WITH a machete at his throat and a gun at his head, Mike Farmer noticed the kid holding the firearm was shaking they were scared, and that made the situation even more dangerous.
“I was just thinking: ‘I’m glad my wife stayed at the hotel today this sucks, I’m actually going to die here’,” Mike tells The Sun.
Mike Farmer makes a living travelling the world in search of meteorites which can sometimes sell for a fortuneCredit: Mike Farmer
It was 2011 in Kenya and he’d been beaten, abducted and driven into the jungle by thieves who knew he had cash lots of it.
That’s because Mike, 48, is a meteorite hunter from Tucson, Arizona.
He sells his extraterrestrial minerals to amateur astronomers and billionaire businessmen alike, all of whom want to get their hands on a tangible emissary from outer space.
A fireball over the skies of Britain last Sunday alone could have scattered thousands of rocks in the fields below.
The meteor which fell over the UK was caught on a doorbell camera in Barnsley, South Yorks.Credit: SWNS:South West News Service
And while the financial and scientific rewards in finding meteorites are great, so are the risks but Mike lives for the thrill of the chase.
“I see myself as like Indiana Jones, running through the jungle, grabbing the treasure and trying to escape,” Mike says.
When Mike first told his wife, Melody, he was going to spend his student loan money on rocks that fell from the sky, she wasn’t impressed until he found one which paid for a house.
He’d started buying meteorites in 1995 and, in 1997, he was purchasing as many as he could get, making trips to Morocco in search of rare samples.
Mike with a meteorite found in Costa Rica – his celestial treasure hunting takes him all over the worldCredit: Mike Farmer
“I acquired a very large moon rock, a lunar meteorite we didn’t know what it was when we bought it,” he says of his fateful fourth trip to Morocco.
“I was there with my sister and another friend. It turned out to be worth about a million dollars.
“With that rock I sold my share and basically bought a house. That’s when my wife said: ‘That’s it feel free to do what you want, have fun’.”
After his first “big score”, as he calls it, Mike’s work became “feast or famine” where whole years would pass without much money coming in from his incredibly niche line of work, sometimes leaving him unsure how he’d pay his bills.
Other projects took years, but hugely paid off, like the discovery of large pieces of the Springwater pallasite in Canada in 2009.
The Springwater pallasite – Mike found a 53kg of it which is now kept in the Royal Ontario MuseumCredit: Wikipedia
The 4.5billion-year-old stony-iron meteorite was originally found by farmers in 1931 after five years’ work, Mike and his colleagues sold their pieces to the Canadian government for just under a million dollars.
Over the decades he’s built up a collection of thousands of pieces which can carry him through fallow times like the pandemic.
“It’s not something you can just walk into easily; it also took decades to build up a customer base,” he says.
“I sell to very poor people that just want to own a meteorite and I sell to billionaires that just want a million-dollar paperweight on their desk to impress somebody, and everybody in between.”
His biggest buyers are based in China and Silicon Valley, where big tech moguls will fork out fortunes for particularly special stones.
SpaceX and Tesla boss Elon Musk is thought to be a collector of meteoritesCredit: Getty – Pool
Steve Jurvetson, a billionaire board member at Tesla and SpaceX, is a big collector and boss Elon Musk is said to be too.
“He’s bought big moon rocks and mars rocks,” Mike says.
Meteorite hunting can be done by studying recent falls like the recent one over England to calculate where pieces of a meteorite are likely to have landed based on their size and direction of travel.
Or it can involve searching for meteorites which landed on Earth a long time ago which haven’t yet been found.
A piece of a meteorite being sold at auction in Paris in 2019 – rare finds can sell for a fortuneCredit: AP:Associated Press
That work involves scouring the deserts of the middle east, Africa and South America where ancient mineral are easier to find.
In a single day in Oman, Mike found 18 been laying out in the desert from hundreds to tens of thousands of years.
Over 21 trips to the country, Mike estimates he’s made close to $2million from the stones he literally just picked up off the ground.
“But the last trip didn’t go so well,” he says.
Deadly ambushes & starvation cells
Mike’s heaven-sent good fortune in Oman turned into a hellish situation in 2011.
Accused of running an illegal mining operation, he was arrested and thrown in a tiny cell in a military interrogation centre.
A meteorite found in the deserts of Oman – many have been sitting undisturbed for millenniaCredit: Beda Hofmann/Natural History Museum Bern
“The first month was horrific,” he says.
“I was being interrogated every few hours and I could hear people screaming and being beaten.
“We weren’t abused or anything but I can tell you that being locked in a room 24 hours a day is definitely torture.
