Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Tanzanite Affaire

In the same way that my search for chrome Tourmaline brought about great adventure as well as my life’s great lesson, another gemstone, more famous by far, is responsible for our family’s long and enduring affair with Tanzania.

Buried in the nose of that self-same antiform that saw us finding less than we had hoped, yet more than we could ever have imagined, is one of the most mysterious and enthralling gemstones of our time.  – Before Reyno was flown up to Kilimanjaro to evaluate a dusty, blackened landscape strewn with secret tunnels and dark, dank holes filled with promise and sometimes death, I had barely heard of the gemstone.

Tanzanite was, during the 1990’s, something that I had learned of during my geology and particularly my gemology courses, but it did not carry nearly the same sense of significance for me as did the staple gems of that time – Sapphire, Emerald, Ruby and of course Diamond.

Nowadays however, there is, to me, no more exquisite and compelling gemstone on earth. – Sporting not only the ability to display 3 individual colours, merely dependent on which direction it is viewed (a characteristic known as trichroism), but also a distinct colour shift from blue to violet in select stones when lighting is changed from fluorescent to incandescent, this must be one of the most diverse and spectacular main-stream gemstones on earth.  
- It’s highly prized and most rare hues are thick and velvety, encapsulating succulent and syrupy blues and violets. Although the stone has neither the lustre nor fire of a diamond, this to my mind gives it a less harsh feel. – My oft fanciful thinking leads me to regard this stone as a real “lady”. She is softer and less durable than diamonds and sapphires and in being so needs to be treasured and protected all the more.  Tanzanite is both valuable and vulnerable – the gem should be treated with respect at all times – or we may have to bear serious consequences and isn't that so much like a woman?

As one advertising campaign in the early 2000’s claimed “tanzanite: - the colour a sapphire wishes it could be…”

Reyno’s first introduction to a stone that eventually reset the course of our lives occurred when he was flown, by AFGEM, up to the Merelani  antiform. – Reyno’s flights on the poorly run Air Tanzania and the like were cause for great concern – and then after the fact and once he had yet again survived, could fill pages of many amusing anecdotes that I will also have to share some time!

The Merelani “Block C” area had been mined extensively for graphite in the 1990’s. The nature of the graphite however made much of it very difficult to extract and so eventually the mine was liquidated and the area up for sale. Towards the end of the millennium Reyno was flown to the area by Mike Nunn, a dynamic and gutsy entrepreneur already involved in the coloured gemstone business who saw great promise in the graphite mine – but not for the stuff of pencils, but rather the blue-violet gems that also occasionally surfaced there .
At the time the mine was totally dilapidated and the expedition had to look carefully for bedfellows such as snakes, spiders and scorpions in the crumbling ruins where they slept.  – What was truly frightening though was the tight and terrifying tanzanite ‘tunnels’ that qualify as local ‘mines’ in the Merelani area. Reyno, in order to properly evaluate the potential of Block C realised that he would have to crawl and climb down these horrific holes.  

Reyno with local Masai near block C  (1999?) (scanned photo)

Many if not most local mines rely on the cheapest possible method to get to the layers of rock that contain tanzanite. Some of these holes plummet vertically for more than 80 meters and then turn to an angle of around 35 degrees for hundreds of meters more. The only thing that stops the young men and even sometimes women and children from plunging to their deaths are knots in the rather primitive looking ropes that are used to ascend and descend into the mine.  –If you attempt to go down, be very sure that your arms are strong enough to make it there and all the way back up....

Of course, after surviving for 2 weeks on rainwater and green bananas in the Congolese jungle, doing the Merelani mine manoeuvre did not scare our intrepid geo one iota.

In 1997 when Reyno was first introduced to the geology of the Merelani area, it was incredibly difficult to predict exactly where the mineralized zone would be and where exactly the gemstone occurred within this zone. – Over the months Reyno and his team slowly unravelled the secrets of mother earth’s method of manufacture. It is strange now, to even consider the notion that there was much debate as to whether or not the geology was folded upon itself or whether  it was a much simpler linear deposit, but then there are few geologists I have met who are so eerily in tune with what is happening geologically hundreds of meters under the earth. 

