The Diamond Coast has many treasures...

By Time of article published Nov 13, 2005

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By Steve Moseley

The wreck of the Piratiny lay where the sea met the shore, her rusted and broken framework scattered among the rocks of the treacherous West Coast. Her severed and upturned bows leaned back towards the cold Atlantic Ocean as if she hoped to return to the waters upon which she once sailed.

A heavy winch still clung to the foredeck, surrounded by enduring teak and oregon pine planking, while holes in the corroded hull revealed flaking ribs.

A gentle swell hissed and sighed along the edge of the rocky shore, its docile caress far removed from the tempest induced savagery that must have dashed the vessel onto its earthbound grave.

Shards of porcelain, the edges smoothed by years of crashing waves, lay among the shells and seaweed lining the crevices at our feet.

Gazing at the shattered remains, we wondered how the crew must have felt in those first terrifying moments when the rocks first tore at her belly, and then scrambled for the lifeboats and headed to the unknown shore, thousands of kilometres from home.

Once a proud 5000-ton Brazilian steamer, the Piratiny ran aground in bad weather during June 1943, and is one of three wrecks that can be seen during the guided Shipwreck 4x4 Trail between Koingnaas and Kleinzee on the West Coast.

The small section of coast, entry to which was forbidden for many years due to De Beers' diamond-mining operations, has recently been opened up to a range of activities and attractions.

It is nevertheless still restricted, and a mandatory five days' notice must be given for obtaining clearance to visit the area.

Kleinzee is the administrative centre of the mining area, which has recently been christened the Diamond Coast - Forever Namaqualand.

This De Beers initiative is aimed at stimulating tourism and attracting visitors to the region.

The company started mining here in 1928 and produces roughly a million carats a year - ample justification for the choice of name.

Getting there from Springbok entails taking the gravel-tar-gravel R355 all the way to the coast, or you could take the turnoff from the R355 via Kommaggas, which still involves gravel-tar-gravel but the latter unsurfaced section is serviced by the mine and in better condition.

Apparently any time of year is good for a visit, with - oddly enough - the hottest days experienced mostly during winter when the mercury can occasionally climb well into the 30s.

The south-easterly blows in summer, with the rule of thumb being that if it doesn't start before 10am then a windless day lies ahead.

With the days ending later here, it still leaves a lot of time to plan a full day of wind-free fun or relaxation.

Average annual rainfall is minimal, at between 100-120mm with further moisture provided by the mists that can cloak the area for days. Judging by the name of a small settlement not far from Kleinzee - Grootmis (Great Mist) - this happens often.

The shipwreck tour starts 60km south of Kleinzee near Koingnaas where we met four other vehicles, which made up the required number of eight people, before heading into the dunes.

Our guide, André van Wyk, was a mine (s'cuse the pun) of information on all aspects of the region.

As we followed his 4x4 he imparted knowledge via two-way radios, or regularly stopped to give us plenty of time to stretch our legs on the 37km trail. Generally, the timetable was relaxed, with easy soft-sand driving along the rugged coast.

Thanks to the protection offered by the restricted area, the environment is in pristine condition, a fact borne out by a lichen that survives only in clean, unpolluted conditions, commonly found on dry vegetation throughout the area.

Our first stop was at a midden of discarded sea shells left by the Strandlopers, San and Khoisan beachcombers living a late Stone Age existence in the region.

Another deviation from the central tour theme was a stop at the Kliphuis, built by Jan Kotzé in 1926, and cloaked in mystery and heartbreak.

Apparently, Oom Jan went missing here without a trace in 1931, and the next family, the Agenbags, lost a daughter who ate tulip bulbs that proved poisonous.

Their story continues further, when Pa Agenbag, observing that his goats always congregated around a certain area of the barren veld, realised that they must be smelling water and, when he dug down, that's exactly what he found.

The result of his back-breaking toil was two wells and a very brackish supply, and where they got water from before this no one knows.

Arriving back at the shore, we found a high tide had all but covered the wreck of the Arosa, the second along the trail, and a wooden plaque embedded in the dunes was all that denoted the vicinity of its final resting place.

We ambled around the rusted skeleton that was perched high and dry on the sandy beach.

Before we'd licked our fingers clean, the mist that had hovered offshore all morning rolled in like the froth from a breaking wave, a sudden squall tearing bits off and flinging them rapidly into the hinterland.

Soon our surroundings had faded into the vapour, giving the wreck an eerie ambience on the deserted and silent beach.

