Highlight of the Year: Madagascar
As 2016 fades away, we are probably all looking back on the year’s most memorable moments. A gem mining expedition to Madagascar was, undoubtedly, one of the brightest highlights for us. Not only did it provide wonderful material for the new book Gemstones. Terra Connoisseur with its vibrant landscapes and gems, it unfolded a whole new world for us, and we would like to share these impressions with you – ones that will never fade, no matter how time passes. Hot red ground, a deep blue sky, the ebony skin of the people – where else could such a scene be set? This was the picture that dominated our imagination before the trip. Needless to say the reality exceeded all expectations – those we had dared to imagine and even beyond.
The common perception of Madagascar is that of darkest Africa. This prejudice led us to expect to be driving in an armored vehicle with big guys carrying big guns for security, terrified that every mosquito could be carrying malaria, looking out each step of the way for every organic and inorganic danger. Of course it was nothing like that. Madagascar is very different. The present geography is the result of the island separating from India millions years ago. The original inhabitants of the island had a Malay-Polynesian heritage. It has been a fortunate isolation in many ways, not least in that the Malagasy people still remain so authentic. Although the inevitable signs of globalizing commerce are there, not one smile is synthetic, not one hug fake; the people are not jaded by lavish tourist attention, not yet, anyway. They remain unspoiled – untreated. These are the Malagasy people: an African-Asian fusion of Christians, saying “Salam” as a greeting, having a sacred zebu as a stew on the dinner plate and as a scribbled image on the door, racing in rickshaws, burning fires all over the immense lands just for the hell of it, dancing, singing, and mining, mining, mining… Tonga Soa – Welcome to Madagascar!
Madagascar, “nature's design laboratory”, is home to an immense number of species of both flora and fauna that can be found nowhere else in the world, except maybe in dreams because they are so miraculous and surreal. Even the rocks and baobab trees resemble some intricate Neverland creatures. Thanks to the animated film “Madagascar”, the island has acquired a new endemic that keeps multiplying and expanding unstoppably. The name of this specie is “a kid desperate to see a live lemur”. In other words, it is just anybody. Tourists of all ages and races are flocking to Madagascar, lured by its magnificent landscapes, tame wildlife and vanilla-flavored vibes.
However, our main course had a different dressing. If there were a place that could be called “the laboratory of gem design”, it would have to be Madagascar. Gemstones are so abundant and versatile here that even historical gem-mining icons would curl up in envy. Summarize virtually all colored gems from both Ceylon and Burma, add some other precious items too – like diamond, emerald or tsavorite – and this all boils down to Madagascar. With a discovery of pink sapphire deposits there around fifteen years ago, the mining became so intense that these pretty gems invaded the world market, pulling the prices down by a factor of ten. An absolute majority of all-color corundum supplied at that time was of Madagascan origin, no matter whether it was cut in Sri Lanka or Thailand. Nowadays though a fine pink sapphire is quite an investment again. Madagascar has fully deserved its right to be considered the world’s newest gem paradise.
Mining from scratch
Our first priority was certainly Ilakaka: now the major gem-trade center. A few years ago it was nothing but desert, with a sprinkling of palm-trees. Gem mining takes place all over the area, be it mass-scale production or small hand-dug holes on the path. Golden soil, soft as French butter, yields eagerly to the miners’ brawny arms and sharpened shovels. Our team was lucky to see how a gem mine is born: crumb by crumb, step by step, digging deeper, feeling the pulse of a precious vein, yet to be seen and stirred. We were even more blessed to witness the birth of a new gem town in Antsakoamasy, a three-hour drive from Ilakaka. From above, the scene resembled a festival, a boisterous celebration, a jamboree of music and laughter, a patchwork of mud-stained rags and bright, white smiles. From inside, it was just another day of gem panning in the stream. Even those who had been living in Ilakaka for decades agreed they had never seen such a vibrant busy scene – not only unprecedentedly photogenic, but above all full of promise for the country’s ongoing gem prosperity.
