Madagascar: Heaven can wait!
A visit to the Sapphire pit mines of Ambondromifehy and the mining town of Ilakaka.
Our last great adventure was our journey to Madagascar.
Catherine and I spent one month from September 22 – October 23, 2007, exploring remote corners this gorgeous country and meeting its wonderful and hospitable people along the way. Total immersion within the expanse of this new land, its customs and traditions, people and culture, provided us with extraordinary encounters.
Unusually, we traveled the first leg of our journey with the help of a NYC based tour operator to get the lay of the land. The travel logistics in-situ were handled by a partner TO in Madagascar. We were quick to realize that none had done their homework well and none were versed in the great chronology of travel planning, or for that matter, in Madagascar itself.
Nonetheless, we found this great island to be enchanting and the people, delightful.
On the second leg of our travels, we handled the logistics ourselves and let loose. We followed our instinct and curiosity, indulging in the extraordinary flavors of Malagasy culture to lead the way. It was sensational! Our excitement reached a peak when our driver-guide Fenu was starting to have fun discovering his own country. He was startled at what appealed to us, and never thought visitors would have any interest whatsoever in the aspects of his culture we were now discovering together.
One day, Fenu gasped at us with startled eyes when I expressed the desire to explore the sapphire pit mines of Ambondromifehy encroaching on the Ankarana National Park. “We will get ourselves killed,” he stuttered. ” Mining in the national park is illegal – worst yet, the local buyers will see us as competition, and will murder us!”. Feeling this to be more of a leitmotif to justify his fear than actual danger, Catherine and I did our best to comfort him. “Do not worry Fenu, we live in Guatemala!” He did not quite know what to make of this, but must have felt the tone comforting, as all of a sudden he became quiet and resigned himself to come along.
Sapphire can be found in northern Madagascar near Diego Suarez at Ambondromifehy. There the corundum is derived from basaltic source rocks, and so tends to occur in green, yellow and inky blue colors. In 1995, wood-cutters in the Ankarana forest near Ambondromifehy came across fistfuls of blue stones. At first thought to be useless, children were using them as amunition for their sling shots! When they were later identified as sapphire, the rush was on.
We met with the local sapphire dealer, Monsieur Jimmy. After some schmoozing, he arranged for one of his own to take us down to the river where the raw sapphires were being extracted from their muddy cocoons. We traipsed along a tiny trail through the Ankarana Reserve to the pit mines. On the way, a local character, thinking we might be foreign buyers, scrambled towards us clawing himself up from the river bank. He presented us with two raw sapphires. Knowing next to nothing about gems, bluff was the only way to go. I took the small bluish stones from the palm of his hand and one by one held them between my thumb and forefinger holding them up to the sun. The streaming light ignited the stone and its dull bluish color turned translucent. “Bleu Royal!” I exclaimed. Those words worked magic, “Oui, monsieur, Bleu Royal” the man repeated suavely looking at us with a glistening and proud smile.
Sapphires in the Ambondromifehy area are usually found in thick clumps of yellowish-grey basaltic clay brought up from the 120 ft depths of narrow, hand-dug mining pits. The thick clay is then washed in the river in metal strainers that look like chinese hats. The lucky miners find small blue, pink, green or yellow stones at the bottom of their pans.
“Bleu Royal!” has become the color of hope and wealth for the pit miners of Ankarana. Ten thousand kilometers away, the whisper of “Bleu Royal”, reverberates with awe and glamour and never fails to cast a spell on the stratospherically rich when presented with a perfectly cut stone by one of Place Vendome’s prestigious jewelers. For us, hearing “Bleu Royal” spoken by shoeless Malagasy men covered in thick clay emerging from the bowels of the earth sent shivers through our spines.
Oh yes! I forgot – we acquired the two stones presented to us, and in an act of sublime grandeur, the vendor offered us a wide smile and small yellow sapphire as a token of friendship. That does not happen on Place Vendome!
A few weeks before, when passing through Ilakaka, the infamous mining town of southern Madagascar in the province of Tulear, we had the urge to explore. Didier, our driver then, did not want to set foot out of the vehicle. He was adamant: “it is shear madness.” This made us laugh and of course we made a point of stopping there; nothing like the threat of shear madness in the pursuit of a good time.
Not only did we stop in Ilakaka to buy a sampling of cut gems, I decided to return to Ilakaka the following night to film the local action. Didier was beside himself, I told him to stop worrying and that it would be just fine. He was visibly uncomfortable. We rolled into town at dusk and it turned into a great evening. We hung out with the miners returning from the fields and filmed their transactions with the Sri Lankan and Thai buyers protected in small wooden kiosks with steel barred windows; I almost traded my video camera for a bag of multi colored sapphires. We later ended our escapade gloriously with a few shots of Madagascar’s famous rhum arrangé in a bar of ill repute.
When finally driving out of Ilakaka, as he exhaled a generous breath, Didier had only one word to say : “WOW!” But with a big smile on his face.
Such was our trip to the malagasy sapphire mines, full of adventure and of turning fears into fun.
Madagascar: A Must!