lisa Clausen
In 1980 a giant gold nugget changed the Hillier family’s fortunes

Cup of tea in hand, Bep Hillier surveys the bush clearing where she once sat and wept. Lanky gums crowd around it, though they throw little shade. The spring sun shines fiercely, and chunks of white quartz sparkle on the stony ground. As Bep moves, the sunlight glints too on the gold crucifix hanging around her neck, though she doesn’t notice. She’s remembering another spring day, 36 years ago, when this place changed her life.

In September 1980, after months roaming the country in an old bus, Bep, her husband, Kevin, and their four young children were living in a caravan park in Bridgewater on Loddon, a faded gold-rush town in central Victoria. They were broke and relying on food from fellow travellers. Kevin was recovering from a work injury, while Bep, a devout Catholic, prayed fervently for some sign of what to do next. Kevin had a metal detector and walking eased his back, so one Friday they drove to the nearby hamlet of Kingower for some prospecting before the kids finished school.

During the 1850s gold rush, hordes of prospectors scoured this part of Victoria for a share in its vast wealth. It was at Kingower, in a goldfield known as “the potato diggings” for the size of its nuggets, that the monster 1743-ounce Blanche Barkly nugget was dug up in 1857. Today the only frenzy among the grey-skinned trees comes from seething ant nests and bold clouds of mosquitoes. But this bush is far from empty. Running through its dry granite hills is a rich seam of stories about the fortunes made and treasures still being unearthed.

That Friday, Bep and Kevin drove along one of the tracks that wind behind Kingower’s old schoolhouse. They wandered in different directions until Bep heard Kevin shouting; she found him on the ground, sobbing. “He was shaken to his core,” she recalls. When she saw why, she dropped to her knees and wept too. The 874-ounce (27.2-kilogram) mass was vertical in the hard ground, and as they frantically dug they realised they had only uncovered its tip. It remains one of the biggest nuggets ever found using a hand-held detector.

A fortnight earlier, Kevin had woken from a puzzling dream. From it he sketched a buried object that would prove eerily similar in shape and orientation to his Kingower find; he had it signed and dated by a friend. It was not the only evidence Bep saw of divine help, and the pair named their find the Hand of Faith. “People will say it was all coincidence and that’s fine. But that’s my Father up there,” Bep says firmly, gesturing skyward, “and he’s interested in everything we do.”

The Hilliers’ eldest child, Kim, then nine, came home from school that day to what she thought was a dirty lump of rock in the sink. The children cleaned it with toothbrushes before Bep and Kevin spent a sleepless night with it in a baby bath under their bed. When Premier Dick Hamer announced the find at a press conference days later, the Hilliers weren’t there; they were watching it on TV in a motel room instead. It was months before they shared their secret and agreed to be publicly identified. “Even for years afterwards we kids never brought it up,” says Kim.

Though the couple hoped it would stay in Australia, the Hand of Faith was bought in early 1981 for around $1 million by the Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. When the Hilliers flew to see it on display, casino staff scoffed as Bep and Kevin explained it had been theirs. They barely believed it themselves. “We stood in front of it and thought, Was it really us? How could country bumpkins like us have found that?” laughs Bep.

Years of nomadic poverty suddenly fell away. They bought their first family home, travelled overseas, built a house for Kevin’s mother, and gave away cash to friends, fellow prospectors and family, including Dutch-born Bep’s 11 siblings and Kevin’s six. Bep regrets that they didn’t give their own children any money, out of worry they’d spoil them. Kim remembers being taken to a toyshop and told to pick anything she wanted. She chose a game of Connect Four.

The Hilliers never tired of the hunt, the whine of the detector whenever it neared metal, despite the endless bullets and bottle tops their prospecting turned up. Together Bep and Kevin often roamed six or more hours a day, skirting thorny bushes and rocky hollows, sometimes dragging chains behind them to track where they’d been. Kevin even found gold by the light of the moon.

Bep jokes that they didn’t find the “Foot of Faith”, despite excavating the Hand of Faith site and several other claims in later years. That didn’t dent Kevin’s reputation among prospectors who still comb the area, and in 2010 they unveiled a monument to his find at the site. Before he died, aged 73, in 2014, Kevin told his family he wanted his ashes there too. “This was a sacred place to him,” says Bep. The family visit for picnics, a makeshift humpy built by his grandchildren visible in the scrub. At his funeral, his detector and a replica of the nugget sat next to his coffin.

Today the riches are long gone, and Bep, brisk and bright-eyed at 78, lives a simple life in a cabin half an hour’s drive from Kingower. “Material things don’t matter much to me,” she explains, her Dutch accent still strong. She’s written up her family’s story and just finished a ten-day solo drive home after visiting family in Western Australia. She proudly shows me a gleaming handful of small gold flecks, collected for her grandchildren. The battered pick Kevin used that day at Kingower is always in her campervan.

The old detector no longer works and is stored at Bep’s home in a cupboard, as is the replica Hand of Faith, wrapped in a towel. “It all seems like a dream to me now,” Bep says. She gets up and washes the teacups, and we drive back up the rough track, leaving the bush to its ant nests and its secrets. “But I do wonder,” she says, “what might still be out there.”

Lisa Clausen

Lisa Clausen is a freelance journalist living in Melbourne. Her book Cruden Farm Garden Diaries was published in 2017.

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