Kenya and Tanzania Gem Safari 2009
After months of anticipation, my African gemstone safari was finally on. I had initially planned to spend a week in Arusha, Tanzania and nearby wildlife parks, but soon after buying the airline tickets I found a safari company (Brayogo Safaris, www.brayogosafaris.com) that could arrange a 3-day gemology tour around Voi, Kenya. The price was reasonable and I was especially intrigued by the promise of mine visits and buying from local dealers.
There were no problems with my departure from Atlanta, and I arrived in Amsterdam right on schedule. Since I knew that the flight path from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro would take us over the Sahara desert, I requested a window seat ahead of the wing. It was a great flight – the desert scenery over Libya and Somalia was even better than I had hoped and served as a perfect entry into Africa. The sky quickly darkened and we made an uneventful evening landing. Immigration procedures were quick and painless, and I soon found my driver for the Marangu Hotel. Marangu is a small town near the Kenyan border on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, and serves as the jumping-off point for one of the climbing routes to the summit. Arriving at 11pm, I was quickly shown the cottage and a meal was waiting in the room. I was very tired by then, so I just had a few bites, then off to bed. Being in the middle of banana plantations, it was very quiet – except for dogs barking and roosters crowing in the middle of the night.
It was a little misty when I awoke so I couldn’t see Mount Kilimanjaro just yet. Gichuchu Okeno of Brayogo Safaris showed up right on schedule and we shared breakfast while discussing the plan for the day. As we drove away from the hotel the weather cleared, and I looked back and saw Kilimanjaro looming over us. The driver stopped a few moments later to let me grab a quick photo, and then we continued east for another 30 minutes to the Taveta border crossing. Paperwork was quickly processed, and then it was a 2 mile trip on a rough road over the “no man’s land” that serves as a buffer between Tanzania and Kenya. Soon at the Kenya border, we were then processed by Kenyan border officials, and then we switched to Okeno’s car.
Okeno’s assistant joined us, and we were off to Voi. The Kenyan portion of the highway was unpaved and consisted of a varying combination packed red dirt, rocks, and huge potholes. We dodged obstacles as best we could, but progress was slow. The landscape was very dry due to the recent drought, with little grass or green anywhere to be seen. We saw a few locals walking or biking along the road, and I finally spotted a Maasai tribesman in traditional clothing herding his cattle. NOW I was in Africa!
Gradually the landscape became a bit greener and I spotted more animals such as ostriches, zebras and dik-diks (a very small antelope). The Taita Hills in the distance slowly showed themselves, and we soon turned off the main road to a smaller dirt road that was much smoother than the main highway. It was also more populated here, so as we traveled fast through small farming villages we dodged bicycles, goat herders, cattle, and the occasional donkey cart. In about 30 minutes were back on the main highway and soon in the small town of Mwatate.
Okeno started slowly driving through center of town. Noticing an acquaintance on the main street, he stopped the car and soon a conversation was in progress. A few other locals joined the conversation, mobile phones calls were made, and a plan was put in motion. There was a local gemstone dealer that had some stones but was very cautious, but we were given permission to visit.
Entering through the locked gates, we were summoned to his office. I was shown some small stones that didn’t look very promising, but he had a large 30-gram color-change garnet. It had a nice red color in incandescent lighting, but unfortunately the daylight color was not as attractive. It might have made a great specimen but as I was only interested in faceting material, I passed on it.
Thanking the dealer for his time, we were soon back on the road. Here the highway was paved, but there were still so many potholes it was difficult to travel very fast. We meandered from one shoulder to the other (whichever looked smoother at the moment), at the same time watching for approaching cars and trucks. Finally, we arrived in Voi and drove directly to the Voi Wildlife Lodge (www.voiwildlifelodge.com). I checked in and we enjoyed the lunch buffet while watching the waterhole right outside for any animals. Due to the recent rains, the animals could find water elsewhere so there was nothing to see except for a few marabou storks.
Heading back into town, we stopped at the house where Okeno knew the owner had a large parcel of tsavorites (probably a kilo or so). Most were very small, but there were several up to 2 grams, and I selected the three largest. All were nice but the price was far higher than expected. An attempt at negotiation produced only a modest reduction in price. I felt that I needed to see other material before any serious negotiations could take place, so I said I’d think about it and we left.
By now it was too late to visit the mines, so we changed plans to meet with local gemstone brokers in Okeno’s office. We arrived at the office, which overlooks the local market and transportation center.
A few dealers started to show up, and they were let in one by one. Some had small parcels, others had just one or two stones, but unfortunately most stones shown were poor quality. Those people were quickly ushered out (often with complaints), and the next one brought in. Some of the dealers were quite devious – we found out later that the owner of one of the parcels that I had rejected had planned to take it out to the mines to have it presented to me again.
