I always imagined the first time I ventured to central Africa would be on a relatively poncey safari press trip that I could Instagram to high heaven and then recount at dinner parties for a couple of years afterwards should I ever need to sing for my supper. That’s not what was written in the stars, however, as I got to visit in possibly the least poncey way ever – although I was still irritatingly vocal on social media about it. Soz.
It was British ethical mining company Gemfields who took me out there from Dubai – and if ever there was a trip from extreme polar opposite to extreme polar opposite, this was it. I did take a little bit of Dubai with me, however, and manage to – ahem – accidentally go on safari one day in a pair of Louboutins. In my defence, they were flat. See below.
Turns out small planes aren’t that fun. But on the up side we did get a cheese sandwich and an orange squash on the 40 minute journey from Lusaka to Kitwe, near where the Kagem emerald mine is – the largest in the world. Now is usually the bit where I recommend somewhere to eat/ get your nails did/ gawp at the local street style. But frankly, that would be a bit silly. I can, however, recommend that if you ever get the chance to visit a gem mine that you grab it with both hands. Even if that means you have to suffer the relentless and identical jokes from friends and family that basically suggest you should and would nick things should the opportunity arise. No, Aunty Barbara, I didn’t smuggle an emerald out in my bra. Or my sock. Or my small intestine. My moral compass is fully functioning, thanks. Plus we got searched every 10 minutes but that’s really besides the point.
My favourite part (apart from lifting an emerald the size of my head out of the ground with my bare hands/ travelling with someone who casually asked if he could hold the world’s most deadly snake. The response: “er, no” – with a lot of subtext), was getting to experience the Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives Gemfields do. As well as providing work for so many of the locals, they sponsor schools and a clinic in the area – and visiting them both was incredible.
We stayed on the compound – a giant area of land that comprises the pit, wash rooms, sorting house, worker accommodation and guest lodges. Every night we’d trundle over to the Lake House in the pitch black – about a five minute walk where the manager and geologists would take it in turns to tell us about the pythons. And the lions. And the crocodile they’d befriended called Fluffy. By the time I got there I needed three gins, which made walking back quite the challenge.
Everything they say about Africa is true. The colour of the earth. The amazing people. The intense poverty which makes you feel guilty and grateful at the same time. To say it was life-changing sounds like a horrible cliche – but it really was. It’s far too reductive – crude, even – to whittle it down to a dinner party story, and it certainly made me look at Dubai in a whole new light. All I can say is I will be back, that everyone should go at least once, and that Fluffy turned out to be a real sweetheart in the end.