“Solitary confinement is not nice.”
Two months after his arrest, he successfully appealed for release when judges agreed that picking meteorites up, which a child could do, wasn’t mining.
He’d lost 30kg in weight too, having only being given a “starvation diet” of 200g of food a day.
Sumail Central Prison in Oman, where Mike was moved after the military interrogation centreCredit: Roots Group
While his two-month ordeal was the stuff of nightmares, it was completely eclipsed by what happened to him a few months later in Kenya.
There’d been a big meteorite fall there so Mike went with his wife Melody.
They spent two weeks on safari and were staying in a luxurious hotel in Nairobi.
But Mike was also travelling to a nearby village to buy meteorites from locals who decided to kidnap and rob him when they had nothing left to sell.
Mike has had many fruitful trips to Kenya – but one went horribly wrongCredit: Mike Farmer
“It was pretty brutal,” Mike says. “They beat me and beat my driver.
“They beat him badly and locked him in the trunk of the car and drove us into the jungle.”
There, he continued to be beaten by his machete and gun-wielding captors.
He told them to relax and take the money, and convincing them not to kill a “mzungu”, a local term for a foreigner, arguing they’d get caught if they did.
Wads of Moroccan money – Mike would pay locals to find meteorites for himCredit: Mike Farmer
While Mike survived the ambush, his local contact, Stanley, was never seen from again.
“They suspect somebody killed him they don’t really know,” Mike says.
What the moon and mars taste like
Despite his scary experiences, Mike’s never been deterred from making new discoveries.
He says around 90 per cent of meteorites are chondrites stony remnants of the formation of the solar system.
Most meteorites are chondrites like this one which fell in France in 1966Credit: AFP – Getty
But every now and then, rare ones turn up, like the one which fell in Costa Rica in 2019 which was one of the rarest types an extremely rare carbonaceous meteorite.
“Think of a dead comet,” Mike explains. “It’s carbon, water, sugars, amino acids. The building blocks of life.”
Because of that Mike says that it might be the most scientifically important meteorite to fall in 50 years.
But he had competition with 40 other collectors and dealers alongside him vying to find the valuable pieces.
The Allende meteorite, which fell in Mexico in 1969, is the largest carbonaceous meteorite ever found on EarthCredit: Wikipedia
“It can be brutal,” he says of his racing against other hunters. “There’s under 100, and really serious people there’s under 40.
“It’s quite competitive but we usually go to the bar and have a beer at night.”
That might be to wash down a curious foodstuff Mike has famously taken to he eats pieces of the meteorites he finds.
“I’ve eaten moon and mars,” he says, but only a few hundred dollars worth.
“We’re made of stardust and we’ll return to stardust, so eating a piece of stardust… It’s all the same.”
Mike justifies his meteorite munching on the grounds that the rocks are made from the same stuff we areCredit: Mike Farmer
Despite his romantic view, he says the moon and mars still taste like flavourless, crunchy sand.
And he’s not so keen on eating the carbonaceous ones in the light of the pandemic.
“If we’re going to catch some space virus or mutation,” he says, “It’ll come from that, so I think I probably won’t eat any more of those.”
It belongs in a museum!
There are some scientists who resent what Mike does, thinking no meteorite should be in private collections.
But to get samples into institutions like the British Museum which Mike has traded with he argues hunters like him are necessary.
Meteor Crater in Mike’s home state of Arizona – he was once arrested hunting here too, but the case was later droppedCredit: Kyodo News Stills – Getty
“To get an object, it takes cooperation between the private world and the commercial world and the scientific world,” he says.
And despite the cash he makes, Mike resents accusations of being a mere “greedy dealer”, instead pointing out immense importance his finds have for research.
“The science of it is also what makes it worth money. If it wasn’t scientifically important, nobody would care,” he says.
“And without the money part of it, nobody would waste their time searching.”
If there’s a fall near you, here’s what Mike says you should be on the lookout for:
- Black, burned rock – these are the most common and have a burned crust from entering the atmosphere at 50,000mph.
- They’ll most likely be white or grey inside.
- The crust is usually only a millimetre or less thick, but it doesn’t come off in your fingers.
- They can range in size from peas to oranges, but bigger ones are possible.
- Pieces from recent falls can be found in a straight line between 10-20km long and 1km wide.
- Make sure you have the right permission to search on private land before you search there.
Even in his beloved Indiana Jones films, those who want to deliver artefacts into private hands are portrayed as baddies but Mike is unperturbed.
“Jones said: ‘This belongs in a museum!'” Mike says of his hero.
“But also, he wanted to be paid by the museum, right?”
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