A gemstone with the highest price of all

The Sunday Times
Voi, Kenya

Southeast Kenya is a wild and beautiful land. Acacia trees like giant parasols offer a little shade from the scorching sun, rocky hills rise out of the plains, elephants plod across the red soil and lions hunt in the early morning light.

Like many others before him, Campbell Bridges was transfixed by this place. A gifted Scots geologist, he had lived among the hills of Tsavo since the early 1970s when he arrived to search for and mine tsavorite, an elusive emerald-like gem.

The landscape’s beauty was overshadowed last week by the horror of Bridges’ murder when he was ambushed by a 30-strong mob armed with spears, bows and arrows, machetes and clubs.

On Tuesday evening, the 71-year-old, famous for his discovery of tsavorite in Tanzania, bled to death on a single-track dirt road as his son Bruce and two African employees fought for their lives.

In an emotional interview, Bruce, 30, has claimed his father was the victim of the political corruption with which the African nation has become synonymous.

While he says he knows the identity of the illegal prospectors who murdered his father, he believes the politicians and police who allowed them to target his mine in the past could make sure that they are never brought to justice. He said he now fears for the lives of his family.

Bridges was born in Scotland to a Scots mother, Barbara Carswell, and an English father, Dr Rodney Bridges, the chief geologist for the Central Mining and Investment Corporation. The family returned to South Africa when he was two weeks old. By the age of six, already obsessed with gems, he owned an amethyst mine.

After graduating in geology from Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, Bridges went to work in Tanzania’s gemstone mines. As a young man searching for gemstone deposits deep in the bush, he lived in a treehouse 25ft above the ground to protect himself from lions, elephants and buffaloes.

Ironically, it was an attack by a buffalo, which chased him into a gully, that led to his discovery of tsavorite. As he hid from the animal, he examined the rocks around him and discovered an outcrop of the small, bright green crystals. The find, in 1967, made his name. Bridges used old colonial maps to follow the geological seam northwards into Kenya, hoping to repeat the discovery.

By then he had married Judith, an American and fellow geologist. They had two children, Bruce and Laura, now a trainee lawyer. “Gems were always my father’s passion in life but his family was even above that,” recalled Bruce, as he sat in his father’s office in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, surrounded by family photographs and watercolour portraits of himself, his older sister Laura and his 70-year-old mother.

They grew up living in treehouses, bumping across the open African landscape with their father on prospecting safaris, and digging in the small-scale mines Bridges established.

“He could look at the landscape and to him it was like a book; he could read it and tell you this is here, or that is there,” said Bruce.

Bridges built his mining camp at Leopard Hill, 190 miles east of the capital Nairobi. It was named after a male leopard that would bask in the sun on a prominent rock at the summit. Rhinos wandered past the mine daily and he took advantage of local superstition by setting a python called Patrick to guard his cache of gems.

Returning from business trips abroad to America – where Bridges worked as a consultant to Tiffany & Co – or elsewhere, he would find antelope bones in his bedroom, a sign that one of the local leopards had taken “room and board” in the treehouse.

The family kept a traditional home in Nairobi, a six-hour drive away. “Every time we would drive to the mine my father would tell me along the way about what was here, about that rock type, and by the end of it my head would be so full it would hurt as I would try to remember it all,” said Bruce.

The disruption to this idyllic life started three years ago when miners arrived on their land and began to dig without licences, hoping to copy Bridges’ success.

He had been granted a 600-hectare prospecting licence, known as an EPL, by the Kenyan government and a licence to mine on part of the site. But, Bruce said, officials failed to halt the influx of illegal “claim-jumpers”. Emboldened, the illegal miners won local political backing and funding and expanded their activities.

“We went from one illegal mining camp to five over the last three years, all masterminded by the same guy and funded by the same guy. The other problem, when they get funding and a couple of powerful people behind them, is that they have influence over security and the police.”