Busy taking pictures like crazy, each cameraman ended up being taken over by a gang of children. The rest of us, carrying candies instead of cameras, were petite-cordoned as well. Youngsters, even Infants, they would grab hold of you so tightly you could hardly breathe, let alone move along the slippery riverbank. With their cheerful faces, infectious giggles and innocent bustle, dozens of kids would follow our every step, even when we locked ourselves in our vehicles for a break. Two blonde-haired children on our visiting team couldn’t help bursting out with their own questions: "What is so exciting about sticking to other humans for hours on end, just watching them up close?" Well, maybe it’s the same reason that we tourists come to see live lemurs. "Why so many children anyway?" Well, look at these villagers, living hand-to-mouth, panning and shoveling: no TV, no gadgets – no electricity and what we would call civilization at all, not even clean water. No football, no music to play, even no sun after six – what joys does life offer them?..…Yet the fuel tank of the Malagasy children seems to hold zero aggression or misery, while the level of curiosity and naïve carefreeness seems to go off-scale. The children did not beg or expect anything from us, they were just there; moving next to you, peering into your face, smiling frankly, echoing any distinct word after you as if you were a teacher. Sometimes, they would shyly and humbly ask for a bonbon, and we’d regret not having more to give them. When we still had bonbons to scatter among the kids, the number of sweets shamefully disproportional to the throng of children, we noticed how one little girl nibbled her bonbon and shared the crumbs with younger friends. This is an impression of Malagasy children that won’t fade away.
Rock the French
After infinite hours exploring the dusty mines, under direct sunshine (science has it that the rays are especially hazardous in Madagascar), wet and dirty crossing the knee-high stream, out in the fields with no water and fresh food, what wouldn't you give for a glimpse of comfort? In a country unmarred by central sewers or electricity, the crafty French managed to raise high-crowned castles in the rocks of Isalo National Park – our shelter, our promised land. It is not about the service, organic luxury, or haute cuisine – it is the spacious land with no boundaries, clear, unpolluted air, endless azure skies and mighty rocks, soundlessly guarding the long-deserved serenity of your stranded soul. … and yet – just a quick mention of the epicurian delicacies: the speciality – vanilla sauce (not for cake, but for fish), confiture de pok-pok and physalis (same pok-pok) rum is a gourmet experience sine qua non.
Take my breath away
While in the mines and among the rocks, the blue sky was so spotless that we paid full respect to the mobile weather forecast, boldly stating for Madagascar: “chance of rain – 0%”. How reckless of us it was though to apply the formula to the whole country, including Andasibe National Park that lay on our way back. Somehow the word “rainforest” makes one think of “rain” at forty degrees. A Madagascar rainforest has not much to do with the hot and sweetly humid tropical jungles though. Andasibe area, for example, lies over a thousand meters above sea level, and the feeling of being cold, damp – even drenched with rain haunts you ceaselessly, making your wanderlust chills especially rewarding. Among all the amazing creatures like chameleons, tortoises, colored frogs and birds, crocodiles and fossa cats, the undoubted king of the Madagascan jungle has all eyes on him. The Lemur’s adorability factor is overwhelming: from its giant pop-eyes and clumsy posture, to the soft fur and a cute grunting sound. No matter whether you are lucky enough to see a wild indri or not, the rainforest itself is worth the whole rough, ten-hour drive. The spirit of the forest embraces you head-to-toe, sending shivers down the spine. You feel dizzy and intoxicated with oxygen… the air is so saturated and at the same time diffused, that you feel you just can’t breathe enough. You keep trying to fill your already blown-up lungs with this vital manna, like you'll never breathe again.
Framing our Madagascar adventure in a slideshow, we remember its grasping landscapes, changing as the drive went on and the sun went down. A fusion of green, almost Alpine valleys and hills, Indonesian plantations and Nepalese architecture, evoking the Da Vinci’s era when people lived a painfully forsaken pastoral life. Red-soil heights, like on Mars, and unbounded golden plains, casting long layered shadows like an impressionist’s brush strokes. With its unsurpassed scenery, generous soft lighting and the absence of telegraph poles and electricity lines that always ruin field shots, Madagascar must count as photographer’s paradise. Visual ecstasy aside, we recall the mighty Isalo rocks that surrounded us with piercing silence, and the piercing eyes of the Malagasy kids that encircled us with clinking chatter. Every inch of the fantasy island is alert, vibrant, stirred and stirring. Say “Madagascar” – think “Lemur”; that was how things were before we went there. Now after seeing and feeling it all, we say “Madagascar” and think “L’amour”. We are in love with this fairyland.Explore more stories, images and Madagascan gems in your new copy of the book Gemstones. Terra Connoisseur. Buy now at gemstonesbook.com!