On The Gem Hunt In Nigeria
Gem Hunting in Nigeria’s Northern Region
Nigeria is a wonderful and little understood land, right in the heart of Africa. It’s home to some of the richest and most valuable deposits of gemstones in the world. Follow David Artinian of Fair East Wind, as he searches for new sources of Tourmaline, Aquamarine, Morganite and Sapphires. Join him as he climbs down gem mine shafts and then bargains with the locals to bring home the finest of gemstone rough.
As I prepared for my next gem hunt to Nigeria, excitement, determination and anxiety were all swirling in my mind like a tornado. What do I expect? I had heard the stories of Boko Haram and their unspeakable violence. I had heard of the kidnappings not to mention ethno-religious strife that had plagued the north for years and had cost tens of thousands of lives.
Simultaneously, there was the exciting lure of so many of the worlds finest Tourmalines, Aquamarines and Sapphires that come from all over this mineral rich land.
I had made a good friend in the business who assured me that our trip would be 100% safe. He told me not to worry. In the end, after prayerful consideration, I embraced adventure and decided to plunge forward. We would be avoiding the infamous ‘red’ zones, but undoubtedly traveling into some sketchy orange ones.
So we planned our itinerary carefully, I bought the ticket and applied for a visa. Applying for a Nigerian Visa is tricky. There is a one liner on the consulates website with vague instructions to send your application to a secondary company to have them process for you. Extra fees are involved. I’m so glad my wife Nong, caught that one. I saw later online, that some people had unwisely sending their application directly to the embassy, never to see their passport again! Hmmm, what am I in store for?
As the plane’s wheels lifted off from the familiar comfort of the San Diego airport, I knew that come what may, it was showtime. So armed with my knowledge of gems, a rough itinerary and as much cash as we could scrape together it was now or never, sink or swim. After about 23 hours of travel including a plane change in France, I arrived in Nigeria and the gem hunt began.
The first stop was Abuja, Nigerian’s, fairly new and vibrant, capital city. After clearing customs, an official stopped me at the exit. She grabbed my passport and holding it tightly, demanded I give her something. I was definitely caught off guard, like a boxer who just took an unexpected right hook to the chin. I quickly regained my composure and engaged in a ‘friendly’ discourse with her that ended in her returning my passport and me on my way.
On exiting the airport, I was warmly greeted by my friends, who promptly hugged me and welcomed me to Nigeria. Along with their greeting came an even warmer greeting in the form of a hot, sub-Saharan wind, charged with a fine dust, courtesy of the Sahara Desert to the north. The drive through the capital to our hotel was as to be expected, heavy traffic, slow speeds and erratic driving especially on the part of drivers of old cars that looked like they had been in the demolition derby more than once.
The next morning found us stationed in a downtown African arts and crafts market, where we found an outdoor restaurant table and waited for local dealers to bring us their wares. We looked at Tourmaline, Aquamarine, Morganite and a few Sapphires, none of which really met the standard. Fortunately, there were an abundance of street vendors, two of which happily kept me supplied with bags of freshly roasted peanuts for 50 Naira per bag, which is about $.13.
After a long day of waiting and seeing very little material, we determined that on the following morning, we would head for the city Jos, in the Plateau State, Northern Nigeria’s famous gem center. The next morning, after a slow start, we were on our way.
We passed through many small towns, where the main streets were clogged with pedestrians, vehicles and street vendors, selling everything from live goats and chickens to windshield wipers and water. The air was filled with an array of odors ranging from the rich aroma of spices and grilled meat to the choking stench of vehicle exhaust belching from old and poorly maintained vehicles. Buildings were mostly made of cement or mud brick, many of which were ram shackled and scattered about in a most random fashion. Churches and Mosques were everywhere, evidence of Nigeria’s religious and ethnic diversity.
Our first stop was at a minor gem center, where we stood along the roadside and looked at a variety of Tourmalines. It is here that I managed to buy a few choice pieces of fine material that had just arrived from a nearby mine the night before. From there we hurried on in attempt to reach our destination before dark.
I soon learned that you don’t want to be on the roads after dark. It is under the cover of darkness that the robbers and kidnappers operate, hiding out in desolate areas, stopping traffic and preying on anyone that they perceive has money or valuables. As we got closer and closer to our destination and as the late afternoon sun gave way to dusk, our journey became increasingly slow, not from traffic, but from military and police checkpoints every 2-3 miles.
The military, in recent years, has been doing a great job in bringing stability to a very sketchy area, and I learned to appreciate and respect their work. At the same time, it seemed that every other checkpoint was run by police, routinely drunk, wielding AK-47’s and asking for anything from money to, “Hey, share with me some of those peanuts you are eating.” Again, the best way to handle a drunk police is to play along, not be serious and give him a handful of peanuts!
One notable incident happened at a checkpoint where the police on duty said. “Hey white man, you are under arrest.” I couldn’t help but burst out laughing, to which he replied, “Why are you laughing?” Obviously seeing the humor of his silliness, he then he said, “How do you like the weather here?” It told him that I loved Nigeria and the weather, to which he waved us on. So off we were to our next stop.
Finally, after several more hours of driving along desolate roads, we arrived in Jos and found a hotel. My room was a large upstairs space with a nice view of the courtyard below. I asked about mosquito nets, to which they informed me that there was no need to worry because there was not a mosquito problem in Jos. Ok, fine that’s a relief I thought, because I have heard so much about malaria in Nigeria.
Little did I know what evil was lurking in the darkened corners of my room, just waiting for the lights to go out! The next morning, I was awakened by a burning, itching feeling up and down my arms. Bug bites. Oh well must be bed bugs.
