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. 

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