On his days off, Cordell Kent drives with his family about an hour into the eastern Australian countryside, lays out a picnic blanket and then joins hundreds of other families panning for gold in hopes of striking it rich.
Heavy rains last year in the Ballarat gold fields that rinsed more nuggets and gold dust through the river systems, coupled with a meteoric rise in bullion to record prices, are putting fresh polish on a practice dating back to the Roman Empire.
We're seeing a whole new gold rush now around Ballarat, one where people are cashing in and making real money at very little cost, says Kent, who sells do-it-yourself mining equipment when he's not panning.
A 35 percent surge in gold to a record high above $1,900 an ounce this year, outpacing an 11 percent gain for a broader commodities index .CRB, has triggered the gold frenzy.
The vast majority of the 268 tonnes of gold found last year in Australia was by mining companies with headquarters overseas or on the western coast in Perth.
Next year's take from Australia could be even higher by as much as 10 tonnes, or 9.6 million ounces, according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences.
Even so, that falls short of the bumper 314 tonnes of gold mined in Australia in 1997.
Bullion this week traded above $1,900 an ounce for the first time, and although it pulled back to $1,750 an ounce, is still heading for its eleventh consecutive year of gains.
Kent doubts a price correction would deter prospecting.
He says panners, including his 15-year-old son, can find hundreds, or even thousands of dollars worth of gold. Some, he claims, have found nuggets weighing up to four ounces.
What many consider the largest nugget ever found, dubbed The Welcome Stranger, was dug up in Ballarat in 1869 and weighed 2,283 ounces.
Panners submerge their pans in moving water to capture sediment, sorting the gold from the gravel and other material. As gold is much denser than rock, it quickly settles to the bottom of the pan.
Australia is the world's second-largest gold producing nation behind China. Its western gold fields are home to more millionaires per capita then anywhere else in the Southern Hemisphere.
Even a young Herbert Hoover tried his luck in Australia, working as a metallurgist for gold mines in the west before returning to America and being elected the 31st U.S. president.
AngloGold Ashanti Ltd's (ANGJ.J) Tropicana mine, under development at a cost of $700 million, is the top major Australian gold discovery of the past decade and is expected to produce about 480,000 ounces of gold a year.
Now is the time to make hay and the mining companies know it, says Keith Goode, director of Eagle Mining Research in Sydney. These things go in cycles.
Integra Mining (IGR.AX) expects to mine 100,000 ounces of gold this year from virtually nothing a year ago to maximize gold sales at higher prices.
One of Australia's biggest gold producers, Melbourne-based Newcrest Mining (NCM.AX), this week posted a 36 percent rise in underlying annual profit thanks to higher gold prices. This year, Newcrest Chief Executive Greg Robinson has vowed to dig deeper and produce up to 2.925 million ounces of gold, up from 2.53 million ounces in the 2011/12financial year.
Even in Australia, regarded as an economy insulated from much of the economic and social turbulence occurring elsewhere, gold holds more appeal for investors over stocks.
Since August 2006 the gold price in Australian dollars has outpaced the S&P/ASX All Ordinaries Gold index by more than 300 percent.
Investors in droves have sought a refuge in bullion from a stock market meltdown, fears about sovereign debts in Europe and the United States and worries about a recession.
The world economic and political issues are supporting a very strong gold price, says Newcrest's Robinson.
MINERS CHOOSE GOLD
Perth company Emergent Resources has put its plans to exploit iron ore deposits in the far west outback on hold to dig for gold.
Another Perth-based company, Norton Gold Fields (NGF.AX), made a A$13.1 million profit this year after losing A$32.8 million last year, thanks to strong gold prices, and now expects even better profits next year as it turns up production.
Our balance sheet is much stronger than a year ago and will continue to improve as we reduce our debt levels, Norton Managing Director Andre Labuschange said.
The company still owes about A$65 million under a hedging arrangement with the now-defunct Lehman Brothers bank but plans to make a voluntary repayment next month, bringing the outstanding amount to about A$50 million, he said
Hedging of gold -- selling ounces to be mined at a later date for a fixed forward price -- a relic of the 1990's when gold sold for as little as $253 an ounce -- is now taboo for many mining companies, whose shareholders want as much exposure as they can get to any upside in bullion.
Globally, only 5.1 million ounces of gold were hedged in the first quarter, according to a tally by ABN Amro, out of forecast production this year of around 76 million ounces.
SELLING FAMILY JEWELS
It's not just mining companies and people with pans and shovels targeting gold.
Jerry Zheng, a mobile phone salesman in Sydney, said he recently paid A$38,000 for a machine to analyze the gold content of jewelry after setting up a retail gold buying business.
Zheng said business is brisk and that enough people are willing to sell everything from family heirlooms to objects of desire from loves long lost at today's prices to warrant the small profit he makes on each transaction.
We don't have any problem selling what we buy to refineries to melt down and resell as pure gold, Zheng said.
At $1,900 an ounce, Zheng said his profit on an ounce was around $38.
Zheng will also pay a 10 percent commission to anyone who hosts a party where neighbors are encouraged to sell their gold jewelry to his company.
We haven't had too much success with gold parties yet, but we are trying, Zheng said. People are slowly understanding they can make money from gold.
(Editing by Ed Davies and Michael Urquhart)