In the Namib Desert, the former diamond-mining town of Oranjemund has piqued my interest for a while. Closed to the public (unless issued a permit) until October 2017, and lying slap-bang in the Sperrgebiet – a 2.6-million-hectare area that was a forbidden diamond zone from the time of its proclamation in 1908 until 2008, when it gained national park status – the small town is awash with mystery.
The mists of Port jolly
Now that its gates have been flung open, and the 100-kilometre stretch north to Rosh Pinah has been tarred and is now a great route into Namibia via the West Coast, I decide to trundle north from the curtain of mist that hangs above Port Jolly, to see what all the fuss is about.
After crossing the Sir Ernest Oppenheimer Bridge that straddles the Orange River between South Africa and Namibia, and driving the short piece through the desert liberally peppered with ostrich and gemsbok caution signs, an oasis ushers me in.
It makes a good first impression.
When I imagine old diamond-mining towns, I envisage those abandoned in the last century, now dilapidated ghost towns gradually being devoured by the hungry desert and visited by the whistling wind. The tree-lined road is a pleasant surprise, as is the friendliness of the locals. Jimmy Jones, the manager of Tom’s Cabin, where I am staying, takes me for a drive around the well-ordered streets with their many traffic circles.
“Is it today’s model?” he says, as we spot several gemsbok on the pavement, with young that look like they’ve just taken their first breath. “Once I went out of my gate to greet the morning and put the dustbins out, I heard something next to me. It was a newborn gemsbok in the flowerbed. Later on, I heard clip-clopping and the parents collected their baby and headed off down the street.”
It began in the desert
Such occurrences are commonplace in a town that lies in the great arms of an ancient desert, one adjacent to the Tsau//Khaeb National Park to boot. Oranjemund has its regular visitors, like the odd strandwolf (aka brown hyena), jackal, springbok and ostrich. And there is an array of water birds along the Orange River and the Orange River Mouth, which is a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. The call of Fish Eagles rings through the air near the river and flamingos
and Great White Pelicans can often be seen.
In 1908, the diamond rush swept through the south-western corner of the country. It began further north in the desert outside Lüderitz, where at the peak of the diamond rush Champagne cost less than water (which had to be shipped from the Cape Colony), and diamonds were so plentiful they sparkled by the light of the moon.
In the same year that the first diamond was discovered, the German colonial government proclaimed the area – 250 kilometres long and 100 kilometres wide – as the Sperrgebiet, a prohibited area to protect some of the richest diamond fields in the world.
The sole prospecting rights were given to the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft für Südwestafrika. After World War II, larger alluvial diamonds were discovered at the Orange River Mouth and, in 1936, Consolidated Diamond Mines of South West Africa (CDM), who had obtained the exclusive prospecting and mining rights, established the first settlement. Beginning as a collection of scattered houses, it grew over the years into the highly organised diamond-mining town of Oranjemund.
A population from around the world
In its heyday, it had thousands of workers, including construction workers, professionals and migrant labour. One of the popular things to do was to join one of the 40 or so clubs. Sometimes that was based on the social benefits, as Jimmy explains. The diving club had the best end-of-year function, when they supplied massive crayfish, while the camera club got you access into the old ghost towns in the desert and the Bogenfels caves. “You were often a member of about ten clubs, maybe active in two of them, and belonged to the rest for the party.”
With education, medical aid, schooling and housing provided, it was a good life. Jimmy, an ex-railway man, arrived in 1977 to work as a mechanic on steam locomotives, and ended up staying on. “This was an oasis, and we were often accused of living in La-La Land.”
The small, isolated town even set some records. It boasted the 0.94-kilometre Sir Ernest Oppenheimer Bridge, the longest privately owned bridge in the Southern Hemisphere, as well as the second largest, earth-moving fleet in the world – second to the American military. “People were gobsmacked by the size of the operation. It was a work of art.”
Skilled workers were recruited from across the globe, bringing in an international work force. Many of them ended up staying on, as did a number of the Owambo contract workers from the north of the country. Today, Oranjemund has a diverse and integrated community.
Everyone I speak to points me in the direction of well-known resident Mike Alexander, one of the owners of the Spar supermarket. In the office at Spar, Mike puts his work aside to talk about Oranjemund and his family’s time here.
A godforsaken land
It began with his Scottish parents’ arrival in 1974. When they landed at Alexander Bay, his mother looked at her husband, shocked at the desolation that was to be her new home. ‘What godforsaken land have you brought us to?’ she cried. ‘Don’t fret, lassie’, his dad consoled her, ‘we’re only going to be here for two years’. Mike laughs. “Both are buried in the town’s graveyard under the sand dunes, and all of their seven grandchildren were born here.”
