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Waiting for Diamond Seas

Waiting for Diamond Seas

(First published in British Esquire)

At 5.30 a.m. Dan Harvey looks like an apostle in a ski-cap, waiting for a miracle. The Skagen, his twelve-metre fishing boat, tilts with the swell of the Benguela Current, while the local Country & Western radio station plays Barbra Streisand across the icy Atlantic darkness off the west coast of South Africa.

Dan holds the Skagen’ s wheel on 360 degrees. Due south. We pass Sugar Hole, Seal Island and then we head for the reef where, all being well, we plan to pump diamonds.

“Fuck it,” Dan says. “Sea’s picking up.”

Dan uses the word “fuck” a lot. He uses fuck as an adjective, an expletive, everything except an interrogative. Which is understandable right now, what with the way the sea’s been the past three weeks. We’ve waited and waited for the wave reading to come down, but there have been swells, surges, cold fronts and a ton of bad visibility, or viz as they say here. Every day at 4 a.m., when Dan looks out his bedroom window and hears the ocean pounding the shore, he shakes his head.

“The sea’s fucking cooking,” he says and gets back into bed.

Long before I reach Port Nolloth (population 4,000) on the Skeleton Coast near the Namibian border with South Africa, the terrain gives off warning signals that you’re entering a different world. Caution, Frontier Country Up Ahead! The landscape is desolate, dry and hard. The Afrikaner settlers christened these places Poison Mountain, Spit River and Despair. And you can see why.

The only sign of life is the occasional crow pecking at clots of flattened mongoose stuck to the tar. The straight road rips into the red hillside, which is peppered sparingly with dwarf shrubs and xerophytes. It’s enough to drive you to drink and dope. Which, as I later find out, is what it eventually does.

Sixty-five years ago, the richest alluvial deposits of diamonds in the world were found north of Port Nolloth. Formed in kimberlite pipes over several millennia, the gems were carried down the Orange River to its mouth and into the sea. Some stayed there but, as the shore receded, huge deposits were uncovered, then hidden by dunes. Today the state and De Beers control most of this vast, rich and desolate 400-kilometre coastline south of the border. It’s in their heavily guarded mines that most of the diamonds are found, where mammoth bulldozers scrape away megatons of overburden – dune, calcrete, terrestrial and marine and pan deposits, gravel and shells – to reach the bedrock. One carat per 80 tons of overburden makes mining viable. A pimple per sand dune.

Diamonds on the sea-bed aren’t as plentiful. But then again, nobody knows for sure. They aren’t as easily found either. No bulldozers, no megatons of overburden. Only individual divers – about a hundred of them along the coast at any given time – searching from the surf-zone down to about 30 metres.

Photos of Port Nolloth and the diving boats by Chris Marais of www.karoospace.co.za.

Photos of Port Nolloth and the diving boats by Chris Marais of www.karoospace.co.za.

Several days after I get to Port Nolloth, I attend a party being given by a diver named Vince. For once, it isn’t to celebrate a diamond discovery. It’s his birthday. He’s 33 and works the shore at the village of Kleinzee.

Diamondiferous words float around his living room like plankton in a swell. Faces, gulleys, gravel, jackhammers, corruption, carats and the prices you get for them. Of major concern is that the diamonds are drying up. The divers know they can’t last forever. “If only they’d open up the Angolan coast,” says Q, who used to dive gold in the waterfalls near Mozambique.

“It’s a treasure trove.”

“Except for the fucking sharks.”

“We’ll go down in a cage then.”

“What about Zaire [Congo]?”

“I heard the Greeks have been diving the rivers. They send down a guy holding his breath and he comes up with a thousand carats.”

“Fucking bullshit.”

“But you know those guys. They’re fucking crazy. They’ll dive 50 feet in wetsuits and no decom chamber.”

“Maybe I should go. It’s just the bullets I could do without.”

Two of the women, both blonde, both good-looking, look at each other. In amusement? Surprise? Cuh-riste, here we go again. The diver’s women – gem molls, diamond daisies, they’re called, a bit disparagingly at times. They sit on the periphery, never diving, always hearing the stories, although most of them could probably tell an octahedron from a cubic zirconia.

“I’d like to write a novel about this place,” a brunette tells me.

She wouldn’t have to try hard. A book about Port Nolloth would probably write itself. Every character in town could make a chapter. There’s the fascist Jew; the town leader who drives down the main road with his wife in the back seat and his mistress in the front; the stunning woman who climbs naked through the bedroom window of newly arrived divers; the neo-Nazi lawyer with born-again pamphlets in his waiting room; the vivacious Italian with a gym-cum-curio-shop.

But the brunette isn’t writing a novel. Like the other women, she waits. Waits for her man, the weather, the jackpot. It’s interminable. She resorts to other activities, as her friend with the eyes swimming in blood can attest. Like I said, it’s enough to drive you to drink and dope.

Meanwhile Q is still figuring out how to get to Angola. If there are diamonds by the fistful up there, I reason with him, surely divers from around the world will start flooding the market.