After spending some days evaluating the block C area by climbing the surrounding hills and looking down upon the vast expanse of scrubland and then crawling around in the hellish and dangerous ‘mines’ that littered block C and also the adjacent blocks  B and D, Reyno finally stuck his neck out and pronounced to Mike Nunn that pivotal little word .. “yes”. 

The rest is of course gemstone history, or perhaps more accurately re-history as of course Tiffanies had in the 1960’s already had a magnificent run with this beautiful gem.

With almost inhuman energy and drive the Nunn’s, both Mike and his gorgeously glamorous wife Candice, overcame monumental odds and took immense risks to start up what remains to this day the best Tanzanite company in the world, with some of the cleverest marketing seen since De Beers took on diamonds to rule the gemstone world, to compliment the rapid expansion of their mine.

My very first experience with the tanzanite mine was only a few years after Reyno’s initial trip and after a bulk sample exercise had produced significant tanzanite.

By this time the mine had purchased their very own aircraft, and so I was thrilled to be facing the trip up to Kilimanjaro in the most beautiful, lustrous Pilatus with soft pale leather interior a porcelain dinner service and the most beautiful cutlery and glassware imaginable. Feeling part of a movie set I waited with Reyno at Lanseria airport in Johannesburg as the dawn started to break. Once all six passengers traveling to the tanzanite mine that day had joined the pilot in boarding the small sleek cylinder we taxied off to the runway and with a burst of speed were finally airborne.

Although immensely luxurious and a wonderful experience, flying by Pilatus is also a much lengthier journey than taking a commercial airliner. Carrying extra weight in supplies for the mine we had to stop over in Malawi for about 20 minutes to refuel. At this juncture, my exhilaration new no bounds as I was offered the opportunity to occupy the co-pilot seat and my great adventure, contrary to what I thought possible, improved even further!

Immediately as I placed the soft, cushioned earphones over my head in order to hear pilot and airport officials, the news that our take off was to be delayed reached my ears. Rather hilariously it appeared as if our scheduled take off was bumped down the list in order to make way for a …. wait for it… V. VIP. Of course, coming from Africa the concept of a VERY VERY Important Person is quite par for the course! Still giggling from the frantic fanfare of the VVIP take-off I nervously clutched the seat as we got ready for our own ascent from the Malawi tarmac, with the wind at our tail! – Fortunately, even though instructed to take off rather unconventionally and dangerously without the wind from ahead to help lift the aircrafts wings, our accomplished, if young, pilot Ben expertly climbed back into the wide blue African skies, and we continued on to Tanzania.

My first acquaintance with Tanzania was quite simply magnificent. It was as if the universe itself had conspired to welcome me to this beautiful country. –Mount Kilimanjaro, usually veiled in dense, swirling clouds was, on this day, proudly on display, so much so that our pilot, who flew up every two weeks whipped out his camera and started to take numerous photographs of this imposing geological giant. As we approached the airport that squats at the food of Mount Kilimanjaro and so shares its name, I cannot imagine anyone on earth ever being afforded a clearer more handsome view of this slumbering volcano.  

Mount Kilimanjaro peeping through the foliage.. - taken from the "Round House" AFGEM Block C Tanzanite Mine (1999?)

After the surprisingly easy clearance at the airport we were bustled into the standard 4X4 required to negotiate both town and country in Tanzania. Travelling the road to the mine was fortunately quite pleasant due to the fact that AFGEM, upon the insistence of Mike Nunn, had taken it upon itself to improve many things around the mine area, including smoothing the roads, taking water to the local populace, improving schooling and creating decent job opportunities on their well run, safe and continuously improving mine.