The Bridges wanted the illegal miners out and as the dispute escalated the death threats started, face-to-face and accompanied by the brandishing of machetes and clubs. “I’d be out on our EPL to check if they were mining at the illegal camps and they would say, ‘you’ll be dead within a month. We’re coming to kill you’,” said Bruce. “But no matter how many death threats we got, the police took no action.”

Eviction notices were issued and ignored, while the police and local authorities did nothing.

A few days before last week’s ambush, a Toyota pick-up truck packed with illegal miners blocked the dirt road that leads from Leopard Hill through a plantation to the town of Voi. “We knew the driver and several other people in the vehicle, they were all involved in the death threats and the mining,” said Bruce.

On Tuesday last week, a local landlord warned Bruce and his father that the illegal miners were digging trenches across the road to Leopard Hill. With the police refusing to provide an escort, the two men headed home in their Peugeot 504 pick-up truck with four of their men in the back.

At the edge of their prospecting area, a 2ft-deep trench had been dug and boulders strewn across the road. They drove around it but the next barrier was impassable: a similar trench and rocks and two huge thorn trees chopped down and dragged across the track. A group of eight men appeared on the road behind them.

“They were running at us with spears, machetes, clubs, knives, bows and arrows, screaming at the top of their lungs in Swahili, ‘we’ve come to kill you all’. It was either fight or die,” said Bruce.

Two of the Bridges’ employees fled, leaving the four men to defend themselves with three clubs between them and a foot-long bayonet that Bruce kept in the car after the death threats started. “I had a bayonet in my left hand, a club in my right hand and I could see people streaming down the hillside from my left and others streaming up from my right – maybe 30 people or more,” he said.

Standing 6ft 3in tall and built like a quarterback in American football, Bruce is an imposing figure. His father, a few inches shorter, was a former boxer and still muscular and strong. Carrying no weapons, Bridges stepped forward.

“Our men yelled at him to get back in the car but my father wasn’t about to leave us,” said Bruce.

Mistakenly expecting the main attack to come from the right, Bruce saw too late a man with a spear and another with a knife bear down on his father. “I made the wrong tactical decision,” said Bruce, his voice breaking as he fought back the tears.

“I could have saved him if I hadn’t made the wrong choice. It was my job to defend him and to stay at his side and I was further away than I should have been.”

Bridges caught the lunging spear with his left hand and pushed it away, but the man with the knife stabbed him in the chest. According to the postmortem the blow was so forceful it broke three ribs, punctured a lung and passed straight through Bridges’ heart.

“As soon as I saw my father falling I rushed over,” said Bruce. “The one with the spear was standing over him about to stab him.” When Bruce reached the man with the spear, he knocked the weapon from his hand, then struck him.

He saw that his father was bleeding but did not realise how serious the injury was. As he chased one of the spear-wielding attackers, his two employees, Amos and Philip, who had being clubbed and hacked at with machetes, were fighting back.

Turning back to join the battle, another man came at Bruce, with a club in one hand and a machete in the other. As the assailant lifted his arm to strike, Bruce hit him first with his own club, weakening a machete blow that still left a 15cm-long mark across Bruce’s neck.

The ambushers turned and fled. Bruce loaded his father into the back of the pick-up and they raced to the hospital in Voi. There, the doctor told Bruce his father was dead. “I couldn’t accept it,” said Bruce. “I kept on telling him to check again.”

Bruce believes that if it is left to the Kenyan justice system, notoriously inefficient and corrupt, his father’s killers will not be brought to justice. “I saw the men who did this, I know them, I know who funded it, who organised it and who carried it out,” he said. “I am appealing to the US embassy and UK high commission for an independent investigation because even though you have some people who want to see the law abided by, they are vastly outnumbered.”

He hopes that drawing international attention to the murder might ensure his family’s safety. Already, since the attack, he has had several suspicious phone calls and has no plans to return to Leopard Hill.

According to the investigating officer in Kenya, progress is being made. “There are nine known people among the suspects, we hope to make arrests soon,” said Kenneth Kalume, from the local CID.

The Bridges family are planning the funeral. Bruce’s father had wanted to be buried in Leopard Hill, close to the mine that made his name and then took his life.