Antetezambato North Madagascar.
During our most recent expedition to Madagascar in the summer of 2009 we decided to visit, among many other localities of geological interest, the new locality for demantoid: Antetezambato. This village lies in northern Madagascar, on the western coast, not far from the town of Ambanja.
We set out directly for Antetezambato from Nosy Komba, a paradisaical island overgrown by cocoa palms and surrounded by bright blue ocean and coral reefs. As we do every year, we had enjoyed a few quiet days there between strenuous, weeks-long stretches of field work. On a sunny August morning, in a motor boat belonging to our friend Laurent, we embarked from this beautiful island and headed for Antetezambato. We made very fast progress, slicing efficiently through the blue water, although at one point we had to stop for some dolphins which leaped from the sea very near our boat. After about an hour and a half we were approaching the coast of mainland Madagascar at a point near a small peninsula wherein lies the village of Antetezambato, a few kilometers from the sea-coast. Nevertheless one still reaches the village by boat--that is, by way of a contorted watercourse through a mangrove forest, along a channel or (as the case may be) across a shallow mudflat during low tide. Our peculiar journey along this watercourse consumed the next 40 minutes. Finally we came to a bridge that spanned a canal. On the bridge was the name of the village where we were headed: Antetezambato ("place of the bridge on the rocks" in the Malagasy language).
Like the Wild West
Our friend Laurent's wife is from this village, and from her we learned that the formerly tiny settlement of a few huts had very suddenly become the center of a crazy world of gem-seeking. Although we'd known what awaited us, coming onto the reality was a shock. Despite the many years we had already spent in Madagascar we had never seen such a phenomenon as the "new" Antetezambato.
No sooner had we left the boat and entered the main street than we were completely convinced that no trace remained of the formerly peaceful little village. The street itself was remarkable--wide, smooth, and easy even for cars lacking four-wheel drive to negotiate (such a street is a real rarity in Madagascar). On both sides of the bridge and almost to the horizon there were wide tracts filled with rudimentary huts made of palm leaves. On both sides of the street, life flourished: dozens of stands, booths, shops, bars, and great numbers of people. By Madagascar standards, Antetezambato is a real city!
A few minutes after we'd left the boat we were already being besieged by a crowd of dealers. The news that we had arrived and that we wanted to see good specimens had traveled like the wind. Continually surrounded by a variety of hopeful sellers, we moved slowly in the direction of the center of town.
Intolerable heat, importunate people, and the inspection of thousands of specimens (mostly of very low quality) that the people kept pressing into our hands had wholly exhausted us after just half an hour. We sought shelter in a little bar where we drank a cold Coke, thus giving ourselves a break from the noisy crowds outside. For a moment things were almost quiet and we had a chance to look out over Antetezambato. The short walk up to now had shown us how much this place differed from the rest of Madagascar. Because of the lack of readily available electricity, owners of generators make unbelievable profits: they have shops in which they charge mobile phones for exorbitant fees. Prepaid telephone cards worth 1,000 Ariary (about 46[cents] in the local currency) are sold for 12,000 Ariary ($5.50), etc.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Within a few more minutes we were encircled again by a crowd, and they stayed with us all the way to the "demantoid market." Situated along the back road leading to the diggings, this market consisted of a row of little stands where merchants bought and sold single crystals, mostly intended as cutting material. There were a few collector pieces, with crystals on matrix, but all of these were of low quality: low luster, poor color and much damage.
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
But fortunately there began to appear in the crowd (which grew more numerous by the minute) some specimens of better quality. These displayed garnet crystals to 1.5 cm with high luster and beautiful pale green to olive-green color. Among the best specimens were also a few fakes, with fine crystals glued to matrix. Some of these fakes were so well executed that without a loupe it would have been impossible to distinguish them from real specimens. Local "producers" had used ground-up rock mixed with glue and pressed the crystals into the mixture to affix them to matrix. The fact that the original matrix material is granular, rough and porous makes production of these fake specimens that much easier--it is only under strong magnification that the matrix looks artificial (shiny and moist, because of the glue). Later, when we returned to Europe, we saw fake specimens like these, presumably purchased in good faith in Antetezambato, being offered on the mineral market. We don't mean to suggest that the European dealers themselves are dishonest--the fakes are simply so well done that they are very difficult to recognize.
[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]
Back at the market, after another hour in the midst of the increasingly pushy crowd, we decided to flee. Besides, we wanted to visit the demantoid mines themselves. Our guide took us onto a fairly wide path which led off in the direction of some nearby hills. The crowd of insistent sellers surrounding us gradually grew smaller, and after about 500 meters we were once again left in peace: what a relief!
The miners' path
The path we were now following was even more crowded with people than the main street of Antetezambato. Dozens of gemstone diggers carrying hammers, crowbars, pump parts, and even huge generators passed us en route. Some of these people offered us freshly mined specimens, of which very few were of good quality. From the fact that the miners were carrying heavy equipment we inferred that we we were still far from our destination--but we were wrong.
