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 4x4 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 4x4 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).

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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.

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