Madagascar is justly renowned for the quality of its gemstones, particularly sapphires. Most of these gems are mined from 'placer' deposits, where the stones have been eroded from their source and have preferentially concentrated along current or historic river courses.
Placer deposits are often very high grade, but on the downside, are usually highly localised and thus susceptible to being worked out. Because of their limited extent and unpredictable nature, it is generally not worthwhile for large companies to mine such deposits: thus, most of the mining is conducted by small scale 'artisinal' miners who then onsell their product to gem dealers.
The town of Ilakaka, south west of Ranohira on the main road to Tulear, is the product of a 'gem rush' resulting from the discovery of a high grade sapphire deposit. Small scale miners excavate current and present riverbeds in an uncontrolled and highly destructive manner, and sell the sapphires to Pakistani gem dealers, who onsell the stones into the international market. It is a ramshackle settlement with the impermanent and lawless feel of a Wild West town, and it is has a reputation for being a dangerous place best experienced at speed from the main road.
The social structure of such 'boom towns' is fascinating. The vast majority of the population is transient with no expectations of long term residence, as they accept the reality that they will stay only as long as the deposit can sustain their activities. Once the deposit is worked out, they will simply pack up and move to the next prospect, leaving behind a ghost town surrounded by a moonscape of unrehabilitated mining excavations. The gem dealers are expat Asians, whose distinct culture is juxtaposed with that of the native Malagasy (as evidenced by the fact that the mosque in Ilakaka was the most imposing structure in the entire town). At the best of times, the gem trade has a reputation for smuggling, money laundering, violence and intimidation, and in a small scale mining context, such characteristics are intensified.
I wouldn't recommend staying in Ilakaka: however, it would be an interesting place to spend a couple of hours, and there is even a small sapphire 'museum' (more realistically described as a small information centre run by a sapphire dealer looking to promote his business).
If you are feeling flush, then you could always treat yourself to a sapphire to commemorate your visit to Ilakaka: however, if you do so, then bear in mind that unless you know something about gemstones, you may be ripped off with a substandard stone (or even an outright fake) and that the certificate of authenticity that you are provided with may not be worth the paper it's written on.
Having said that, amateurs would be crazy to buy stones as investments under such circumstances, and provided that you really like what you bought and feel that you paid a fair price, then why fixate on its monetary value?
I haven't done it but visiting Teniky grottes and Sahanafa forest seems to be the ultimate experience in there. The most interesting of the circuits (archaelogical sites), the toughest as well, requires some very good physical conditions: you will have to go through 2-day-walking, climbing steep slopes, crossing many rivers. Some tricky and difficult tracks.
The website gives some details:
Circuit duration: 4-7 days
Other interests in it are the high possibility to meet day and night active lemurs, the wide range of landscapes you wouldn't find with other circuits, wet and dry forests both with very rare species...
Needless to say, guiding is mandatory here as well as basic logistics (water, food, dried fruits)
Weird enough, this seemingly dry area is the starting point of two rivers: Mangoky and Onilahy.
They are fed by springs that are located at an altitude of 1000m in Isalo park.
Yes, there are many rivulets that fall into cascades, nurturing rockpools.
Hmmm.. still wondering about the meaning of "off the beaten path" for this page.
In fact, visiting this Isalo park has became a must-see in Madagascar, especially if you decided to visit the Southern part.
Still, for the beauty, the weirdness of the site, it is an off beaten tracks experience.
Now, regarding the dryness, the rocky features of Isalo canyons, I found it unusual to find greenery here. In fact, it is in those oasises where live the lemurs, where one finds cultivation. And yes, I have said it but it is still an off beaten path spot withtin the park.
Oasises would be the rewards for the brave hikers... freshness, greenery, rockpool.