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Unexpected encouter in South Africa's diamond district

Season 5: Destination Unknown

2 June 2021

After almost 3 months of riding through South Africa, my stay here has come to an end. As a Dutch national, I can stay visa-free in South Africa for up to three months.  That is why I was slowly making my way towards the Namibian border.

My original plan was to take the N7 and go straight to the Namibian border. On my way, I would stop in Springbok, a town not too far from the border. There I needed to pick up a parcel with new motorcycle gear that my sponsor REV’IT! had sent to me. But, when I learned that the parcel hadn’t arrived yet, I decided to delay my arrival in Springbok and make a detour through the Namaqua National Park. This area is part of the province Northern Cape, which is the largest ánd least populated province of South Africa. Taking up nearly a third of the country, only 2% of the total number of South Africans live here.

Arrival in Kleinsee

What started as a detour to use my time well, quickly turned into an adventure that I could never have foreseen! It all started when I arrived in Kleinsee. The name of this town means ‘small sea’ in the Dutch language. It refers to a small lagoon just outside this town, and not to the Atlantic Ocean which is nearby. 

I had booked a room in a B&B and was greeted warmly by Petro. She runs the B&B together with her husband Johan. When we sat down with tea and cookies, she started talking about the illegal diamond digging activities in the area. She told me about the lengths people went through to get access to water. The water was needed for the sieving, but the access to the ocean was blocked by the mining giant De Beers. That is why people tried to find alternative ways to get access to water in the town itself.

She told me that things had changed dramatically here over time. From the early days when the town was privately owned by De Beers, to becoming almost a ghost town when De Beers moved their activities to Namibia, and now slowly turning back towards a more normal town where people started to buy property again. But being a relatively ‘normal’ town nowadays, the illegal diamond digging activities still continue on the outskirts of Kleinsee.

She showed me her own collection of fools’ diamonds. Stones that look like diamonds, but are just pieces of mountain crystal or quartzite. Real diamonds she didn’t show me, just some photographs of diamonds that were found in the area. She told me that she didn’t want to be caught with a rough diamond in her possession as it is highly illegal to have them.

Petro seemed to me like a fearless woman. She has spent decades living amongst men who came to the area for illegal diamond digging. At the same time, she loved my stories about my travels through various countries. I sensed that we were cut from the same wood even though we live very different lives.

Diamonds from the Orange River

It started to dawn on me that this Namaqualand was completely different from other districts that I had seen in South Africa. Triggered by the stories of Petro, I wanted to see and experience more of this so-called diamond area. It made sense to me to visit the river that has delivered the diamonds to this area: the Orange River.

This river now marks the border between South Africa and Namibia. For millions of years, it has meandered through the area and transported all these diamonds into Namaqualand. The ride to the river was gorgeous and tough at the same time, with kilometers of corrugated sandy dirt roads. I struggled to get through Richtersveld, South Africa’s only mountain desert with its thick layers of sand and fine gravel. It is a very lonely place and I only had Savannah as my companion. 

That night, I stayed near the Orange River and again enjoyed the bright stars in the dark sky. There were no shops in the area or any other signs of civilization. The manager of the place prepared a barbecue meal for dinner and I used the leftovers for breakfast. In the morning, after eating a microwaved sausage for breakfast, I took off again. I was planning to make my way back to Springbok where my parcel had just arrived.

But then the manager told me that there was an active diamond mine nearby. I thought it would be interesting to see an active diamond mining area and I entered the location in my Satnav as a waypoint. I was hoping to drive past it and maybe see some of the activities from the road.

Visiting a diamond mining field

The first access road to the mine was blocked. What I didn’t know at the time was that I would meet the people who purposefully blocked this road very soon. I managed to find another road but shortly after I was stopped at a gate that was guarded by security guards.  Time to turn around, I thought. I could not imagine they would let me enter the mine itself. But then again, there is no harm in having a chat with them. At first, they were a little hesitant because of my cameras. I told them about my YouTube channel and when they realized they would be in one of my videos, they got a little excited. They wanted to know when I would release the video and if they could see it on television. In the end, they let me in to ride over the terrain. I absolutely saw nothing of interest! But, riding in an area that is normally off-limits still gave me a bit of a thrill. I was chuckling and felt quite content about this opportunity that was given to me. 

Apparently, my little drive around the terrain gave the guards some time to think about the situation. When I returned to the gate, they said they could call someone who might be able to give me a real tour. At that point, I  still thought I was going to see the mine, but that turned out not to be the case! When I finally left the terrain the following day, I had not seen one single activity of the mine.

Entering an unknown world

As it turned out, I had knocked on the door of a private security company that was hired by the mining company to protect the area they were holding a concession over, to protect the area against illegal diamond diggers.

