About 15 minutes west of Isalo National Park lies the town of Ilakaka. It was a tiny, ordinary village of just a handful of houses, until sapphire was discovered nearby in 1998. Ilakaka sits on top of the largest sapphire deposits in the world, covering about 40 square kilometers/15 square miles. Although the gold rush atmosphere has calmed down somewhat in the years since, it is still a booming mining town, with roadside stalls selling all kinds of equipment intended specifically for mining. I counted about 30+ gems stores along the main road, many of them foreign-owned, who’ll buy the precious minerals from the hopeful miners, and then export it to North America, Europe or Asia, where it’ll be processed and end up as part of someone’s jewellery.
One of the largest minerals stores in the town, Color Line, offers to send a guide along with you and your car for an hour, at the price of less than 5 USD. The guide leads you to the mines, just beyond the town itself, and explains the process of mining the materials as well as constructing new mines. Although Ilakaka sits on top of the largest area of sapphire in the world, it’s still difficult to find the precious little stones deep underground. The landscape just behind the city is a surreal place of craters, deep holes, vertical mines, where groups of men wander around, some with shovels. Beside little ponds and lakes formed by flooded mines, some miners sift through large sacks of dug-up dirt, hoping that the water washes away all the sand to reveal a few shiny little stones.
It’s surprising to see no mining equipment larger than a small electric pump, even for constructing new mines. There’s no heavy machinery anywhere, or even any trucks driving around. Part of the reason for this is that the sapphire mines are mostly vertical holes, and there’s also a reasonable amount of underground water in the area. If you were to dig too fast, for example with heavy machines, there’s a significant risk that the mine will be flooded.
After you’ve driven the guide back to Color Line, you can visit their little showroom of precious gems and jewellery, some of which has been found in the area.