Diamond Cowboys of Port Nolloth
Decades ago and deep in the Namaqualand desert at a point between Springbok, Steinkopf and the sea, a Cape Town housewife with a squeaky voice steals our hearts. This mommy from the suburbs has requested a tune that plays into our early years, way before Disco, Johnny Rotten, Duran Duran and Really Big Hair stole […]
Decades ago and deep in the Namaqualand desert at a point between Springbok, Steinkopf and the sea, a Cape Town housewife with a squeaky voice steals our hearts.
This mommy from the suburbs has requested a tune that plays into our early years, way before Disco, Johnny Rotten, Duran Duran and Really Big Hair stole the music.
The tinny sound of the cheap speakers in the hired Citigolf cannot hide the majesty of the Jimi Hendrix classic, Voodoo Child as photographer Noel Watson and I approach Port Nolloth.
Jesus Loves Port Nolloth
In just the right frame of mind, we hit the outskirts of town and drive through the milky fog, past the Jesus Loves Port Nolloth sign and right up to the Scotia Inn for a drink in the bar.
We order beers and bourbon chasers and talk quietly about the assignment from Scope Magazine, which is to track down the last cowboys of the Northwest Coast – the diamond divers.
Peering through the cigarette smoke at the men propping up the bar counter, I recognise Louis Kriel, a face from my schooldays: good at rugby, bad at Latin. Now he’s a diver, who owns a boat called The Gemini Star, and living the life of an adventurer on the high seas.
Sometimes the Great Connector gets it all just right for us.
A Motley Crew
Louis invites us back to his place to meet more divers.
And there they are, watching TV in the kitchen of his hired house. Conversation bounces between sport and diamonds, drink and diamonds, women and diamonds, dogs and diamonds.
Louis Kriel and his sidekick, Peter Hodgson, are part of a handful of independent divers who operate concessions between Port Nolloth and Hondeklip Bay.
The Gemini Star is unique. It’s a twin-hulled catamaran especially designed for offshore diamond mining. It has a broad working base which gives it a steady platform, even in high seas.
“Conversation bounces between sport and diamonds, drink and diamonds, women and diamonds, dogs and diamonds.”
There are more than 20 boats bobbing in the Atlantic near the docks. They are in various stages of disrepair. Many of them are tied up in legal wrangles and have not seen action in months.
A couple of million beers later, we are invited on a special Gemini Star jaunt out to sea. So we celebrate further.
All at Sea
We leave land when the roosters begin singing and the full moon is spilling through the swirling mists that surround Port Nolloth.
In the light of dawn, The Gemini Star is something to admire.
She’s sleek and well-groomed, full of nooks, interesting gear and the promise of a good voyage.
Louis negotiates her through the oil drum slalom that marks the passage to the port and soon we are on open waters beyond the bay.
It’s not a perfect day for diamonds, but we’re on a dry run for photographs, thanks to Louis and Peter.
The rest of the Port Nolloth diamond flotilla has its suspicions, however. They think The Gemini Star is holding out on them.
“Are the Scope okes sick yet?” they want to know. Nearly, we answer, green to the gills but not feeding the fishes yet.
Inside the wooden cabin, something incredible is happening.
They are playing the Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet on the old eight-track cassette machine and with all this wood inside the acoustics are simply astounding.
Trudge Through a Watery Desert
We never leave sight of the coastline. The khaki deserts run right up to the Namibian border and beyond. It’s a forbidding stretch of sand. Also one of the most diamond-rich stretches of desert in the world.
Peter is kitted in his Old School Jules Verne dive suit and dropped into the wake, his airline spinning off a wheel as the distance grows between diver and boat.
He begins his lonely trudge on a sea bed that is often nothing but a watery desert.
There are no fish of a million colours down there. Just sand and, hopefully, a cache of diamonds washed down from the Orange River mouth.
Within the half-hour, Peter is back on board. He has seen nothing of note. Nearly fell asleep down there.
The media, meanwhile, have designated themselves the on-board cooks. That’s mainly because of all the kick-ass music in the cabin and the scary waves outside.
In a dancing catamaran, the simple act of frying an egg becomes a feat of agility and balance. A tin of bully beef, opened and forked out onto a pan to heat, requires the combined timing and skill of a short-order cook and a circus clown.
Sunset streaks through the mist, laying amber streaks across the horizon. A couple of seals pass by and invite us to jump in and play with them.
To Bed in a Laundromat Machine
Evening time, and the moon is lost to us. Inside the cabin, scattered candles are the only light source. Poker games begin, with coffee and rusks on the side.
“Now just imagine it’s been a pumping day and we got lucky. There would be some promising gravel bags on board and we would be celebrating with something stronger.”
We troop downstairs to sleep, and it’s like kipping in a Laundromat machine. Feeling like old socks in motion, we listen to the huge waves slapping the boat just outside. Wash, rinse and repeat. Shit, let’s go up and have at the whisky stocks anyway.
The next morning we wake up to the news that the rest of Port Nolloth is coming out to sea – they just can’t take the suspense any more.
The first seal of the day does his calisthenics just by the bow as the crew attempt to find something in an increasingly choppy sea.
Eventually the other boats realise we are really on a photo shoot and not on a treasure hunt. They give up and go home.
We join them a few hours later and slip through the cordon of drums to the jetty. We say our thanks and salaams and head back through the desert on the long drive east to the Upington Airport.
To Noel and me, it feels like going back to another country. Where the only cowboys are the ones you hear on the radio.