Crystal Caves Documentary
The Crystal Caves Complex first opened in 1987, and since then has been regularly expanded and updated into it’s current form, spread across two levels and over more than 8000 square feet in area. And there is more to come with further expansion planned for the near future.
But the real history of the business starts well before 1987.
René and Nelleke Boissevain are the founders and creators of “The Crystal Caves”, and the attached Gift Shop, called “Fascinating Facets” in Atherton. The following explains how they came to create this world class attraction, over a period of forty years.
René recalls how he, Nelleke and their small daughter came to seek a new life, far away from their native Holland in 1963.
“We had decided to leave Holland, for a better climate and a more interesting and adventurous life in some far-away place. So we bought a world globe to find out about countries, their climates and their conditions. We always had the Tropics in mind, far away from the ice of Holland! Turning the globe we saw that the 15th meridian is not too warm and never cold. “Aha”, we said, now let’s see what countries are passing, by slowly turning the globe. We saw Madagascar, South Africa , Samoa and Brazil, and to my surprise, (I never learned this in school in Holland) that part of Australia was actually in the tropics.”
“We then had a look at the more practical and economical way of how countries operated, what social systems, political stability, governments, any turmoil and what development issues existed. Guess what? – Australia of course! And we have never regretted our decision for a moment.”
“So we sold our few belongings, went to emigration, filled in some papers and we finally arrived by ship in Brisbane, after Melbourne. Our idea, again with that 15th meridian in mind, was Cooktown. Although it is now a pretty alive township, in those years there was not much there at all. Next on our list was Cairns although it was on the 17th instead of the 15th meridian and we really decided this before we left Holland”.
“We stayed a couple of months in Brisbane, waiting for our furniture and other belongings to arrive. Then we bought a second hand Holden utility, loaded it with our more personal and precious belongings and drove to Cairns. In 1963 this took a full week as the road system was quite poor and not like anything we were used to. On many stretches it was a case of getting right off the road (track) if anything was coming the other way. Arriving in Cairns our first thought was; “Oh my God, what have we done” – it was such a huge culture shock. 90% of houses were on stilts, high up on poles to let fresh air go underneath, which was unheard of in Europe. Mostly local rainforest timbers were used up to build these houses and many are still in use today. Sadly, much of our once so beautiful rainforest is gone apart from those preserved and now internationally registered ‘World Heritage’ forests. The nice looking always green landscape and hills that we see now were once beautiful rainforests.”
René and Nelleke were not really happy in Cairns and more importantly they found that jobs were really scarce in the town.
“We did not like Cairns itself and the only jobs I could get were either with the meat works or cutting sugar cane. Not for us thank you, so what now? We decided to go up in the mountains, to The Atherton Tablelands which was very rural country with crops of peanuts, corn, potatoes and tobacco growing in the fertile soils.”
“Through the local jewellery store in Atherton, which was acting as an unemployment office, I found a job in the tobacco industry on a medium size farm owned by Barry and Shirley Cornish. This was in a place called Walkamin, just 15 minutes away from Atherton. So this was my first job in Australia and I was earning about $1.00 $ per hour! It was grading tobacco leaves and Nelleke helped me during the later hours to select the tobacco leaves. In those days there were twelve different quality grades to sort out so this was quite a task!”
“I was working with a Yugoslav fellow by the name of Steve Boikofski who was also grading tobacco. After a few days we got to talk and he said; “Rene, what are you going to do after the tobacco season?” “I don’t know, I’m new here”. He then suggested that we go crocodile shooting for the hides, “there’s good money in it” he said, “and when the rivers are dry we will go and dig for agates, better than working on the land for a dollar an hour”. “It all sounded good to me.” says René.” “Agates, what are agates?” René asked. “I still remember that very well”. “Agates” Steve explained, “are rocks , that look like potatoes.”
René says that he was quite excited about all this.
“Well, that’s what you call adventure! And there were certainly no laws against shooting crocodiles in those days. We worked as partners for a while, got lost in the Barkley Tablelands for seven weeks at one time and barely made it back to civilization alive. BUT we didn’t even make enough money to cover costs of the 4-wheel drives, petrol , rifles, ammunition , etc so that was the end of croc shooting for me. Later though, we heard that the price per inch we were paid for the croc skins, was sold to Singapore for five or six times what we were paid for it! Overall though, the croc shooting, digging for agates and working for the farmers was my new life style and I loved it!”
René pays particular tribute to his loving wife during those testing times. “I must say that Nelleke was, and still is the best woman in the world, always so supportive”.
