I’m looking for three golden tennis balls or five golden eggs. I’m not picky. Why? Because gold is currently trading at £785 per troy ounce, and I need 204 troy ounces (6.3kg) to be able to purchase the £160,200 Bentley Bentayga. Taking into account its density of 19.3g/cm3 that’s equivalent to the volume of three tennis balls, or a large omelette. And that’s before options. If I want the rotating Breitling Tourbillon dash clock, I’ll need to find the same again.
Meet Jim. Jim has dedicated his life to pursuing this aureate metal, knows more about nuggets than Usain Bolt and owns American Prospector Treasure Seeker, the largest gold-mining equipment store in Southern California. The most gold Jim and his wife Sue have ever prised from the earth in a single day is 11g, and they know what they’re doing. Under Jim’s tutelage I’ve given myself two days in and around Palm Springs to smash his personal record several thousand times over, armed only with a goldish coloured Bentayga and some good old British optimism.
I’m placing my trust in Jim for two reasons. Firstly, because the first self-made millionaire in the 1848 Californian gold rush was Samuel Brannan – a man of rare vision. When Brannan heard that a sawmill operator, James Marshall, had found fat chunks of gold lying in the shallows of the American River near Coloma, 500 miles north of us, he didn’t dash there to fill his pockets. Instead he bought every shovel, pick and pan he could find and set up shop in preparation for the 190,000 49ers that were about to descend on the Golden State over the next year. OK, so he’s 160-odd years late, but Jim knows the money’s in selling to the many deluded prospectors, not dropping everything and joining them. Secondly, he has a killer ’tache.
Our photographer Mark and I arrive at the store in Temecula, an hour south-west of Palm Springs, and Jim and Sue come bouncing out to inspect Bentley’s golden goose. Sue jumps straight into the driver’s seat and starts stroking the leather, while Jim puts his hands on his hips and keeps it brief: “How much did you say it was?” I do a quick conversion in my head and tell him roughly $230,000, with around 600bhp. “Hoo-wee! Now, you boys want to see some nuggets?”
Jim grabs a bag left casually on the passenger seat of his pickup and pulls out a gel-filled tube containing a $1,000 lump the size of my thumb. I’m transfixed; it’s a thing of beauty. I’m tempted to snatch it and get my stockpile off to a flying start, but realise that would be short-sighted. Determined to do this the old 49er way, I go inside the store and grab a $30 plastic panning kit, a shovel and narrowly avoid the temptation to buy something called a nugget sucker.
We discuss our plan for the next couple of days, and Jim’s main concern isn’t my lack of relevant skills or knowledge, but that the Bentley won’t be able to handle the terrain. Frankly, so am I, but I reassure him that it’s tougher than it looks and turn his attention to today. For today, we are plundering California’s rivers, and Jim has the perfect spot in mind: Cajon creek.
The hour-long drive, mainly on pencil-straight freeways, would be irrelevant in most cars – miles to be quashed and forgotten – but in the Bentayga, it’s important stuff. To meet its brief as the world’s most exclusive, most luxurious and most powerful SUV, it’s these sort of journeys that it must fashion into an event. But it’s not the imperious refinement or the plush, heavy-set ride that’s making it memorable, it’s the fact that I’m not having to do much driving myself.
Set the adaptive cruise control to your desired top speed, select your distance to the car in front and activate the lane keep assist system, and the Bentayga will steer, accelerate and brake for you, so long as there are defined lane markings either side. Problem is, every 10 seconds it beeps at you insisting you place a hand on the wheel. Not that Bentley would ever admit this is remotely a good idea (and neither would we), but if you, say, accidentally wedged the ashtray in the wheel, you could probably jailbreak this system. Let’s just say that I’m pretty much superfluous to requirements for 40 autonomous miles.
At the creek, we locate the perfect spot where fast-flowing water suddenly slows. “That’s where you find that gold,” says Jim, so I roll up my trousers and leap in expecting pebble-sized lumps to appear between my toes. Turns out it’s scarcer than I thought, and panning a damn-sight harder, requiring extreme patience and a deft touch. The key is shaking the heavier black sand and gold to the bottom, washing away the unwanted material, then swirling water over the black stuff to reveal the treasure. After 10 panfuls and a seized lower back, we’ve got diddly-squat. Brannan’s customers must have dredged this creek dry.
Crestfallen, we load up the car and point the Bentayga’s grille towards our base in Palm Springs. By the time we hit the Palm to Pines highway, our spirits are up, convinced that tomorrow will bring limitless bounty to compensate for today’s drought. You see, that’s the thing about gold, it’s a seductive mistress. Because it’s everywhere in these parts: in the water, in the rocks, in the mountains and underground – you’re always in with a shout. Know that feeling when you buy a lottery ticket for the first time in 18 months, and by the time you get home it’s unthinkable that you won’t win the jackpot? Yup, same thing here.