Hunting for gems on Africa’s ‘Diamond Coast’
By Ross Frylinck
“South of the Tropic of Capricorn, north of the meridian of the Cape of
Good Hope, 30° south, 18° east … In the Heavens of the Southern Cross
… below the sinister cycle of survival by killing and the endless sacrifice of
the weaker in order in make the strong stronger: There lies Namaqualand
and, north, the timeless prehistoric Africa, a world of primitive drives and
desires, inhabited by the Gikwe-Bushmen 25,000 years ago during the
Middle Stone Age. Their ancestors occupied the same territory continuously
for 25 million years, since the dawn of the world, when Man and Beast were
brothers. They are the oldest sitting tenants on Earth.”
– Miki Dora in Million Days to Darkness, Surfer 1987
Cape Town surfers have been enchanted by rumours of perfect,
uncrowded waves in the Namaqualand diamond reserves for
decades. Discovered by diamond divers, these are supposedly
some of the finest waves in a country known for an embarrassing
wealth of world-class surf. Over the years, a trickle of surfers have
made the pilgrimage, and their whispered testimony has slowly
seeped into our collective surfing consciousness.
The Namaqualand is a windswept, barren semi-desert
stretching up the Atlantic coast for over 1000 kilometres. Known for a fl eeting wildflower riot in spring, the region is dirt
poor, sparsely populated, and with disturbing town names like
Poffadder (puffadder, a deadly poisonous snake), mostly ignored.
But under the shifting, sunburned sands and restless waves
sleeps a staggering mineral treasure, a dragon’s hoard like no
other on our planet. With an incredible 98% gem quality, the
Namaqualand reserves are the richest source of alluvial diamonds
on Earth. Here be diamonds, “tears of the gods” to the Ancient
Greeks, and “splinters of fallen stars” to the Romans. Forged in
Earth’s flaming furnace billions of years ago, and borne by
blazing lava flows and grinding river action, these diamonds
crept to the sea, resting at last in coastal sands and shallow reefs,
patiently weathering the eons.
Until the late 19th century diamonds were found in a few
scattered riverbeds in India and Brazil, and the entire world
production of diamonds amounted to next to nothing. But when
huge deposits were discovered in South Africa, the market was
swamped and the perception of value plummeted. Investors
moved quickly to merge their interests into a single entity that
would be powerful enough to control production and perpetuate the illusion of a scarcity of diamonds, and so in 1888 De Beers
was born, proving over the years to be one of the most successful
cartels in the history of modern commerce. But the diamond
“invention” is far more than a monopoly for fixing diamond
prices; it’s a mechanism for converting tiny crystals of carbon into
universally recognised tokens of wealth, power, and romance.
To achieve this goal, De Beers had to control demand as
well as supply. Both women and men had to be made to perceive
diamonds as an inseparable part of courtship and married life.
The illusion had to be created that diamonds were forever – even
though they can in fact be shattered, chipped, discoloured, or
incinerated to ash. And so in 1938, De Beers embarked on one
of the most successful advertising campaigns ever – practically
inventing mass media product placement on the way. Before De
Beers associated diamonds with eternal romance, the diamond as
the standard token of marriage did not exist. Seventy years later
the diamond engagement ring is de rigueur worldwide, and the
diamond by far the precious gemstone of choice.
Now that all the diamonds have been collected off the
beach, De Beers has tentatively begun to allow tourists into
their treasure chest. Limited permits are available, provided you
pass the thorough security checks to weed out the suspicious.
Not that there’s a great demand though; the only likely visitors
are occasional 4×4 nomads pitting themselves against the
Namaqualand trail, botanists fawning over the rare flora, and the
odd group of surfers seeking solitude and great waves.