Staying on the mine was both an adventure and a privilege for me, as wives are generally banned. My geology degree and (at that stage) rather vague background in gemmology as well as Reyno’s great prowess in predicting the deposition of tanzanite had some-how earned for me what many other wives of the guys living on the mine could only wish for, a chance to live on the mine for a few days and experience the workings first hand.

From the first early morning meeting I was included and thus determined to contribute in some or other way. – Donning a hardhat with requisite lamp and for some inexplicable reason bright white overalls along with all the other gents destined for the underground that day I was soon walking down the long dark tunnel that led deep down into the belly of the largest tanzanite mine one earth.

The geology that governs the deposition of tanzanite is highly complex and took many months of research and some hard thinking to try and unravel. – I don’t think it will ever be fully grasped and documented.

As I stumbled down the incline into the maw of the mine various layers of different types of rock were visible in the walls of the tunnels. At first these layers do indeed appear to be linear, but as I found myself deep in the womb of the tanzanite mine those layers could clearly be seen to double back on themselves, graphically vindicating Reyno’s beliefs.

The type of structural deformation in the area is now confirmed to be something that goes by the most delightful name of “chocolate tablet” boudins! There was also not only one folding event but FOUR distinct episodes of deformation involved in creating the birth place of tanzanite.

These geological episodes created the boudins that are roughly the shape of a rugby ball and most of the tanzanite is found only in the noses of these bodies. With the complex chemistry required to create Tanzanite including the rare element vanadium that is essential for its blue colour it is truly a miracle that the gemstone exists at all.

Some areas surrounding Merelani  are even more exquisite than the gemstone I love so much. Towards the North is the magnificent Mount Kilimanjaro in all its splendour. On a clear day this glorious giant towers in the distance, complimented toward the West by Mount Meru, a second volcano, currently dormant, but that has sported a minor eruption as recently as 1910! 

Mount Meru as viewed from the "Round House" AFGEM mine Block C. Tanzania (1999?)

Mount Meru, has been built up, eruption upon eruption over the centuries but is still only the second tallest peak in Tanzania. It is around 1000 meters lower than Kilimanjaro which is of course the highest mountain in Africa as well as the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. Just as the mythical Meru graces the center of all universes in Buddhist cosmology, the conical structure of Tanzania’s Mount Meru is the topographic heart of Arusha National Park. Its fertile volcanic soils cover slopes that soar above the surrounding savannah and support an exquisite, dense forest that hosts diverse wildlife, including nearly 400 species of birds, colobus monkeys, giraffe, buffalo and even leopard.  

At the end of this memorable and haunting visit to the core of Tanzania’s gemstone province, as the Pilatus was once more coaxed airborne by our pilot Ben, I knew that I had been to a place that had touched my soul forever, and even though, at that point I had no idea how, I knew that I would have to return some day. 

Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Journey Begins..

It was still early morning - nearly dark and surprisingly cool as Reyno and I stepped into the fairly well maintained sandy- coloured Land Rover Defender at the start of Easter Weekend of 2004.  We had come to Tanzania in search of a new source for the stunning bright green dravite tourmaline known as “chrome-tourmaline”. With its spectacular grassy hue attributable to elemental chromium trapped in its crystal structure, this vibrant green gemstone is rarer than both emerald and tsavorite garnet, though it does not yet command the same prices. 

The climate in Moshi, – a town directly, and very briefly, south of Mount Kilimanjaro is quite different from the heat and humidity of Dar es Salaam and thus the chill in the morning air caught me somewhat pleasantly  by surprise.
Armed with the sure knowledge of rumours, a “map’ that bore print not dissimilar to the previous night’s spaghetti leftovers trailing sparsely across a crumpled and battered page and a keen sense of optimism we set forth for a village, not actually indicated on the map and known to us only as “Nabarera”.