CDM (renamed Namdeb after Namibian independence) – made sure that its employees were well looked after. Everything was subsidised and the town was self-sufficient. It had its own dairy, butchery, vegetable and livestock farms, abattoir and cinema, and even its own soda-bottling plant.
Mike says that, on his parents’ arrival, they received a bucket of coupons. “They soon realised with amazement that, if they hung the coupons on the back gate, when they returned from work at lunchtime they would find fresh milk from the company farm and fresh bread from the bakery.”
As diamond production started to dwindle in the late 1980s, the likelihood of the mining town becoming a municipality and joining the ranks of the other towns in Namibia became increasingly apparent.
Although some long-time residents are still justifiably concerned about losing their crime-free Utopia as outsiders are allowed in, community organisations like OMD 2030 have been set up to ensure a smooth transition. The town’s morale was recently boosted when it won the title, 2018 Namibia Small Town of the Year.
I have a chance to chat to conservationist-environmentalist couple Sue and Trygve Cooper at their peaceful Oranjemund home that has a lush garden protected from the east wind. Sue, who works for both OMD 2030 and the Brown Hyena Research Project, monitoring the brown hyena in the area, tells me how proud the residents are of their town – and its wildlife. “They refer to the gemsbok as our gemsbok,” she says.
Sue and Trygve draw my attention to the fact that Oranjemund is not all about its mining history, it’s also one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, has a fragile Succulent Karoo biome and a combination of sea, river and national park. Trygve, who was the chief park warden for the Sperrgebiet from 2000 to 2010, and instrumental in the formulation of the land-use plan for it to become a national park, has a deep love for the area.
He describes the Sperrgebiet National Park as something special, an area that has been kept a pristine wilderness for more than a century. “It has everything on a grand scale – diverse habitats ranging from sand dunes to vegetated inselbergs and vast plains. Its grandeur is overwhelming.”
As the late-afternoon sun dips, I drive eight kilometres out of town to Op my Stoep lodge and restaurant to meet Fanie Smit. The restaurant attracts many townsfolk for supper in its warm interior – or for a drink at the wooden bar, where the aromas from the restaurant hang in the air.
The ghost of Hohenfels
Fanie came to Oranjemund in 1980 as an auto-electrician, later turning to his culinary skills. Sitting at the bar that displays his colourful collection of caps (2 370, I’m told), I tell him I want to hear all the stories. “There are a couple of them. Some good ones and some rough ones,” he replies, eyes shining mischievously.
Although the opening of the Sperrgebiet to tourism concessions is still on the cards, I meet Fanie the next morning to explore the area outside the national park, in the Oranjemund surrounds. He keeps me busy, taking me out to the dunes for a mind-boggling view of the town, a verdant pocket in the vast desert; to the ruins of Hohenfels, a police station at the turn of the twentieth century; and to the Swartkops Nature Reserve viewpoint overlooking the Orange River Mouth, the end of the journey for the longest river in South Africa.
Along the way, I am kept entertained with tales of the ghost of Hohenfels – a Nama woman murdered by her lover’s daughter (or so the story goes) – the winds that buffet the town from different directions, and the treasure from the 16th century Portuguese ship Bom Jesus, uncovered in 2008.
Fanie tells me what it was like to live in such a unique and extraordinary, closed town, and the strong sense of community that existed. “We were all like a big family. Everybody knew you. If one died everyone cried; if it was someone’s birthday everybody laughed.”
Diamonds of my own
Later on, driving around town, I disturb a herd of gemsbok wandering down the streets nibbling the grass. It’s my last night in this unusual place, and I listen to the booming calls of ostrich as I drift off to sleep.
It’s been a visit of surprises, in line with one of my favourite travel mottos, ‘Expect the unexpected’. A modern town that has been dedicated to diamonds is a new one for me. And so is the tarred road to Rosh Pinah, where I get a taste of the beauty of this pristine desert environment that has been out of bounds for more than a century.
In the short time of my visit I have heard about the town’s intriguing history, have met a bunch of affable folk and have discovered some diamonds of my own, even if not the graphite kind. I leave, filled to the brim with stories – knowing that I’ve found a new route into Namibia, and that I’ll be back.
Tom’s Cabin +264 (0)63 234 207
Op my Stoep lodge and restaurant
+264 (0)63 234 223, +264 (0)81 127 5837
Shepherd’s Lodge +264 (0)63 232 996
+264 (0)81 283 1481
Pictures Ron Swilling and supplied