Gradually I managed to find a few small tsavorites, a parcel of iolite, a few rhodolite garnets, some fancy-colored sapphires, and a small parcel of color-change garnets. A problem soon became apparent – the banks would not accept $100 bills issued in 1996. The story is that Saddam Hussein had counterfeited this particular issue, so finally through a series of phone calls the bank finally agreed to accept a limited number of them. Next time I’ll know not to bring 1996 issued bills (and 1999, which I later discovered could be a problem as well).
Finally we were done. The sun was already setting, so we sat in the open-air hotel bar enjoying the local Tusker beer while Okeno and I checked email on our laptops. Suddenly Okeno spotted something and jumped back. A huge scorpion about the size of my hand was crawling toward us under the table in front of us. I grabbed my camera and got a couple of shots just before the waiter smashed it with an ashtray. The excitement over, we had dinner and watched for the lion that someone had spotted earlier (with no luck).
The next day’s agenda included visits to the famous color-change garnet mine as well as the local tsavorite mines. The first order of business was driving to the bank to finalize the conversion of my $100 bills, then it was off to the local police station to arrange for a couple of armed plainclothes policemen for our trip to the mines. The police station consisted of a few buildings with a small courtyard, through which a few people in handcuffs were being paraded through to their court proceedings. We waited in the police chief’s office while the paperwork was completed, and then we were ready to go. Or so we thought. The key in the car had been left in the “on” position and the battery had died. It was quickly deduced that we needed a jumper cable (which no one had), so a local entrepreneur saw an opportunity to make a few dollars, negotiated a price with Okeno, and raced off to the local vendor. Ten minutes later he returned with two 4-foot pieces of insulated wire. Car hoods were opened, bare ends of the wire were held against the battery terminals, sparks flew, and we were good to go.
We headed west for about 30 miles and exited the highway near a large sisal plantation. We drove over small dirt roads through the plantation, then through even smaller dirt roads through the bush. After another 5-10 miles or so we were in the small village of Kamtonga, which basically consisted of about 50 mud-and-stick houses with no electricity or running water. We pulled into the courtyard of the local bar and pulled out our picnic lunches while waiting in the shade. Gradually a few miners started showing up, including one with a parcel of mint grossular garnet, but as usual it was too fractured to be of any use to me. Some people only had one or two stones wrapped in newspaper or plastic wrap, but nothing of interest was presented.
Lunch completed, we drove past small fields with thornbush fences and a bit later arrived at the color-change mining area. Getting out of the car, I could see gravel flying out of a deep hole, which contained a miner about 8 feet down shoveling out the gem-containing gravel. We made our introductions to the miners, then walked through the corn fields and a couple of small farmyards to the exact location where color-change garnets were discovered last year.
At that time, a worker was digging a hole for the outdoor toilet when he discovered the new color-change garnets. Word spread quickly, and soon miners converged on his property and nearly took apart his house. Things are much quieter now, and we were given permission to cross this area and meet with the owner. We had a nice visit with him, and on the way back examined an unused mining machine that the Sri Lankans had brought in. While we were getting in the car we were approached and shown a couple of garnets. Both were clean and appeared to have a fairly good blue-purplish-red color change, so a price was quickly agreed upon.
We had heard rumors that there might be some good stones in an even smaller village nearby. This village consisted of basically four houses and a bar, so we arrived at the bar and had a seat. Again, a few stones appeared but there was nothing of interest.
Back on the road, we were now headed for the tsavorite mines. We had a local miner along to assist with directions through the bush, so there were now five in the car (and the rear shock absorber was beginning to protest). The first stop was Campbell Bridges tsavorite mining camp, where I could see the treehouse that he lived in when first opening the mine. We had planned to meet Campbell when my trip was first planned, but soon afterwards he was tragically killed by local minors with whom he had a dispute. Not meeting him and seeing his "Scorpion" tsavorite mine was the only major disappointment of this trip.
Continuing on, we stopped at a small mine with about half a dozen miners and examined a few parcels of poor quality tsavorite. Passing on these, we continued through the bush to the "Baraka" tsavorite mine. Elizabeth (the owner) invited us into her house to view some rough stones, but unfortunately all of the recent production seems to have been low-grade material. It was now late in the day, so we had no time to actually see the mine itself.
Soon afterwards, we were speeding down a rare stretch of straight and smooth dirt road when suddenly a pair of dik-diks ran across in front of the car. Okeno slammed on the brakes, but one turned back and was struck by the car. We stopped and the miner with us said “food!” in Swahili and ran back to where the dik-dik lay. It was critically injured but not dead, so he put it out of its misery with a few whacks to the head. The miners rarely get to eat meat, so this was to be a special treat for him. We rounded up some plastic bags to keep the blood out of the car, and then we were on our way again.
We were now near Leopard Hill and passed the spot where Campbell Bridges had been ambushed. We reflected on the tragedy as the sky gradually darkened, and we drove in darkness back to Kamtonga, where we dropped off the miner and his dinner. Sitting in the darkness, we were again approached by several locals with a few stones. One larger color-change garnet looked interesting, but it had too much rutile to cut a clean stone.