Surfing conditions are infuriatingly capricious though, with
prevailing cross-shore southerly winds blowing for months at
a stretch, obliterating the heaviest swells. The notorious coastal
fog can shadow the coast for weeks, leeching all warmth from
the land and driving the hardest miners to despair, and the frigid
sea is a breeding ground for great whites. And then there are the waves: bloated, ravenous beasts that strike the jagged reefs like cannon fire, tormenting the
most deserving surfers, who can only gibber in anguish as they wait and wait for better days.
Ah, but when the shy, warm berg winds blow over the Karoo desert, lifting the fog,
caressing the sea and composing the swell, these lonesome waves are the choicest gifts from
old Neptune’s great sea-chest. And there are no crowds – ever. That’s because only one group
of surfers is granted access at a time, and to get a permit you need to know someone, and then
you need a guide, a 4×4 with a winch, GPS co-ordinates and a secret handshake. Bizarrely, you
also have to pay for a diamond detective to trail you incognito (well that’s what we were told).
We are a party of three Cape Town surfers. Lance, a professional surf photographer, is our
reluctant, bearded guru. Having explored this strip over 10 years he has clocked-up trips with
legendary surf journalists and famous surfers. Without Lance’s insider knowledge and contacts,
we would never fi nd the hidden breaks. Ray is ‘a-friend-to-all-the-world’ from way back, who
has dreamed of this trip for years. Lovely people Ray and Lance: easy-going, indulgent, funny,
lazy to a fault. Perfect companions really.
My own naive exploration of the Diamond Coast in 2000 was perfectly forgettable. The
notorious fog warped spring into darkest winter, and visibility and temperature plummeted to
the other side of nothing. Taking turns to clutch our gas cooker for warmth, one day bled into
another until the dreaded west-coast fl u took us all, one by sorry one. In our hasty escape I
wrecked my car’s suspension, and it was a wretched limp back to Cape Town. Our boards didn’t
even leave the safety of the car roof. So it was with a healthy measure of trepidation that I chose
to return, chasing the dream of uncrowded waves with my friends.
Our general plan is simple, if somewhat sketchy: Surf, take photographs, play boulle and
master the one-egg omelette. Essentially we seek to heed the same call all travelling surfers
obey, which I suppose is to retreat to nature and wash away our sins.
After a long day’s drive on hideously gutted dust roads, we fi nally arrive at a gulag-style
border post with matching watchtower, barbed wire and armed guards. A sign bearing the De
Beers logo “A Diamond is Forever” is crowned by a lone crow, impervious to the icy gale that
mercilessly subjugates this forlorn coastline. An apologetic winter sun briefl y illuminates a
bleak wasteland drifting to the distant sea, and then skulks behind a mountainous mine-dump.
The crow’s shadow suddenly, freakishly engulfs us.
Driving slowly to our base camp we see disturbing rows of flower-strewn crosses flanking
this dead-straight road – mementos of too many fatal car crashes. In the falling light we see
springbok grazing on the hills, and later an ostrich breaks cover and briefl y runs in front of our
car, narrowly avoiding collision. We recover with a beer and watch the sun set over the Atlantic.
In the far distance rows of tiny white ribbons unfurl in the sea, offering a tempting glimpse of
what we have come to find.
From afar our shelter appears to be a rogue military compound commissioned by Mad Max. The rough-hewn straggle of small cottages huddled together,
are motley, open-plan affairs of asbestos, stone, rope and
concrete. But there are endearing touches: a massive whale
pelvis serves as a giant bench, a large stone fi replace warms the
lounge, and mobiles (shells, scoured glass, fragile bird bones)
hang from the ceiling.
A massive generator powers the compound from 7-10.30
every night – lighting the whole place, even though we are the
only guests. The water is undrinkable, and so hard it hurts to
shower, and soap stubbornly refuses to lather. 10.30 fi nds us
unprepared, and we scratch around in the dark for candles. Lying
in a wobbly old army bed I listen to the surf hammering the
beach and the wind whistling through cracks in the thin walls,
trying to remember a few lines to Arnold’s haunting poem about
a beach – something about being true to your love, ignorant
armies clashing by night, naked shingles and long melancholy
roars. My iPod relieves me from these troubling thoughts and I
drift off to sleep to a BBC podcast about the impending water
wars that will engulf our world soon. Apparently.