Q looks at me as if I have the narcs. This part of the African coast might have the only viable underwater mining for gems in the world, but there aren’t many people who go down for them. Which makes divers like Q, Dan and Vince rather unique.

“It’s no holiday out there. No boats with videos like those American cowboys working oil in Nigeria. It’s tough. Just come out with me one day and see.”

Sure, but when?

“Maybe we can go tomorrow,” says Dan. We check the wave reading at the Marine West offices and it’s 13-19. The least Dan needs is 7-13. The figures have got something to do with units and blocks of swell. The compact boats loll in the sheltered harbour, their brightly coloured pipes lying behind them like intestines waiting to come alive and digest the ocean floor. Which is precisely what they do.

“We fuck up the sea-bed,” Vince says.

Electrolux has nothing on these monsters, which suck up everything in their way, starfish, worms, shells. And if they can’t, their operators lift up boulders and then jackhammer the conglomerate in the way.

If the divers feel guilty about what they’re doing, two things make up for it: first, the fact that you can’t see the destruction from land. (“It’s worse on shore. Next to De Beers, we cause almost fuck-all damage.”) Secondly, those elusive diamonds.

As if in encouragement, there’s a picture in the Marine West office, right near the wave reading, of the biggest jackpot found by one of the boats, 7,000 carats in six days. That’s several million dollars at least, the pot of diamonds at the end of the rainbow that makes the waiting, the destruction, the dope-fuelled days all worthwhile. Except the rainbow hardly ever comes out.

But maybe tomorrow.

“Make sure you tell people about the waiting,” Q instructs me. “Tell them it’s not all adventure and diamonds.”

I’ve seen no adventure yet, and not a single uncut diamond, which makes me wonder, as I stand on the Skagen, if there’s any of either. Listening to Barbra Streisand, and making our way to Concession 5A, we pass Seal Island. Q says he once found all the right signs here: moon rock and river sand. But the seals were too much for him, too ferocious.

“Maybe you should play a tape of a killer whale to chase them off,” jokes Dan, who’s more scared of sharks. “You can’t see them until they’re right in your face.”

The Skagen can’t get behind the reef to 5A, so we wait some more. We’re so close, however, that I’m sure I can see diamonds glistening in the waves.

“Diamonds are like pigs” is how Dan explains the difficult process of finding them underwater. “They go where they want to. You never can tell. Sometimes there are signs, like the low points, potholes, gulleys and traps. Or the presence of olivines, ilmenite and garnets. But there’s no rules. Once I pumped the mother of all potholes, went down five metres and, fuck me, I found nothing. I went to sand nearby and … there they were.”

Two of the diving boats, with its tendrils of pipes to suck up the stones, looking ghostly in the morning mist.

Two of the diving boats, with its tendrils of pipes to suck up the stones, looking ghostly in the morning mist.

We wait some more, smoke, drink gallons of coffee, eat lots of junk food, watch a pygmy whale play between the pipes, oblivious to the death they can manufacture, and talk more about diamonds.

“Some boats are lucky,” Dan believes.

Today the Skagen isn’t.

“Finding diamonds is like a sixth sense,” he believes.

Perhaps. But that sixth sense doesn’t cover the weather, which suddenly whips the sea into a sickness that forces us back to harbour.

Maybe they’ll dive tomorrow.

The next day in the town of Port Nolloth I watch as four guys arrive at a local restaurant in a shiny new BMW with Namibian license plates. They greet the waitress, sit at a table, shuffle salt and pepper shakers around the chequered tablecloth and then walk out empty-handed, leaving the sand scarred with neat Firestone tracks. The County & Western station plays Jennifer Rush.

Five minutes later a brand new Nissan Sentra pulls up and a guy in cleanly ironed trousers and a shirt comes in, goes through the same routine with the waitress – the shuffled shakers, the non-order, and then the skidded departure.

Every shop in town except the supermarket, or so I’m told, is a front for illicit diamond buying. “It used to be the shops wanted only five or six-caraters,” says Trevor, an ex-diamond cop. “Now there are so many buyers, they’ll take even ones and twos.”

“This is the IDB Mecca of Africa, bigger than Zaire or Sierra Leone,” says Trevor, who quit the police after ten years of bad pay and the diamond dick’s abysmal success rate. Now he’s a diamond diver too, with a boat called Eye Dee Bee.

Officially $20 million of uncut stones are traded in town; unofficially it’s probably a lot more. Most of the hot stones come from the mines, smuggled in by Owambo and Xhosa tribesmen employed to sweep the crevices of the bedrock. They arrive in town in someone else’s car, leave in their own, and still have plenty of cash to spare.

Smuggling has become an intricate, sometimes painful game. One guy took a homing pigeon to work in his lunch tin, then sent out stones strapped to its legs. Others cut themselves and lodge stones in the wounds.

For the divers, however, it’s a lot simpler. There’s no security on the boats, no X-rays. Each boat can take only five men, and it takes only five men to hatch a conspiracy, to say they found 100 carats when they actually found 150.

