Travel log from eastern Madagascar, 2006

I have been keeping very busy with the drilling program at the Dabolava gold project, but last month we all needed a break from work. For some time now, I’ve wanted to visit the emerald (smaragd) mines of the Mananjary region, located along the central east coast of Madagascar. I had seen some stones in the mineral markets and they were fine specimens, so I decided to try and gain access to one of the mines to see these gemstones in situ (and collect some stream sediment samples to pick up the geochemical signature and compare it to my region).

Day one, I wandered through Antsirabe (gemstone capital) and chatted with different people about emeralds and if anyone knew a guide to take me there. The answers varied from “no-no very dangerous, you don’t go there” and “please Dana you don’t go” (I frequent the mineral markets so some know me by name, which is rarely pronounced correctly), to hand gestures indicating a slicing across the throat :/ …not wanting to be discouraged on my first day I continued to ask around until at last one lady gave me the name of a man in a small village who has worked in the emerald region for several decades. His name was Baba-no-no 🙂

Day two, a 12 hour drive from Dabolava to the Mananjary region on a very decent road, we (my chauffeur and I) arrived in a small village where Baba-no-no lives. The houses in this region are small, made of wooden sticks, roofed with grass (or rice reed beatings) and placed on short poles some 15-20cm off the ground to prevent flooding during rainy seasons.
Baba-no-no invited us inside one of these little homes and tried to sell me some emerald specimens. Although they were very nice specimens (ok, so I bought 3), I wanted to see them in situ and I asked him if he could take us into the mine site. He sadly refused saying it was not permitted and he was afraid to do so. I presented him with my business card and asked him to show the mine owner this and perhaps he could arrange a visit for me. Baba-no-no said we should return in 3 days…what to do, I had visited most of the south of the island so far, except Tulear. Tulear is on the exact opposite coast and a popular place for tourists.

So off we went, the driver and myself, day 3, an 18(!) hour drive to the other side of the country, through Wild West town Illakaka (saffires), Isalo national park (crossbedded sandstones) until at long last we arrived in Tulear. Now I have very little positive to say about this place; there is no nice beach (to the north and south of Tulear there are beaches), but I did meet some interesting people involved in mineral sands (ilmenite, zircon) and bio-fuel (from seeds with high oil content). After a day of resting and using a rather high speed internet (all relative, of course), we drove back to Mananjary to try our luck again.

We spent the night in Ranomafana (=hot water, for the springs), a beautiful rainforest park with dramatic waterfalls and arrived back at Baba-no-no’s house in the morning. This time, yay, we were allowed into the mine site. An unbelievable 4 days followed, where I visited several active and inactive emerald mines.

Mr. Jeannot Andrianjafy, the owner of a number of emerald mines, welcomed me as family. He started prospecting in the region for emeralds some 30 years ago and now is the number 1 emerald producer in Madagascar. Around his neck he wears a chain bearing a single octahedral raw diamond, which location only he knows. Diamonds in Madagascar?

He is also familiar with the region I work in, for example, he knew about the outcrop with pegmatite minerals I investigated last September. He took me to see different mine sites where I was able to map/sketch the emerald bearing veins and take samples. At one mine, we could hear bandits working inside the nearly flooded adit with chisels, removing the precious stones. While I was busying myself looking at an intrusive contact with deformed metabasalts, Mr. Jeannot aimed his rifle and with serious face fired two shots directly into the adit…not to be taken lightly, this man.

Back at the base camp I witnessed the sorting of the emeralds, some are good for cabochon material or even beads (big demand in Islamic countries, they make a type of rosary; colour of Islam is green), others make beautiful collector’s specimens with single perfect crystals in sparkly coarse black mica matrix and a small but still significant percentage is cutting rough. At the end of my first meal in camp, desert was served…banana flambee…not wanting to be insulting, I ate my banana and complimented the chef with a big smile. Each following meal I had to eat a banana…:/ I had no idea there were so many types of bananas…

Several of the mines were located north of the Mananjary River and we had to traverse it by pirogue (dug out canoe). Some of the mines are 100 meters across, with 4 to 5 parallel veins of coarse black mica (biotite) and quartz lenses, in which the emeralds are found…The 4 days were over and I needed to get back to my camp. But I was invited to return the following week to witness an event involving a real king!

After 8 more days at the drilling, we drove the 12 hours back to the mine site and arrived just before dark. Mr. Jeannot’s uncanny good eyesight and hearing had heard/seen us coming 15 minutes before we drove into camp.

In the morning we all headed over to the village where Baba-no-no lives. Hundreds of people had gathered there for the day’s event. Elders were drinking Toka-Gaz, an extremely strong clear rum distilled from fermented sugar cane juice. It has an awful chemical smell, like sweet bleach. Inside one of the larger wooden stick houses some 40 people had gathered, the floor had dirty straw mats laid out and we sat down on those. It was still early in the morning, but already Toka-Gaz hung heavy in the air. Elders took turns talking about the first king or the first house, voices monotone, droning. Then a group of women came into the already cramped space, singing, waving their arms in the air, swaying back and forth. Only one or two women really knew all the lyrics, the rest chanted along. One word standing out in each song was “Adonabe”, the name of the village. The elders shood the women away, saying they weren’t finished yet. The women left and the elders resumed their speech and drinking. The whole atmosphere carried traditional energy with it and I closed my eyes for a moment to take it all in.

There were two large speakers set up in the village with crackling Malagasy music so I thought I’d do some dancing to get the party going 😉 A large circle gathered around me, children and adults looking at my light blue eyes. Getting hot from the sun and dance and needing to freshen my air from all the intense body odours and Toka-Gaz, I backed out of the circle. Suddenly, a zebu came charging through the alleys between the houses. Several young men were trying to rope the cow, but she bucked and bolted, crashing her large horns into the fragile wooden buildings. I would have taken a photo, but narrowly missed her right horn as I jumped back one foot and fell backwards into a house. The men, with bare feet, at last brought her down. She was hog tied, head held back and her head cut clean(!) from the main body. Banana leaves served as containers as the zebu was cut up with axes and portions divided amongst the population. I didn’t know a cow had so much grass in its stomach…really enormous amounts.

At last the King appeared, an actual decendent of the Kings of the Antanala tribe. There are 18 tribes in this country (remember the Androy People of the Thorns?). And although kings are no longer formally recognized (Independent Republic with President), some still exist and are quietly worshipped. This King held a speech, one that won several rounds of applause. After this, all the important men went back into one of the houses for more Toka-Gaz. I was forced to participate in the drinking, which normally is not such a big problem, but this stuff simply stinks. And so, while bumping into a drunk woman offering me yet another little metal cup half full of the sweet chemical liquid, shooting back the drink and lighting up a cigarette, looking at the surrounding mountains thick with lush green rainforest and numerous palm species, dodging yet another zebu, stepping over small creeks of bright red blood, I sit down and think how incredible it is to be here.

I learned how emeralds are mined, that there are Kings and diamonds in this country, that Toka-Gaz gives a good high with no hangover, that Malagasy homes have their door facing west and that bananas are actually not so bad to eat.