In Serbia's remote east, ancient 'gold rivers' still offer hope

DEBELI LUG - Since ancient times the "gold rivers" of a rural corner of eastern Serbia have drawn prospectors hoping to strike it rich by teasing the precious metal from the area's waterways.

The mountainous, heavily forested region today is poor and depopulated, but a tiny community of panners still eke out a living by coaxing gold flakes -- and the occasional nugget -- from the brisk waters flowing to the Danube River.

"Gold, it's all around here and very good quality at 22 karats," said prospector Nebojsa Trailovic, 59, smiling broadly as he showed off some yellow flecks he had just panned from the Todorova Reka river.

"But it takes lots of work, seven or eight hours per day, your hands in cold water, to extract between 10 and 12 euros ($12 to $15) , about a half gramme," said Trailovic.

Like an ageing hippie with his white beard, straw hat and denim vest with patchwork pockets, Trailovic takes time to choose the "perfect spot" to start sifting and panning.

The life is solitary, the terrain rugged but local legend says the land holds magical powers -- along with the lure of gold.

Some locals are now hoping to "sell" this whole experience to outsiders to bring much-needed income to the remote pocket.

"The goal is to promote gold panning and attract tourists who would try to search for gold," said Zivorad Jakobovic, a prospector from the town of Kucevo.

'Has potential'

He founded tourist organisation Zlatno Runo (Golden Fleece) in April, which aims to promote gold panning for visitors.

"The idea is on a very good track and has potential," said Sandra Vlatkovic, spokeswoman for the national tourism office.

For Trailovic, the initiative is not totally farfetched because foreigners already come from Sweden, Hungary and throughout Europe to spend the summer here searching for gold.

The area is also rich in minerals including zinc and notably copper.

Yet beyond two huge, open-pit copper mines in the towns of Bor and Majdanpek, there has been little push to tap the region's resources. In Hungary, industrial development remains controlled by the state, which is already coping with economic troubles and sluggish growth.

In this eastern region, "copper is the main activity and I doubt gold alone would be exploited if there were not also large reserves of copper, it would just be too expensive," said Miroslav Ignjatovic, a senior research associate at the Serbia's Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

So gold digging remains the province of a handful of licensed miners, who pay seven euros a year to the energy and mines ministry. "In 2014, we delivered 19 licences," said ministry official Milanko Savic.

'He's not crazy'

When they find the yellow metal, the miners sell it to the national bank at 30-35 euros per gram, which is roughly the market price.

Given the bank only bought 18.3 grams from January to November, the quantities being extracted are not enormous.

But the benefits are not only monetary.

Two years ago, Djordje Aleksic, 49, was unemployed in his central Serbia town of Jagodina, when he decided to come to try his luck at prospecting.

"I make practically the same as a construction worker, but here I am my own boss," he said, adding he finds enough gold to support the family he left back home. "I am free."

Though a native of the region, Trailovic's hunt for gold started far from his tiny home village of Debeli Lug. He was in Yugoslavia in 1976 when he decided to flee communism.

"After a brief stay in Paris, I found myself in Australia in 1977. It is in the gold-bearing northeast, on the Palmer river, that I learnt this profession," he said.

When he returned home in 1989, Trailovic simply continued in the same job that, he said, gives him "independence and freedom."

"He is not crazy, the gold is there," said Ana, Trailovic's 40-something neighbour. "But people prefer to pick mushrooms in the forests instead of working hard all day, and many have forgotten how to do the job."

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