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Mali or bust: the story of a Frenchman who took his Scottish wife and two sons to Africa in search of gold

By Robbie Fraser, Director

I first met Claude, a sparkly 62-year-old Frenchman from Normandy, and his family in late 2011 on a Scottish island. It was all a little random, as these things always are, but we became instant friends.

And, as soon as Claude started telling me about his latest plan – to start an eco-friendly gold mine in Mali, West Africa – I knew I wanted to make a film about him.

The plan was to move as a family to Mali, where Claude had acquired a concession of some 100 square kilometres, in a gold rich area deep in the bush. He had raised what is, in terms of the mining industry, the tiny amount of $1 million from friends in Saudi Arabia.

Accompanying him would be his wife Moira, from Musselburgh, and their two sons, Craig (22) and Pierre (19).

Claude’s experience in gold mining? Zero.

In late 2011, we arrived for our first filming trip and I learned more about the Nicolays. When Moira Ross married Claude Nicolay, she left Scotland to embark on what would become a 30 year odyssey with her adventurous French husband.

From working for the royal family in Saudi Arabia as a master upholsterer and running businesses as a restaurateur to importing and selling Chinese tractors in France, Claude’s fearless ambition to provide for his family always brought its fare share of risk, reward, opportunity and misfortune. But with the collapse of Claude’s tractor business the Nicolays were suddenly left bankrupt and out of options.

Never one to take things lying down, or to choose the safe option, Claude presented his family with a new plan: after some time spent in Africa with one of his brothers, he had decided to get into gold mining.

Eco-friendly gold mining

Craig, the eldest of the Nicolay brothers describes the mining process.

Life in Tofola, Mali

There was no running water, the toilet was an open-air hole in the ground seething with cockroaches, and people slept either under a mosquito net in the open air or in the rat and spider-infested outhouse.

But Claude and the family revelled in the surroundings. If it was an adventure they’d signed up for, then they’d got it.

Relations with the village were excellent. Craig settled into his role as a trainee geologist and Pierre, if still a little volatile at times, was eager to take on new responsibility.

The goal of the enterprise at the start was research. In simple terms, Claude had to find the gold before he could dig it up.

Mistakes, mishaps and delays

Soon after our first visit there was a coup d’etat in Mali.

Pretty soon, the Nicolays found themselves nearing bankruptcy all over again.

The government fell and, during the power vacuum, Jihadists and Touareg rebels in the north of Mali struck, taking all the major cities, banning all music, amputating thieves’ hands and stoning accused ‘adulterers’ to death.

Claude, as was his nature, decided to hang tight and remained in the country throughout. Meanwhile, on his land, there was a mini gold rush of illegal miners, who swarmed the land after a stray nugget of gold was discovered on a hill.

  • Claude, Craig and Pierre all contracted malaria, multiple times.
  • The schedule stretched to breaking point.
  • The money ran out, top-ups arrived from Saudi, and the investors’ patience ran short.

Pretty soon, the Nicolays found themselves nearing bankruptcy all over again.

Boys will be boys

As well as the strain of getting a mining enterprise off the ground, Claude and Moira also had to deal with the issue of raising their two sons Craig and Pierre from adolescence to adulthood in the most testing of environments.

Occasionally a source of friction with certain locals, Pierre kept his own ‘family’ of knives whilst in the vast outback of Western Africa. But after warnings from his father that life on the mine isn't just about riding a tractor, did the youngest member of the family mature in time to help save the project?

Filming Claude’s story took a lot longer than expected

I visited Mali eight times over three years, and was privileged to get to know the family, to see them learn and to see the boys grow up.

It was an inspiration to film with Claude, a man who absolutely, positively will not be ground down. The film took a little longer to complete than anticipated – three and a half years – but I hope it offers a unique window into the life and aspirations of a very special guy, a very special family and a beautiful, difficult country.

This is, if you like, the story of what happens when a diamond goes looking for gold.

Trailer: Family Goldmine

A devoted father takes his family on one last adventure, to start a goldmine in Africa.