Crystal clear


Saturday, February 6, 2010 © The Cairns Post

FROM a young age, Rene Boissevain knew he was destined for a life of adventure and discovery.

"I’m a bit silly," René Boissevain admits. Be that as it may, the passion this man has for his work, and life in general, is clear after mere minutes in his presence.

The vibrant 73 year old can’t sit still by his own admission and is just as likely to be jumping around and waving his arms about as he is to be strolling quietly along a river wondering what’s around that next bend.

An adventurer and lover of life René says he feels like he’s about 45 years old, something he attributes to just being alive.

"I’ve always been trying to do things other people haven’t done," he says. "I love challenges and adventure. I’m unstoppable."

René recalls being just eight or nine years old when he mounted a one-man investigation into the habits of moles in his native Holland. He collected buckets and buckets of dirt and spread these throughout his bedroom. Having also nabbed a few moles, his experiment was ready. With trusty notebook in hand, a young René documented how high the moles built their mounds and how long their tunnels were. Of course, he had to drag all that soil back outside but he didn’t mind. Luckily neither did his Mum.

And thus began a life of searching, exploring and examining ideas that just wouldn’t let go. It would be some time before René discovered the passion that would beat all else – the crystallisation of minerals, which has culminated in the creation of The Crystal Caves and Fascinating Facets in Atherton. The Crystal Caves now hosts more than 600 items from René’s private mineralogical collection.

Along the path to discovering this passion, René has had many adventures. In the 1960s, René and wife Nelleke decided they’d had enough of the "half-cooked" weather in Holland. Together with their young daughter they set out for a new life in a warmer climate, finding themselves on the Tableland after work was too hard to come by in Cairns.

René found work in the tobacco industry on a local farm, grading tobacco with a new friend from Yugoslavia.
They worked together for some time, however, it was his mate’s next suggestion that would forever change the course of René’s life. They visited a mysterious place called Agate Creek.

"‘What are agates?’ I said. I hit one with the pick and it opened up," René recalls. "I could not believe what I saw. There were crystals inside. My friend said they were useless and to throw it away."

It was too late for that. René was hooked.

Times were lean so it was back to Holland for the happy family, taking along with them two tonnes of agates René had dug up here in Australia. He had learnt how to cut and polish agates through the years, so the goal was to sell these back in Holland. The only flaw in René’s plan was this: no one was buying.

"We were down to our last pennies," he says. "We were stuck."

The family rented a house in Giethoorn "because it was cheap" and suddenly found themselves in a bustling tourist town. With his Australian agates and some machinery he picked up in Germany, René was finally in business selling bracelets, pendants and earrings.

"That went well," he says. "We were selling, selling, selling."

In fact, things were going so well that René and Nelleke took the opportunity to buy a farmers co-op that had come up for sale. This was to become René’s first museum – The Old Earth. The museum was based on a rainforest theme and of course featured René’s beloved mineralogical specimens.

René and Nelleke ran the museum – which is now quite well known and is very much still operational – for seven years before leaving its care in the hands of a friend.

"We were dying to go back to Australia," René recalls. "During those four years (here), this became the land of adventure."

Although the years in Holland weren’t bad – the money was very good – René’s adventurous nature was pushing him to continue his travels.

There was a successful hunt for an extinct ostrich egg in Madagascar (followed by six months living there in a tent with the growing family – there were now three little girls) and visits to places including Easter Island, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, San Francisco (he was determined to ride a tram)… and the list goes on.

Some were just pleasure visits but more often, René was off digging – quite literally – for precious items to add to his growing collections.

Back in Australia, René was retired at age 41; or so he thought.

"We lived it up," he says. "I didn’t have to work anymore. That was good."

Unfortunately there was trouble brewing at the museum so it was back to Holland for the whole family yet again. They stayed for about a year and a half, rebuilding the museum and getting it back on its feet.

Finally, the family made its return back to Australia – this time to stay.

"I had to start all over again," René says. "That was when I started Fascinating Facets. Every penny went back into the business for years and years."

It was then that René literally dreamed The Crystal Caves into being. He says he would lay in bed and would dream his way through what would become his first grotto.

"I could dream about three or four metres at a time," he says.

"I’m always experimenting, always trying to come up with ideas that no one else has done."

Although keeping his feet on the ground can be a bit tricky, René says his wife of 45 years is always there to make sure he’s thought things through.

"She’s my backbone," he says. "She’s my guardian angel. She’s so good. She’s got more brains than I have."

René loves his life. Now "sort of retired", he loves his freedom and his home at Tinaroo on the lake.

He counts among his favourite things family (he has four grandchildren), laughter, adventure and a nice whisky at five o’clock.

He’s mad about animals and wildlife; and he cannot tolerate people who step on ants or collect insects for selfish purposes "just to push a pin through them".

With new plans in the works for The Crystal Caves, René will certainly be keeping busy.

Whatever he’s doing, it’s clear he will continue to live with a great passion and enthusiasm that keep him young.

"I try to teach my children ‘don't grow up’.

"And I keep on dreaming," René says.