This day proved more profitable. We went to town, saw a number of parcels of Tourmaline, Aquamarines, Morganites and Sapphires and then retreated to our hotel. We invited the sellers to bring the gems to my room for closer inspection and final negotiations. It was here that I bought my first major parcel that contained about 100 grams of fine and rare Tourmalines. After a resting on the following day, we planned to leave and head for Kaduna.
On the way we would be stopping by a Sapphire mine that had recently begun producing some fine materials. So early Monday morning we headed out. It was a bright sunny day and filled with promise. After a couple of hours driving along a fairly smooth road, and a quick stop by a farmers market, we arrived at the village near the mine.
We took a quick look at a few parcels of Sapphire under the shade of a mango tree and then jumped on motor bikes to head to the mining site. The path weaved along a narrow lane, past mud brick houses before heading through open fields which consisted of freshly tilled plots of land that gave off an earthy smell. The land had been recently sowed with vegetable seeds in anticipation of the approaching rainy season.
On arriving at the mining site we saw about 50 men or so, spread about the area.Some were hauling up buckets of dirt from the depths below, others were taking shelter from the hot sun, under various trees, still others were washing bags of gem bearing gravel or sitting in the sun picking through the fine gravel in search of Sapphire and Zircon.
We came to one gem pit and carefully peered into the depths. It appeared completely black and I could barely make out a faint light at the bottom, probably from one of the miners headlamps. Half jokingly, my friends asked me if I wanted to go down, to which I hesitatingly said yes. There was no ladder, just a rope for hauling up the dirt in buckets. This meant that I would have to use the grooved hand and footholds in the sides of the walls to descend. I had previously experienced this kind of an arrangement in Cambodia, at the Blue Zircon mines of Ratanakaria, however I was not yet sure that I was up for this one. I had a headache and was beginning to feel a little bit weak. It was probably just the heat. With all those eyes watching, what was I to do?
Swallowing my fear I went for it! So I carefully got my footing and began the 40ft descent. It wasn’t as bad as I thought. The footholds were firm and the descent smooth. Even though there was a rope present, it offered no comfort since it was simply there as a way to haul up the buckets of dirt. As I descended further and further down, it got markedly cooler and darker. At the bottom, apart from being dark, narrow and very damp, it was quite peaceful, a welcome respite from the heat and loud chatter above.
I presently found two young miners digging a horizontal shaft which I followed. On arriving at the end, one of the miners brought my attention to where he was digging. He showed me how he had found the layer of dirt, about a foot thick, that appeared different from both the layers above and below. That reputedly was gem bearing mud and rock. He was digging out this section and preparing it for hauling to the surface. After about 15 minutes of talking with my new friends and taking photos, I headed back up.
Back on top, I was greeted by a small crowd of locals who had come to see the crazy foreigner who had chosen to climb down the mine shaft. It felt great to enter their world, even if for just a moment. Although I could never really share their lives, their struggles and their excitement in such a short time, I felt a sense of deep appreciation for what they go through in bringing their gems to market.
Finally, we proceeded to where the gem bearing dirt was being processed. I learned how it was washed to remove excess mud and then washed again until only the fine gravel remains. This would then be poured out on the ground, ready to be picked through in search of Sapphire and Zircon crystals.
Finally, we headed back to the village where we cleaned up and headed on our way. That night we were to stay in Kaduna city, where hopefully more parcels of gems awaited us.
The next day yielded very little in gems, however I did go to a clinic for a malaria test. I was beginning to feel excessively fatigued. On getting the results I was quickly informed that I had both malaria as well as typhoid. Wow, a twofer! We immediately went to the pharmacy, where they loaded me up with two kinds of antibiotics. The malaria one was a three-day regimen, while the typhoid was a longer series of horse sized pills that, by their menacing appearance, seemed to be designed to kill everything including possibly their host.
The next day we headed back to the capital, Abuja, in order to take a 45-minute flight down to Ibadan, a sprawling city in the south that lay right in the center of another famous gem mining area. It is in Ibadan that a number of gems including Tourmalines of all colors including Rubellites and Paraiba are found. It is also famous for Aquamarine, Morganite and many varieties of Quartz.
Our plane was a small puddle jumping, propeller plane commonly used for short domestic flights. Unfortunately, our 45-minute flight turned into a 2-hour, teeth rattling, ordeal. The rainy season had just begun and the area was experiencing severe weather. We circled and circled the landing area, through turbulent skies, waiting for the thunderstorms to pass. Finally we landed in heavy rain, with the sky still black with thunder clouds. As the wheels skidded onto the tarmac, many passengers clapped for joy.
On exiting the terminal, we were greeted warmly by our contacts, who drove us the 4-mile distance to our hotel. The drive took us about an hour, due to chaotic rush hour traffic that choked the roads and made progress seemingly impossible. We spent a restless night in a cheap hotel where everything seemed to be broken, as in no running water and only sporadic electricity.
The next day proved to be the best buying day of the trip. We stationed ourselves in a friend’s office located right in the middle of a, very rough looking, residential area. Apparently there is a lot of money changing hands there, but they sure don’t spend it on the neighborhood. Here I was able to buy some beautiful Aquamarine, Morganite and Tourmaline.
After one more day that yielded very little in new material, we were ready to drive down to Lagos, Africa’s largest city, and fly back to Abuja. That simple 70-mile drive took us 5 hours. It was possibly the dustiest, slowest and most exhaust choked drive I can remember in many years. The roads were packed with vehicles of every kind including many trucks, carrying gasoline into the city from the oil rich south. The four lane road had been creatively expanded into 8 lanes as vehicles used the dirt shoulder as two extra lanes in each direction.
Finally, we reached the airport, took the 45-minute flight back to the capital and from there, later on that evening, I safely flew on to home.