“It took two to three days to get to the agate fields as it was unbelievably rough country. A tree here and there, huge rocks everywhere with steep gullies and big mountain ranges all jumbled together. Very rugged to say the least and very dry too, millions of flies and no water, but that’s where the Agates were, as Steve had explained. “Here is you pick and shovel and good luck..”. It was very hard work, to dig into ground that was gravel, but filled with basalt boulders both small and large, most the size of oranges or larger. In between all this were the agates in all sizes from smaller than a marble to the size of a football. Once in a while you could dig up a big one, but most were no good, usually just full of ‘sugar’ as we called the quartz center.”
“Soon after, Nelleke came with me and we also took our daughters Lefje, and later Cecilia to this hostile place called ‘Agate Creek’, realizing later that this was probably not very responsible of us. The problem at Agate Creek, was water, or the lack of it. We had to carry all our water into the area in Jerry cans. We had a 1959 Nissan Patrol four wheel drive which had the worst suspension ever built, but on the other hand, the most reliable engine, a 6 cylinder one designed for the Japanese war machine. At this time I was in my 30th year and was strong as a bear from all that work with the pick and shovel over three and a half years! We dug up literally ton’s of agates and sold them to the rock shops in the southern states, making pretty good money for those days”.
But just digging up the Agates wasn’t enough for René, and as he marveled at the natural beauty of the stones, he also sought to bring that beauty to life.
“About this time I started cutting and polishing the Agates. Of course only about a third of all the them are worthwhile, without flaws and cracks, meaning that 70% of the agates you dig, take back home and cut in half are worthless. But those without flaws, quartz centers and other black iron inclusions are amongst the most beautiful agates in the world, and worth every minute of all the hard work.”
Always the perfectionist, René later developed a totally new way of polishing Agates and as a result the stones he now finishes are renowned worldwide for their incredibly fine finish. As he says proudly;
“They shine better than any other Agates in the world I dare to say”.
But after four years of hard work on the Atherton Tableland and with a young family to support and not really making a great living, René and Nelleke worked on a plan to get ahead. They would return to Holland for six months or so with collection of prime Australian Agate to sell on the rich European market, to make enough profit to return and set up in Australia permanently. As René explains;
“After 4 years, we returned by ship to Holland, with our daughters Lefje and Cecilia and we also packed two tons of rough agates in double potato bags, ones that we’d carefully selected over those years, and sent these off to Holland as well. We arrived at Nelleke’s parents place to stay for a while, and started trying to pre-sell the agates which was due to arrive soon. The whole idea was to sell the two tons of agates and then return to Australia, this time WITH money. But in the Netherlands no one had even heard of agates in those days, which is hard to imagine now. Finally I did sell some to Idar Oberstein in Germany and then bought second hand machinery to cut agates to make jewellery.”
During this time, a new plan was discussed;
“In Holland we borrowed some money from the bank and some from Nelleke’s father and bought a house in Giethoorn, 30km from Zwolle right in the center of Holland. There I started cutting and polishing and making simple jewellery from the agates. We had a sign on the footpath that said “Exclusive jewellery made from Australian Agates”. That sign worked miracles! Can you imagine, we had absolutely no retail experience at all, I worked till late at night and STILL could not keep up with the sales”.
By now there were even bigger plans!
“We heard, that the farmers CO-OP was for sale, in Giethoorn, not too far from where we lived and it was a huge building, with a reed thatched roof. I went to Nelleke’s father and told him about it. “Pappa, I intend to build a special museum with crocodiles, birds and lots of plants. It’s got to look like a jungle, like in tropical Australia, with lots of agates and other mineral specimens. Can you lend me some money, please? And of course the bank also helped”. “From this we created the now famous museum “The Old Earth” in Giethorn. This museum was based on a rainforest theme, with an aviary, a terrarium with live crocodiles and of course a with a fantastic range of mineralogical specimens for all to see.”
With ‘The Old Earth’ museum now flourishing René started taking overseas trip to the places where he knew the very best crystals and minerals would be found.
“My first trip was to Mexico in 1973. What are you going to do in Mexico, people were asking; “I’m going to look for crystals I replied”. “Good luck, you’re crazy!” they said. Mexico was and still is a paradise for crystals. People, poor people there create their own mines, to dig for crystallized mineral specimens to sell world wide. In later years I visited many other countries, working to discover where the mines are that produce crystals, often in the most remote areas. Madagascar is still one of my favorite countries, where the most beautiful Celestite crystals specimens come from, and Uruguay is great for the crystal from the Amethyst mines”.