The path took us to the top of a nearby hill, but its end was nowhere in sight. It was about mid-day, and the temperature had reached an unbearable level. In the truest sense of the term, we were bathed in sweat. Our respect for the miners who carried huge generators increased--they looked as if they were out on a pleasant walk with friends. Finally the path led downwards, towards a basin where the first diggings came into view. By the time we reached our goal the heat and exertion had left us totally drained, although we had come only 2.5 kilometers. After a brief rest we began to investigate the area.
Mining amidst the mangroves
The area of the diggings looked like the proverbial moonscape: thousands of pits overflowing with turbid water and mud; the stumps of fallen mangrove trees; old, abandoned diggings filled with foul water; and a huge number of men who were living in these conditions. Although in our travels around the world we had seen hundreds of mining areas, we had never even dreamed of scenes like this. If I had to summarize all my impressions of this place in a single phrase I would choose "chaos amid foul slime."
For the most part the pits are located on a tidal plain which was once occupied solely by mangrove trees. Such areas are usually very swampy, and they flood regularly during high tides. The land in which most of the pits have been dug is saturated with sea water during a normal high tide, and is wholly flooded when the tide is exceptionally high. Some of the miners told us that after a very high tide they usually find salt water fish in their pits. The whole system of mining is regulated by the tidal cycles. The miners leave their pits during high tide, and it is only when the tide ebbs that they can begin to dewater the pits. The better financed teams use generator-powered pumps for this purpose; the poorer ones take out the water in buckets and sacks. The water is channeled into a system of canals which ends at the sea. The layout is such that the men can empty their own pits without flooding others. But the time that passes between tidal influxes is so short (just a few hours) that after the pits are pumped out very little time remains in which to actually dig for gems.
The mineralized horizon lies at a depth between 6 and 15 meters; usually the pits are between 10 and 15 meters deep. For a three to five-person team to dig a pit that deep under these difficult conditions takes between two and three months!
[FIGURE 4 OMITTED]
Exploitation of the small portion of the garnet-bearing horizon at the bottom of the pit, once it has been reached, normally takes only one to three days. Then the miners abandon their hard-won pit and begin to dig a new one. Unfortunately, the garnet-bearing horizon often contains only poor-quality garnets, or may contain none at all. Truly first-class demantoid finds are rare, but they are the "paydays" after months of hard work under extreme conditions.
During our stay we came to look with great respect on the hundreds of gemstone diggers who work with smiles, and with great energy, in the face of very hostile conditions. With pride they explained to us how they deal with the problems of tides and flooding in their diggings, and with the challenges posed by occasional hard, tough rocks. Our visit to the mine site lasted just a few hours, but it radically changed our attitudes concerning prices of specimens from Antetezambato. We think unanimously that if we ourselves had to work under such conditions we would never sell our hard-won specimens so cheaply.
Since our visit to the workings, we have thought more and more how remarkable it really is that such tiny crystals were found in the midst of a muddy mangrove thicket at all.
From hell back to paradise
We spent a few more hours in the mining area but, having a long way to go, we decided at about 4:00 P.M. to begin heading back to the town. And again we were accompanied by dozens of gem diggers, all carrying pumps, generators and other pieces of heavy equipment. When we reached the main street, a crowd of sellers again surrounded us in a flash. We bought a few of their specimens--not bargaining very hard for them this time. Finally we reached the harbor where our motorboat awaited us. After such an eventful, adventurous day we allowed ourselves a slow return trip through the labyrinth of canals in the mangrove swamp.
When we came out onto the open sea it grew increasingly gusty. High waves tossed our boat back and forth, retarding our progress. Every time our bow sliced through a wave a large quantity of water entered the boat. After just a few minutes on the open water we were wholly soaked and frozen. Finally, after more than two hours--by which time it was totally dark--we reached Nosy Komba and our comfortable hotel. After quick showers to wash the salt from our skins, we concluded this exciting day with a dinner of grilled crabs, crayfish, shrimp and fish.
When we awoke the next day and gazed dreamily from the windows over the cocoa palms and blue water, the "Antetezambato world" seemed very far away. But we knew that just 15 kilometers from us, another day of the demantoid miners' struggle with the powers of nature was beginning. Even though good specimens from the place could be obtained more easily from mineral dealers in the capital city, we made up our minds to return very soon to Antetezambato.
Our sincere thanks to Minemlim-Welt editor Rainer Bode for per mission to translate and reprint this article from his January-February 2010 issue. The translation is by Tom Moore.
Tomasz Praszkier and Asia Gajowniczek
Spirifer Geological Society
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|Author:||Praszkier, Tomasz; Gajowniczek, Asia|
|Publication:||The Mineralogical Record|
|Date:||May 1, 2010|
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