Driving out of Kamtonga, there were no lights at all except for a few kerosene lanterns burning inside some of the houses. We traveled back through the bush and sisal plantation to the main road. Then it was back to Voi, dropping off the policemen in town, and on to the Voi Wildlife Lodge for a late dinner.
I had a little bit of a later start the next morning, so I was able to catch up on some email while waiting for Okeno. The weather again was clear and sunny - I had been very lucky with weather as this was supposed to be the “short rains” season. We would never have made it to the mines if it had rained.
Okeno arrived and we went to his office to complete the gemstone export documentation. The stones need to be processed through the Kenyan Ministry of Mines in Nairobi, so Okeno agreed to ship them via FedEx a few days later. We went to the bank again, and it was amusing to see one of the plainclothes policemen who had accompanied us to the mines now in uniform and guarding the front of the bank. After chatting with him for a while, Okeno asked if I wanted to see the Tsavo East National Park, as it was only 10:30am. I had always wanted to see the park, but never thought that we would have enough free time.
We crossed into the park through the elephant gates, then to the park office where I paid the $50 entrance fee. The vegetation inside the park was very green and lush from the recent rains, so I’m sure that the animals were happy as there had been a sustained drought over the last several years. As we were driving in, we noticed that the rear shock absorber was making even more noise than normal, but Okeno promised that we’d get it checked on the way back. Not more than 10 minutes inside the park, a lion crossed the road about 30 feet in front of the car, watched us for a few minutes, and then crossed back over the road. I had seen lions in South Africa before, but nothing this close. Then we were off again – spotting elephants, giraffes, several varieties of antelope, baboons, ostriches, and all sorts of exotic birds. After a couple of hours, it was time for lunch, so we went to the Voi Safari Lodge near the park entrance.
The Safari Lodge is situated on the side of a hill overlooking the Tsavo plains, and the view from it was awesome. The green plains stretched as far as the eye could see, and we could spot families of elephants, herds of antelope, and flocks of birds.
After lunch, we left the park and stopped at a service station to get the shock absorber checked out. The service station happened to be right next door to a small beer garden, so I kicked back and enjoyed a couple of Tusker beers and blaring Afro-pop music while the car was being fixed. Ninety minutes later, the car was ready. Frankly, I was surprised that ALL four shocks didn’t need replacement after some of the roads we had been on.
Okeno, two of his assistants and myself then headed out on the road again, picking our way through the potholes. By the time we reached the border crossing it was very dark. We passed through border formalities, switched cars, and another driver took us across no-mans-land and the Tanzania border crossing, and then on to the Marangu Hotel.
I somehow managed to get enough sleep despite being woken up repeatedly by the dogs and roosters again. After breakfast, we were on our way to Arusha, about 100 miles further west. Arriving in Arusha around noon, we found our way to the New Safari Hotel, where we said our goodbyes and I checked in.
After checking emails, I arranged to meet with a couple of rough gemstone dealers in Arusha. Mark Saul of Swala Gem Traders was leaving on a trip the next morning, so he was nice enough to make some time available for me later that afternoon. Quickly going through his parcels of various goods, I was able to stock up on nice rhodolite garnets, another tsavorite, and hot pink Mahenge spinel. The spinel prices were quite high, but I’d never see this material anywhere else.
After finalizing payment with Mark, I met up with another broker and as we headed into the building he recognized a couple of men watching us enter. He said that they were immigration officials, and sure enough five minutes later they were knocking on his office door. They proceeded to harass us for 20 minutes about me not having a Tanzanian business license. The broker tried to explain that I wasn’t doing business but rather visiting as a friend of a friend, but that wasn’t good enough for them. Finally they gave up and left, and I purchased some nice material – mint grossular garnet, chrome tourmaline, red zircon, and Mahenge spinel.
The last day in Arusha was a slow day – just relaxing, packing, writing postcards and buying some last minute souvenirs. The broker dropped off my sealed stones later in the afternoon, and soon afterwards Mark’s assistant picked me up at the hotel for the evening flight. As the taxi drove out of town, I saw Mount Meru looming straight ahead. It had been cloudy and rainy most of the time that I was in Arusha, so I was quite surprised to see the mountain so close. An hour later we were at the airport and the export procedures were soon completed.
The flights back home were right on schedule, and finally I was back in Atlanta. I was hand-carrying the Tanzanian stones, and they were cleared after a brief inspection by US Customs. The Kenyan stones should be arriving via FedEx within another week or so, and I’m looking forward to seeing them again.
All in all, it was a great trip. The mine visits and buying from the locals was a lot of fun. While I had anticipated finding a greater variety of stones, I still managed to find enough nice material to keep me cutting for a long time. I’m already thinking about my next trip!