The 550 million year old Merelani antiform is a massive horse-shoe shaped structure that basks in the shadows of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. This ‘antiform’ embraces around 2000 square kilometres, with each arm (or flank of the shoe) stretching between 60 and 70 kilometres south. The antiform is a magnificent geological feature that plays host to some of the world’s most sought after gemstones including Tanzanite, Tsavorite and of course Chrome Tourmaline. 

The latter saw us eagerly setting off on our jaunt into the unknown. The distance we were to travel was only around 120 kilometres, however I use the term “only” rather loosely, as the going in Africa can become so bad that 10 kilometres can take a good few hours out of one’s day. – This fine morning however we had quickly left the town’s paved roads and were traveling at a comparatively brisk pace of around 25 kilometres per hour on the rough and sandy road that leads through the centre of the antiform. 
For the first two hours or so as we traversed the length of the massive horse-shoe, I was enthralled at the beauty of the Tanzanian landscape. Thorn trees dotted a horizon capped by the brilliant blue skies that only those who have spent time in the equatorial African bush would truly grasp.  –There seems to be a blueness and clarity that must have been painted by the gods themselves.

It is a well-known fact that in Africa you are never alone, and this is no more obvious than when nature starts to knock nervously at your consciousness as it did with me that fine morning.  There is no such thing as a “one-stop” or “ultra-city” to lure one in to refuel and refresh on the plains of darkest Africa and so the intrepid traveller must find a suitable patch and make do. Now, for some things I just plain “like my privacy’ and the privy ranks pretty high on that list. Of course, as the nature of my dilemma became more and more pressing, the less cover there seemed to be, the fewer trees and bushes and the more people were suddenly studded about the savannah.  It is a sad truth that when the bladder is crying out nothing else can enter one’s mind except to find relief.  I was not, however going to forego propriety in the process and so, after frantically searching for some suitable site for more than an hour, finally we came upon a “village” consisting of exactly 3 houses and some goats. – On the other side of the road however there was a large tree with a thick bush beneath. Without a word, Reyno – who had been watching me both squirm and refuse to go ‘just anywhere’ with growing fascination, tapped our driver on the shoulder and the car stopped.  It seemed like only seconds later, much relieved, that I noticed to my dismay that the thick bush that I was now occupying was in fact covered in a myriad of tiny, nasty and very sharp barbs. As I tried to gently extricate myself from said bush, these little barbs would grab a hold on any part of either my clothing or anatomy that they could find, leading to a very uncomfortable few minutes. – As my jeans were still around my knees I was not about to call for help! (This scene still keenly reminds me of the film "the  god's must be crazy" but without the land rover ending hoist up in a tree..) 

Finally, after some very bad language, I managed to emerge, relatively unscathed. As I rounded the tall-tree-big-bush-bathroom I was immediately accosted with the riveting site of an extremely elderly, virtually toothless Maasai bearing down on me with great enthusiasm. As he neared I began to glean that he had been partaking of something highly intoxicating and was as a result extremely happy to see me, and about to give me a great big welcoming kiss! Now, as delighted as I was to have had the use of the big tree, I was not quite ready for an up-close and personal encounter with a drunk Maasai. Thankfully my overjoyed grin whilst furiously kissing the palm of my hand and frantically waving it with as much enthusiasm as I could muster seemed to satisfy our new-found friend-for-life and we could finally haul out the spaghetti map and start asking the local populace how to find Nabarera.

Something that I love about so many of the Africans that we have met during our travels is how they consider it rude to say that they simply “don’t know’. Of course, at the time Reyno and I were both blissfully unaware of this tendency and so listened with keen interest as the local villagers and our Maasai-friend poured over the map that was now spread across the bonnet of our Land Rover. There ensued a delightfully animated discussion between the driver and several locals that had come from seemingly nowhere and now crowded around us and our ‘map’.  Every now again the word Nabarera was thrown around during a conversation of which neither Reyno nor I understood a word. Each time we would nod enthusiastically and try and follow the directions being emphatically indicated with such brazen assurance.  – We should of course have started to suspect that ignorance was playing a leading part in the whole saga when the directions seemed to be aimed in every single direction on a compass. –Good sense however was no match for our own special brand of hope and enthusiasm and so we set off once again confident that soon we would be united with this magnificent chrome tourmaline deposit and be able to sample the geology, and who knows, maybe even discover a spectacular specimen or two, for, dare I say it, a BARGAIN!