After eight years in Holland, and travelling the world collecting specimens, René and Nelleke now with their three girls, Lefje, Cecilia and the newcomer Ghislaine, the family finally returned to Australia for good in 1977. René says that at this time he thought; “Now with the regular income from ‘The Old Earth’ I have enough to retire – Yippeee I’ve done it, and I’m only forty one!”
But this was not to be, as René explains;
“It lasted 3.5 years and then I found that my best friend whom I left to manage ‘The Old Earth’ for us, had started his own business and taken away all our customers! So once again we all boarded a plane back to Holland to sort the mess out. We had to work hard for a year to get everything rolling again and eventually we succeeded”.
“After that of hard work year we installed a new manager and we all went back to Australia, to find our house that we’d rented out in a terrible mess”. “The swimming pool was green and it took a week and took a week to clean it out. The ride on mower had been crashed into a tree by their kids and left there to rust, which meant that the grass had not been cut in all that time either”.
“Then we found that the new manager that we’d installed at ‘The Old Earth’ turned out to be a big mistake. Eventually, after very stressful periods we found that the business was in a very bad state and the bank was close to taking it all away. So we gave everything away to a friend who pumped some money into the business it and worked hard to bring ‘The Old Earth’ back to what it had been again, and improved it as well. With all this finally over for good, Nelleke and I returned to Australia, hugged each other and cried a little, then started all over again. Years later this friend that we gave the business to sold it to the current owners, Frederik and Neeltje who made even more improvements and today, ‘The Old Earth’ is better than ever and attracts people from all over Europe”.
So, time for a fresh start for René and Nelleke, and this was the opening of a small rock shop in the main street of Atherton that René and Nelleke decided to call ‘Fascinating Facets’ in 1983. This small shop was to become the start of a new and unique type of museum for Australia.
“The shop went quite well and in 1986 we extended it and used the space underneath create a small museum which we called “The Crystal Caves” . The aim was to build a new and unique type of museum, a simulated cave where people were encouraged to not only look, but to touch and feel the exhibits as well”. This took us over a year to complete, using entirely new construction techniques, a lot of imagination and some inspired engineering methods. As soon as the new ‘Crystal Caves’ opened, it was clear that people loved it”.
“Then in 1992, with the ‘Crystal Caves’ concept now well proven, we extended the museum to become nearly a full block in length. This new attraction was officially opened by the then Queensland Minister of Tourism, The Honorable Mr. Bob Gibbs, which was a great honour for us, and for the people of Atherton”.
The Crystal Caves was now one of Australia’s top mineralogical museums displaying over 600 of the most intriguing crystallized mineral and fossil specimens from around the globe attracting thousands of people every year. But René and Nelleke were not quite finished with the improvements to the ‘Crystal Caves’ just yet. In 2007, René was told about a new Amethyst Geode discovery at a mine in Uruguay, and he immediately knew that this specimen, which was claimed to be the biggest in the world , could be the crowning attraction at the ‘Crystal Caves’, as he explains;
“When I heard about the discovery of the world’s biggest amethyst geode, at first I thought we could not hope to get it. But then I made a quick decision, and we agreed on a price.” (that price was US$70,000). “Then the task was not only to transport the geode all the way from Uruguay to Australia, but to be sure that we could display it in a way that would do it full justice as part of the museum. This meant building a special extension, a dedicated air conditioned room with special lighting and surrounding effects.”
For the record, this latest addition, now christened “The Empress of Uruguay” weighs 2,700 kilograms and stands an incredible 3.5 meters tall. It is filled to overflowing with hundreds of thousands of stunningly beautiful dark amethyst crystals that are rated as “AA quality” – easily good enough for fine jewellery. The effect that “The Empress” has on visitors seeing it for the first time is astounding, with many of them sitting with it for long periods just absorbing its sheer natural beauty.
“Nelleke and I spend more time at home, now that we have Jim Russell as our General manager to run the business. Now finally I enjoy cutting and polishing all those agates, once sent to Holland and then shipped back to Australia again!
René, is currently kept busy on most days selecting the best of the geodes that he dug at Agate Creek in North Queensland back in the 1960’s, cutting and polishing them using his own special techniques and equipment. They are extremely finely finished and very beautiful but are unfortunately quite limited in supply now. He photographs the finished stones himself and displays them on his website at; www.agatesaustralia.net