I suspect I’d steal too. The temptation is as big as the inequality that leads you to commit the crime. Think of it: you’ve dived freezing waters, searched and scratched for hours to find a carat worth $1,000 on the open market. Back on shore, though, you earn a fraction of its value. The state and the concession-holders, who each pay a few hundred dollars a year to prospect, take the rest. So what do you do? Give it up or become a thief?

“The attitude up here is: the diamonds belong to us,” says Trevor. “We’ve been done in for so long by the government and everyone else, now we’ll do them in.”

I finally give up on the Skagen . It’s been three weeks since Dan dived. It could easily be another month. That’s winter for you. But there are boats leaving for 4A, a more secluded concession, so I catch a lift with one of them, the Carat . On the way out, the radio is playing David Christie’s “Saddle Up.” It’s perfect.

Wally, the skipper, is a bellicose man. He’s tough, 53, has dived with crocs and hippos in Lake Kariba and is missing an index finger. Wally and his two divers smoke Chesterfields, and there are two dozen empty packs on the dashboard. The sea has warmed up since yesterday. It’s 9.2 degrees.

“Nobody must tell me they do this for fun,” says Kobus, a blond diver. “For the first two hours, maybe. After that, you get tired and cold, and rocks fall on your fingers. It’s for the money. Where else can you work for a few days a month?”

Kobus squeezes his bulk into two Zero wetsuits, a double cap, gloves, scarred knee-covers and a harness. The mist is as thick as soup, but that doesn’t mean you can’t see below. They anchor in the place where Wally took up 169 bags of gravel last time he was out. His improvised markers, two purple fabric conditioner bottles, bob on the swell.

“Viz check!” Wally shouts.

Kobus flicks his cigarette into the drink, downs his coffee and flops overboard. His airpipe trails along the water like a green snake. Three dolphins play around the boat while we wait. No viz, so we pull anchor and move behind the reef to Suikergat, Sugar Hole, where five boats are rollercoasting on the waves, doing viz checks, their rubber dinghies buzzing around dragging the huge vacuum pipes.

This all takes time. Lots of time.

Wally starts laying anchors, two fore and two aft. Western Wave pulls up alongside and shouts that we’re right above their gulley. A territorial dispute simmers. You can only mine someone else’s patch – everything within a 50-metre radius of a marker – if he hasn’t been there for two sea-going days. Sitting on top of the water, it’s hard to see how they can tell one radius from another.

“That’s George,” says Barry, a diver, pointing to the dark moustached skipper. “He’s famous for laying Cheryl.”

“Throw the pipes!” Kobus stage-whispers to Wally encouragingly. “Throw the pipes!”

It doesn’t make any difference. We find nothing. The dinghy hauls the huge eight-inch pipes 30 metres out and, filled with water, they sink to the ocean floor. The vacuum starts, water spews out the side in a waterfall, the classifier turns, the rocks get sifted to small, smaller and smallest. Kelp, moss-covered stones, worms, shells, pebbles get washed around, and you can see seawater turning into dishwater before your very eyes.

The sound of stones and shells hitting the steel fills the air. So does the crack of guys whipping the sieves to dislodge stuck gravel. I see an egg-shaped stone and recall someone saying they’re a good sign. The first bag gets jigged and panned, to check whether it’s worth staying in the area. Wally gets out the tweezers.

“This gravel’s fucking secondhand,” he moans.

Wally goes down under and surveys for an hour. He takes a hacksaw to clear the forest of kelp. His bubbles go here and there, following no pattern, and you realize how hard it must be to mine a square mile while the swell plays you like a piece of seaweed.

“You follow features and go from rock to rock,” says Barry, who believes it’d be easier diving in the North Sea, a lot deeper, sure, but less swell, better viz and much better pay. The kelp rises and falls like sea monsters.

Wally comes up.

“It’s like high-flying on the bottom,” he says, his face ruddy, pinched and already plugged with a Chesterfield. The guys smoke Chesterfield as if it were part of the job spec.

“You’re going to see some major fuck-ups when the waves come in,” he says. The swell gets worse, the boats toss around like dots of polystyrene in a bucket of soapy water. A dinghy tumbles. With all the gravel on board, it’s easy to tip, and dressed in gumboots and overcoat, you’d sink like a fat lady in jewels.

Kobus goes down again, this time with a hacksaw and a crowbar for the rocks. The kelp Wally cut earlier soon clogs up the pipe, so we leave. We pull anchor four times and finally head out for where we started, near the conditioner bottles.

“We got sixteen carats here a while back, but viz stopped play,” says Wally, then barks, “Viz check!”

Kobus plops overboard for the umpteenth time and surfaces with his arms a metre wide to show the viz is better. Hugh calls up on the radio to say he’s found eight stones equal to a carat. That’s bad news. They normally pick up three stones to a carat. It confirms that the area has been pumped dry. Still, they check it out.

The anchors are laid, the dinghy goes out, the pipes are dropped and by 2 p.m., eight hours since we left harbour, the Carat is pumping what could be diamond-bearing gravel. By nightfall, 40 bags have been sucked up, but they haven’t been jigged. The crew will only know how many carats tomorrow.

It could be nothing, but then again, it could be the jackpot.

Welcome to my Home, Watch the Closing Doors

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