Nabarera however continued to remain an enigma. What did become clear was that the weather was rapidly approaching deluge status, with colossal clouds amassing above us as we travelled. There is something majestic, awesome and almost incredible about the rains that fall in Tanzania, and I assume other parts of equatorial and sub-equatorial Africa.  After the first few plump raindrops plop down to test gravity as it were there is a sudden and inexorable cascade of water from the skies. The rain is warm and the temptation to rush out and dance wildly in the middle of it all almost overwhelming. During this particular trip I managed to behave, however I have subsequently rushed around madly in the rains (for the children’s sake of course) feeling the rush of water cleanse my spirit whilst simultaneously showing me the power of mother nature in the most basic and irrefutable of ways.   

Mother nature was, during our search for Nabarera, doing her utmost to make the journey an intensely exciting one. We were both however delighted at the relaxed and expert manner in which our driver seemed to be almost effortlessly navigating the rapidly changing landscape. A sudden onrush of water, mud and debris was no match for John* as he calmly drifted around it all and kept us on the right track. I was mentally congratulating ourselves for at least the fourth or fifth time when John* suddenly slammed into a partially submerged, but still visible branch, and then bounced crazily across several boulders littering the roadside – his entire demeanour still as relaxed and laid-back as the blue caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, and –it suddenly dawned on us- for the same reason.  John* was truly as high as the proverbial kite and must have been surreptitiously partaking of ’medicinal marijuana’ for much of the journey. – The sudden 5 minute disappearances when we stopped began to illustrate a certain need for the type of succour that did not mesh well with truly great driving ability.  –It is an interesting lesson on perspective to suddenly be faced with the dilemma of a driver that you thought was really good being, in actual fact just really inebriated. Our immediate reality before and after the shattering realisation that our driver was high remained totally unchanged; our shared state of mind however underwent a complete transformation. Seatbelts were clutched, eyes suddenly wide with mentally induced terror and breath remained bated for at least half an hour after the sudden insight.

This particular incident has ever since given me much pause for thought. How true is it that it is our perception of events that so completely rule our state of mind. When we believe we are safe, we feel safe and when we believe we are imperilled we and our endocrine systems, act accordingly. I wonder how often people live in fear when there is simply no need. – Even after we realised that John* was perhaps not quite the driver we initially thought, he still managed to bring us home safely.  The greatest stress of the day, in the end, came from our fears and dark thoughts and none from our reality. I now, in light of this sudden revelation try to steer my thoughts – which as a displaced South African, can become quite dark at times – in a direction of the positives. My life is filled with so many blessings that they are too many and too varied to even begin to document. From the basic things like a wonderful family and good health, the incredible adventures and astounding experiences life has offered me, to the blissful hopes for the future, there is no need to dwell on the harsh and ugly realities that the world is also filled with. –

 If I come across something that dismays or upsets me I see what I can do to help. If there is nothing, I pray – for that at least, we can always do, no matter which God we claim as our own. Even the agnostic and atheist can quietly send good vibes and happy thoughts towards the iniquities of our time. Once we have done what we can, it is wise to get on with living and enjoy the wonderful things that surround us, within and without.
We never did find Nabarera, or the Chrome Tourmaline deposit. We did somehow though ‘find ourselves’ on that bumpy road that led us down the antiform.

Throughout life every one of us is partaking in our own continual pilgrimage. We are constantly looking for our Nabarera and our own treasures. If we somehow come to realise along the way that our true resources are in our interactions with others and in the thoughts we dwell upon then we have found riches beyond mere mortal measure.   

*name changed for obvious reasons….