Who really kicked off a modern-day gold rush in Western Australia’s Pilbara region?

Artemis Resources and its Canadian partner Novo Resources are generally credited with starting a rush after making a now legendary announcement regarding a gold nugget find at their Purdy’s Reward site south of Karratha, WA, mid last year.

But Johnathon Campbell says he realised the conglomerate-hosted gold potential of the Pilbara well before Artemis (ASX:ARV) decided to take a closer look at its landholding and before Novo even came into the picture.

Mr Campbell had been in mining for 16 years in exploration and semi-retired for about two years before he secured special prospecting licences in September 2016 over the areas now known as Purdy’s Reward and Novo’s nearby Comet Well site.

Special prospecting licences allow small-time prosectors to search for gold within existing mining leases (known as primary tenements) provided the activities don’t interfere with the co-existing “primary tenement”.

Wild cattle chase led to gold discovery

Mr Campbell says he and wife Zoe stumbled across Purdy’s Reward and Comet Well while chasing wild cattle.

“We were flying over the area doing a headcount for an upcoming muster and we’d seen where someone had been camping pretty well out in the middle of nowhere.

“I said ‘it looks to me as if they’d been prospecting or they’re hiding from the police’ because it was a bit suss where they were.

“I got some hired help and went out there and started looking. I think it was at Purdy’s where the guy was camped. We did our own exploration work and found that it soon stretched over about 8km.”

Thousands and thousands of nuggets

Mr Campbell said he and his crew found “thousands and thousands” of gold nuggets.

“If you turned on a metal detector you weren’t walking anywhere because there was too much gold,” he said.

“So when I found it I spent a lot of time on a four-wheel motorbike and walking and I just started to map it basically – the length and the width.

“We found nuggets up to 10 ounces size-wise, but we found thousands and thousands of 2-gram and 1.5-gram nuggets.

“We were picking up anywhere from $10,000 a day at Comet Well in gold.”

Bargain buy 

Mr Campbell picked up the primary Comet Well leases from another prospector for a mere $50,000.

Despite conversations with several players, including Artemis, it appeared nobody was interested in what Mr Campbell had put his foot on.

Mr Campbell says he even gave Armada Mining, which is now a subsidiary of Artemis, directions to the prize to no avail.

“I explained that I had special prospecting licences over the top of the leases and how much gold was there,” he said.

“I explained that it was quite large, and we had followed this thing for multiple kilometres.

“I basically approached a few other people to see if they wanted to come and have a look and maybe take it over, but I wouldn’t receive a phone call.”

Novo finally came to the party with a deal to buy the Comet Well project from Mr Campbell in April last year.

A month earlier Novo had struck the deal with Artemis to farm into the gold rights on the Purdy’s Reward project.

$1 million discovery bonus

Mr Campbell has made a tidy sum from the sale of the Comet Well leases to Novo and is entitled to a $1 million discovery bonus if Novo defines a resource of over 250,000 ounces.

He also holds a 1 per cent royalty that entitles him to a share of the earnings once Novo brings Comet Well into production.

Now it appears the buyers are sitting up and taking notice.

“I’ve got people nearly daily contacting me about my royalty,” he said.

“I’ve got a lot of international interest in the actual royalty itself. They haven’t even come up with a resource yet, but I think people understand that this is pretty big.”

There has been much conjecture about whether or not the Pilbara conglomerate gold story can become a commercial reality given the difficulty in proving up an economic resource.

‘Something big’

Is the Pilbara gold rush real? “100 per cent,” Mr Campbell says.

“Absolutely undeniably Comet Well will be something big and I’ll tell you why — and this is from a non-geologist’s point of view.

“If I can walk 8km and dig a hole in the ground and find gold, there’s 8km of gold. If I can dig 4m down and find gold, there’s 4m of gold. That’s the way I do it, my mathematics is pretty simple.”

Back to cattle

“My wife and I put a lot of our money into cattle and property. We’re looking to buy a cattle station,” Mr Campbell said.

“I’ve never had gold fever. I just don’t see the romance in gold. I see money in cattle and agriculture.”

Mr Campbell is no longer prospecting and is running the engineering department for the Town of Port Hedland to spend more time with his wife and six boys.