Mandy Freeman

With a sense of excitement and anticipation of the mineral treasures Madagascar offers, we boarded Air Madagascar on 1st July this year (okay, 4 hours late, but at least on the same day). Our trip was part rock-hunting (obligatory in the Freeman household), and part island-holiday. Boy, were we in for a surprise…

We arrived in Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar where our adventures in a hired 4x4 with driver began. Tana, as it is known, has several stone markets where you can shop for gemstones, mineral specimens and a large variety of fossils. Pochard market has many little stores offering a huge variety of cut stones, and the other more interesting market is Digue, where, if you can shake off the insistent smouses and beggars, you can spend many hours going through hundreds of little stores, sifting through the inevitable fakes, glass, composites, glue, to find the real stuff. Both markets are tourist orientated so you have to bargain really hard, but in the end, in true gentle Malagasy culture, a reasonable price is accepted.

Looking at gemstones at the Pochard market in Antananarivo

After a night in the city, which takes high-density living to the extreme, we were anxious to start our journey down the RN7 towards the south. Our first stop was Antsirabe, to the pretty lake Andraikiba where there are several stalls selling gemstones and mineral specimens – a lot of beautifully coloured citrine, ‘Imperial’ citrine, clear rose quartz, apatite, but it was primarily tourist grade. It did have some very unusual quartz-included specimens which piqued my interest. Not spending too much time here, we headed for the main gem market in the city. We spent many hours and several days in this market, and were able to buy beautiful cut stones of all sorts of variety - kunzite, morganite, heliodor, tourmaline, Santa Maria aquamarine. Once the vendors got to know us, and what we were looking for, more variety and better quality stones were produced. We didn’t anticipate buying cut stones but, my gosh, if you are a lover of stones, you simply cannot walk away. Prices here, and quality, were much better than in Tana. Having a loupe and armed with a refractometer and Presidium thermal reader definitely helped to eliminate the fakes and badly cut/polished gems. We were, of course, on the lookout for grandidierite. Most of what we saw was heavily included and mainly polished into small cabochons, but Len was lucky enough to buy some rough which has produced a beautiful 5,315 ct stone, and another whopping 11,355 ct stone.

The grandidierite gemstone 5,3 ct cut by Len Freeman from rough purchased in Madagascar

A large variety of cut gemstones and cabochons seen for sale in one of the kiosks at the gemstone market in Antsirabe

After spending a few days in Antsirabe, we headed further south, breaking our stone journey to visit the Ranomafana Rain Forest to see the Golden Lemur. We found the extent of deforestation depressing, and although we forked out money for park entrance fee, community levy, nature guide, lemur spotters, it was clear to see a lack of conservation integrity and reinvestment. As soon as the spotters picked up movement in the canopy, the numerous tourist groups blundered through the forest in their anxious haste to get close for a photograph. Invariably the very few lemurs that were spotted beat a hasty retreat, hopefully not to the adjacent community forest area where hunting lemurs for meat and trade is still allowed.

However, since the omission of the word “stone” in our itinerary for more than a day leads to a grumpy husband, we left the cool mists of the rainforest to head further down the RN7 towards the illustrious Ilakaka. This is where sapphires were discovered, leading to an explosion of growth to a once tiny town.

You can see why Ilakaka is called the Wild West of Madagascar. The dusty town street is littered with opportunists and an equal number of synthetic stones. The commercial gemstone trade is firmly in the clutches of the Sri Lankan and Chinese businesses whose kiosks line both sides of the road, and who looked on in disdain at the miners who clambered around our vehicle, shoving their arms through the windows to offer their stones. It’s not a safe place to be, and our guide became anxious after overhearing some chatter outside the vehicle. We needed to keep moving from spot to spot, but it was clear that before long, we would have become a target for ambush on leaving the town.

Early morning at Ilakaka before the streets start filling up

This was supposed to be a garnet mined in the east of Madagascar, but it tested as glass

Buying rough in Ilakaka was an experience and pretty hot sitting in the car with the windows wound up for safety

And so, we headed out to Sakaraha where bags of mined gravel are transported here to be washed in the river. This is a big operation, but the villagers were fearful to engage with us, saying that they were working for the mine owner and had nothing for sale. We were directed to the back of the village where we oozed past vegetable stalls and cooking pots to where we hoped to be offered some rough. It turned out that this was where industrial or synthetic sapphires were traded. The atmosphere became quite hostile and we quickly decided to get out.

Washing gravel for sapphires on both sides of the bridge at Sakaraha

This was as far as our journey south would take us, and while heading back towards Antananarivo we stopped at the quaint village of Zazafotsy. The “place of the white babies” is a village with a high number of albino births. We met a very friendly family where we were able to buy some sapphire which had been collected at the Amboarohy corundum quarry nearby. They offered to take us there, but we were on a time constraint to get back to Antsirabe.

Anyone who has visited Madagascar knows that travel is a big challenge. Our flight to Nosy Be (the holiday part of our trip) was cancelled at short notice by the airline and at great expense we had to reschedule to bring the flight forward by a day to be able to get our boat transfer to a remote island off Hell-Ville in Nosy Be.

By this time, our thoughts were turning to how we were going to get our stones out of Madagascar. Prior to leaving South Africa, Len had fantasized all sorts of concealment, but I put my foot down and said he had been watching too much “Border Security” on TV. Love simply doesn’t extend that far! Luckily, as a tourist, you are legally allowed to take out a small quantity of cut stones, and we passed through security without a problem.

Did we love Madagascar? Despite its mineral wealth, it’s not a place we would rush back to. Madagascar is seriously third world. It’s expensive to get there, and the roads are atrocious, tripling the time to get anywhere. Even as hardened travellers, it’s hard to look the other way at the animal cruelty that is everyday life in Madagascar. Everything happens on the street, in the street. Being constantly besieged with food poisoning and distrusting the bottled water became our biggest challenge for the whole duration of our trip. Madagascar picked us up, swallowed us whole, and spat us out!

This is about the only thing we didn’t catch in Madagascar! Why on earth would you call your restaurant this?

Interestingly, to add to the Freeman’s experiences, this article appeared in the UK’s Guardian this past week.