We wake to the wonderful sound loved by surfers the
world over – long period surf breaking with metronomic
regularity. Tragically though, the dreaded fog has cloaked us
in a veil of gloom. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop
to see. The days are spent playing blind-man’s golf in the veld
until we lose all our balls. By the third day we are fi ghting
amongst ourselves, and still the relentless swell rolls in. We
stand on the rocky shore, peering into the grey – but it’s
hopeless. Coco pops and brandy for breakfast was a threshold
we should never have strayed across. Time
has collapsed. We must go surfing.
Finding the sea, let alone the waves, is
a testy business. There are no signs or roads
to speak of. Sure, some sandy rat tracks snake
across the veld like spaghetti dropped from the
colander of the gods, but defi nitely no roads. Lots
of gates though, and matching rusted lock to rusted
key is a puzzle Confucius would commend. It’s damn
tricky. There are no landmarks, there are no maps.
We get lost, and inevitably we get stuck. Hours later we get
unstuck, then quickly get stuck again. A sandy trench ends at a
gate we have no key for; a path runs into a fence. Massive heaps
of mangled metal litter the path and dunes, and gigantic scars in
the land are the dirty work of a dragline that can fl ing 70 tons of
earth with each immoral scoop. A long list of rules curiously tells
us to stay on the path in case we accidentally stand on an ancient
fossil. The roaring sea taunts us – so close yet so far, we are lost
beggars on a beach of diamonds. We are at the source, the hidden
haunt of diamonds, the deep secret root of the Oppenheimer
billions, where Bizarre and Surreal hold hands and scream while
Irony does a mad jig.
Humbled and shattered, lost in a maze, around and
around, at last we finally find what we have been looking
for – a break in the clouds, a reeling right pointbreak, light
offshores, a perfect barrel. The sanctuary of the sea.
The waves are powerful and unforgiving. Ray and
Lance strangely decide to longboard, dropping gracefully into massive pits, reaping rewards and
paying dues by turn. I’m riding a retro
7’2” single-fi n Shaun Tompson Pipeline
replica. It’s a work of art this board, and
despite my concern she takes me into
the biggest barrel I have ever had the
pleasure of knowing. A frozen moment,
stripped to the bare, a glittering
kaleidoscopic shard of time.
Paddling back to the lineup I get
caught by a wide close-out set, and
stupidly choose to swim for safety. I feel
my leash snap and suddenly my beautiful
board is gone. In this heavy swell I expect
to fi nd her shattered on the rocks, but when eventually found she
hardly has a scratch. In the time it takes me to paddle out again
the fog is back, the winds have swung onshore and Ray and Lance
are getting dressed. The shoreline is lost in the mist and the dark
waves loom ominously as a fl ock of crows drift in and out
of the fog. Not all surf trips are coconuts and dolphins.
Back on the beach Lance has finally mastered
his one-egg omelette (fl our makes up the
difference), which we enjoy with a cup of
coffee and laugh wryly at the many ironies
crowded around us: that this traumatised
stretch of forlorn coastline is the birthplace
of possibly the most prestigious industry on the planet; that
because of this the area has remained hidden, and therefore we
can enjoy surfi ng all on our own; that De Beers has the audacity
to tell us to tread lightly when they have pulverised this place
for over 70 years. But there you go, everyone knows that life is
complicated, and thank God you can’t build fences in the sea.
Ross Frylinck lives in the city bowl in Cape Town. He works for the Wavescapes
Surf Film Festival (www.wavescapes.co.za) and the community surfi ng portal
www.wavescape.co.za. In the winter months he takes time out to explore the South
African coastline, occasionally getting it together to document his experiences in
words and pictures.