After a chat and a coffee in their office, the guards offered to take me with them on a patrol. I had no clue of what I was getting into, but I didn’t want to say ‘no’ to this offer either. Together we stepped into an armored vehicle. They told me that the seatbelt was purposefully disabled, so they could quickly exit the vehicle. When the guys started strapping bullets on their arms, I realized that I was entering an entirely different world from my own. One that I had never known existed. There are no governmental authorities around here, such as police. Instead, the ‘law enforcement’ consists of a commercial security company that hires ex-military, ex-police and mercenaries, who then take up their guns.

The daily lives of these men consist of playing cat and mouse games with the illegal diamond diggers. Often they get into violent confrontations with them. According to the men I shared the vehicle with, the armored truck I was in had been set on fire countless times. It was their favorite vehicle as it was still riding even after having been set on fire so many times. All their other vehicles had also been shot at, and all of the guards had been shot at least once in their career, one of them even with a dozen bullets at a single time.

They showed me the place where they had been ambushed before by some 100 armed men. They had gotten into a 4-hour lasting gunfight battle and shot 4500 rounds in that short period of time. Needless to say, I was looking around a tad wearily to see if there was nobody around to ambush us. 

Playing tourist with security guards

So there I was, adventure biker Noraly on an armed patrol through the diamond district. Funny enough, they went out of their way to show me some of the tourist sights in the area. They stopped at a special desert tree and a deep sinkhole. They thought I wanted to see all these things because I was a tourist after all.

It was quite surreal to walk around with my camera to film desert trees while they were nearby with their guns. They were quite literally armed to the teeth. I know that in some countries it is a lot more common to walk around with guns, but to me as a Dutch person, it was rather shocking and I didn’t quite know what to think of it.

At some point, they stopped at a large rock to show me something. It turned out that they had been arguing for months with each other whether it was a petrified tree or not. Having a geologist on board, they wanted to end that discussion now and forever.  When I told them it wasn’t a petrified tree but a shale rock, they seemed rather disappointed.

Feeling safer on my own

When I left their camp the next morning, I knew I had to cross an area where illegal diamond diggers operate. But interestingly, going through it alone, unarmed and only Savannah by my side, felt a thousand times safer than when I was riding through that area in that armoured truck the day before.

Riding around with that security company had literally put a target on my head. Even though I am sure that these heavily armed men would have undoubtedly done anything they could to protect me in case of a violent encounter. Because despite their rugged appearance and their line of work, they treated me amazingly well and made sure I was fed well too. They provided me with a place to stay for the night, made sure that Savannah was filled up with fuel, and fixed her up with some screws that I’d lost the previous day.

After finally reaching Springbok, it took me several days to process everything that had happened on that day.  I talked to all my South African friends about what I’d seen there, but it turned out that none of them even knew anything about the situation in that part of their own country. It made me realize that my detour and interest in diamonds had unveiled a part of South Africa that even to its own citizens is quite unknown.

You can watch the footage that I shot here, now in this video.

Comments
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A favorite episode of mine. I did wonder, if any diamonds got stuck in the tread of Savannah's tires Noraly.

Mike - P.  | 

I just watched this episode last night...AMAZING! I was both afraid for you and so inspired by your courage and confidence. You are an inspiration. Can't wait to see what's around the next bend.


JM1740  | 

Very interesting episode!
As soon as you entered the camp my military training kicked in and I was scanning for vehicles (immediately spotted the APC), obstacles, potential threats and escape/cover options. Kudos to you for going on patrol with these guys since you didn't know any of them and neither the territory.

It was nice of them to offer you to stay for the night but I personally would have mixed feelings being there unarmed with a bunch of armed guys but that's probably just the soldier inside of me that's speaking out :D

Keep up the good work!
Greetings from Germany

Nath0187  | 

Hi, dear Noraly, I have been with you for a long time in my comfort zone, tasting the honey that you serve through your expeditions. I feel, your fascination towards the dry land and projecting it's Geological significance is not much delicious to me as I am being always fed with the rich greenery of tropical climate here in Kerala, India. Yet the blue background of the sky (most of the time) and the frame filled with your smiling face is a great experience! We love you and appreciate your management skills.
Dr Suresh Narayanan.

Dr Suresh Narayanan  | 

Vous êtes formidable Noralie. Cette vidéo était vraiment intéressante. Merci de partager avec nous vos incroyables aventures. Je vous envoie plein de'encouragements pour la suite de votre périple.

Vero  | 

The story about your adventures with the security guards is one of my very favorite ones!

Mary S  | 

Loved this video. Did you have a go with the shotguns and pistol shooting? It's cracking fun :)

Matthew Sylvester  | 

I am very much enjoying this 5th season Noraly. I love the fact that nothing seems to phase you. Travel safe.

Charlie A  | 

I'm proud and impressed! Grateful too. Warmest regards,

Lillie  | 

Thanks Lillie!

Noraly  | 
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