During the tour, with the sun shining from a brilliant blue sky, the sea was coloured various shades of turquoise and dolphins frolicked, celebrating the sheer joy of life.

Small, secluded beaches, their calm waters almost tempting us into their embrace, seemed short of a brolly or two and a scattering of sun-worshipping bodies.

Later, when the mist closed in and the wind picked up, that tranquil and hospitable façade turned suddenly cold and treacherous, showing how easily ships could be lured here to their early demise.

Kleinzee itself is a small town of 2 500 inhabitants whose entire shopping needs are catered for by a Spar.

It does, however, hold a few things of interest for the visitor.

André is also the curator of the small but informative museum, which contains more information on the shipwrecks along the coast, as well as fossils, Stone Age tools, fauna and flora of the region.

It's doors open mornings, only on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, or anytime by appointment.

Having satisfied any curiosities you may have had about the area, the coffee shop next door is a good place to sip a warm beverage before moving on.

If you're in the town at lunchtime, head for the recreation club for a choice-of-the-day meal, and then walk it off around the small Molyneux Nature Reserve, which contains 132 species of indigenous plants.

The tour of De Beers' diamond mine is the most popular drawcard to the town, and we met our guide, Priscilla Smith, bright and early on our second morning.

After donning safety boots and hard hats, we emptied our pockets of everything but a few tissues and headed for the security checkpoint where our cameras were sealed before proceeding.

The mining area stretches for 36km along the coast and the recovery building, where the diamonds are retrieved, is the highest structure in Namaqualand.

Our tour included a close look at some of the outsized machinery, the recovery of diamonds on the bedrock, the crushing plant and an explanation of how the whole system works.

To end it, some time was spent observing the antics of Cape Fur seals at the 350 000-strong colony - reputedly the largest in the country - that inhabits the mining area.

Not far from where we stopped next to a multimillion-rand drill rig, a steenbok took time off from its grazing to give us an inquisitive look, all the while seeming oblivious to the roar of the machinery.

The drill is capable of boring a hole 2,5 metres in diameter with the utmost ease: I wondered what old Mr Agenbag would have given to have this round to dig his wells.

At the dragline, Priscilla referred to it as a baby but, standing next to the 3 500-ton monster machine, there was nothing infantile about it.

To operate it, five people are required.

Its 37-ton bucket scoops 73 tons of earth every time, enabling it to move an incredible 3 200 tons of earth an hour, and it can actually walk around the mine at a dazzling speed of 190 metres per hour.

On top of that, a new one will set you back a cool R400-million.

While at the bedrock working site we were told not to bend down to pick up anything should we drop it.

Big Brother was watching our every move - and relaying it back to base - via a system called Desert Wolf.

This was high security. Not that you would have got away with it had you found a big one. The compulsory x-ray when leaving the mining area would have picked it up no matter which orifice you'd tried to hide it in.

There are two very pleasant and unusual accommodation options in the area.

Die Houthoop, run by Veronica van Dyk, is situated on a farm near the town and sleeps guests in various small but comfortable wood cabins, or rooms in the house. There is also camping, a tea garden and a restaurant.

The actual houthoop (woodpile), which is the central feature of the establishment, is a 45-year-old mound of red fig branches that forms a screen in which an open-air bar and braai area is situated and used for big functions.

The good-humoured and easygoing atmosphere of the place is evident through the abundance of quirky sayings hand- painted on signs and hung from every fence and cabin wall on the farm.

The indoor bar is run on an honesty basis where patrons write down what they drink and pay upon leaving, and gregarious guests can mingle with the rough and polished of the community at Die Houthoop's Friday-night pizza bash or the occasional themed evening.

Quieter types may prefer to opt for the restored divers' cottages 60km down the road at Noup, near Koingnaas - a good option for the night before the shipwreck tour.

Diamond divers built the nine basic stone cottages overlooking the beach, during the many days when they could not dive due to unfavourable sea conditions.

Their isolation is ideal for those who enjoy the simple life and each cottage has an inside fireplace where you can braai and keep warm on those cold misty winter nights when the wind whips the sea into a frenzy and howls around the eaves.

In a separate basic dining area called, tongue in cheek, "The Ritz", prearranged meals are served for groups of four or more.

In hindsight, two days was not enough to settle our curiosity for a region that had been kept secret for so long.

It's clear diamonds aren't the only treasures in this corner of Namaqualand and, like the gleaming crystals, once discovered they need to be enjoyed over time.

  • This article was originally published on page 12 of The Star on November 12, 2005

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