Diamonds and daisies
Exploring the old diamond fields of the West Coast
Tech editor Ian Theron encounters some interesting characters and vast landscapes during his visit to the old diamond fields of the West Coast.
Vast expanses of hilly terrain, succulent Karoo veld and golden Namaqualand quartz gravel make for some dramatic landscapes. However, the real beauty of the old diamond mines of the northern Namaqualand lies in the proper 4x4 playground it offers.
It’s 04h00 on a balmy summer’s morning in Cape Town’s northern suburbs and I’m enjoying a strong (and necessary) cup of coffee before I depart to pick up my passenger. My excitement is obvious as I have been anticipating this trip for quite some time. I was fortunate enough to be invited on this exploratory West Coast trip by Greg van der Reis and a couple of mates from the 4x4 Off-Road Adventure Club, just to see how far west we can travel towards the coast, starting somewhere on the gnashing plains of the Northern Cape. I was instructed to meet early morning at Klawer and I was allowed one male passenger only. The first one that sprung to mind was Andy Mark, publisher of this magazine, and a big Land Rover enthusiast. However, he already had prior engagements (his daughter’s birthday) and after some thought, I invited Mike Kaufmann, the magazine’s marketing director. Mike’s a rookie to the Land Rover fraternity and has never driven one before. He’s also a Jeep owner but we won’t hold that against him. We met up with five other Land Rover owners for a Wimpy breakfast and coffee and set off into the vast expanse of the desolated northern region. After travelling for a while, we decided to hit the dirt. At this stage, I wasn’t yet sure if I should let my rookie co-driver behind the wheel as his only 4x4 experience is slamming sidewalks with his Jeep on his way to work and back. Our guide for the trip was a bloke, coincidentally also named Michael, in a Defender Td5. He took the lead as he apparently knew the area well. It was a great ride, exploring and trying to find ways out of dongas and riverbeds.
We eventually crossed over a dubiouslooking bridge and down a very steep dry riverbed where we stopped under a railway bridge for lunch and discussed all things Land Rover. It was rookie Mike’s turn for a serious session behind the wheel of my Defender Td5. He wanted to know which way out and I replied, “Just choose a gear and follow Karsten’s orange G4 Defender back up that steep embankment that we just came down.” Karsten made it up first time and everyone else got stuck. I must admit Mike was a quick learner, driving up the embankment like a pro, absolutely loving the Landy’s capabilities. From there he just got better and better and I was wondering if I was ever going to get my beloved Land Rover back. After some tricky driving, we found a way down, set up camp and enjoyed some good company and excellent ribs. It took only a few beers before Mike started fishing about prices for a second-hand Defender and wondered how much he would get for his Jeep. I set up my stretcher under the Landy’s awning and watched in awe as Mike made his so-called bed. The self-inflating mattress he brought along was no bigger or thicker than a child’s kneeboard and his cushion resembled something closer to a face cloth.
The strongest stone in the world
The next morning, we got up early and felt fresh. Well, except for Mike, who experienced some backache and we lined our stomachs with a great breakfast at a nearby farm stall, restaurant, nursery and rustic shop rolled into one that sold all kinds of plants and other odds and ends. With boosted energy levels, we headed to a redundant diamond mine situated close by. Diamond mining was widespread in the coastal areas of Namaqualand. The 48 500 ha area is very rich in succulent plant species, but many of them remain threatened due to the over-exploitation of the diamond miners from many moons ago. I am reluctant to reveal our exact position. It’s absolutely vital that the area’s environment is treated with respect, and irresponsible driving is frowned upon. The area remains very sensitive after miners nearly depleted it of its natural resources. We knew the drill: don’t leave any trails of rubbish or damage; always clean up after yourselves; and be wary of driving over plant species.
The real sports began when we entered the diamond fields. We came across the same dry riverbed and decided to cross its steep banks. After some contemplating, Karsten took the plunge in the orange G4 Defender and stormed the muddy river banks. It was touch and go, but he made it through and got stuck on the opposite end. After a few more attempts, he eventually made it to the top. Next up was our guide Michael in his Defender Td5. He charged that same mud patch and got halfway before sinking down. Fortunately, Greg was at hand and managed a successful recovery. Mike and I decided to take a different route and made it through comfortably. Then it was time for our guide to give the embankment another go. Following in my tracks, he again made it halfway and went down. Fortunately, Casper (our trip photographer) was ready and waiting and managed to capture the whole incident on camera. Another route was suggested and we managed to get our guide to dry ground. We made our way downstream to find a possible route down to the coast. This time Greg decided to take the lead and showed us a swimming spot with a clear, sandy bottom; or so we thought. Mike was first to strip down, but before he could get into the pool, the clay bank he was standing on turned into a slippery slide and one bounce on his bottom, he ended up in a mud bath. After cleaning himself off, he was allowed back in my Landy and we moved on. Many dead ends and washedout dongas later, it was Greg who had to give up attempting the same hill again and again – so much for traction control. We then rerouted; Mike and I took the lead and eventually found a way through. A couple of guys missed their lines and got pulled out. Another member of our entourage, Alan’s Discovery 3 really impressed us as it made light work of the dongas.
Dongas, mud and settling near the sea
Then it was my turn again. I was looking for a route back down to the river when I discovered a steep embankment. However, as I hit the bottom I know I was in deep trouble. Knowing the difference between deep mud and manure, I noticed this was not manure, but it was in vain. With smoke bellowing out the exhaust, I was stuck. Thanks to our guide, I was soon back on dry ground. And after some road building, we all managed to make it back to higher ground.
We backtracked to the gravel roads and headed west. Michael was once again our guide and took us down some dry riverbeds. However, he soon lost the track and got stuck again. Everybody quickly consulted GPSs and we found a way back to the gravel road. We were hungry and had less than half a day to reach the coast. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, we stopped for lunch. Greg whipped up the most wonderful toasted sandwiches with banana and cinnamon. We found our way to the coast to set up camp next to the sea. It was time to reflect
The stars flickered above us with no sign of human life for kilometres – this was living at its best.
on our exploratory trip with all its obstacles and excitement. That night we put our feet up around a lekker braai and enjoyed a few brewskis. We exchanged stories for a while and some of the crew drifted off to bed, opting to sleep under the night sky, far away from a certain photographer’s snoring. Apart from the incessant snoring and the continuous rumbling of the sea in the background, the night was quiet and serene. The stars flickered above us with no sign of human life for kilometres – this was living at its best. Having realised the capabilities of the legendary vehicle and the adventure that goes with it, rookie Mike is now a fully fledged Land Rover lover. He has vowed to sell his Jeep and invest in a Defender; we’ll keep a close eye on his progress. And the boys were: Greg, Steve and Casper in Greg’s Defender Puma; Michael, our guide, in his Defender Td5; John in his Defender Td5; Alan in his Discovery 3; Karsten in his Defender G4 Td5; and me in a Defender 110 Td5 with new Landy-lover Mike as my co-driver.
I let Mike slide behind the wheel just to gauge his capabilities and he managed quite well, but not without a few oohs and aahs, of course.
Crossing over the old rickety bridge.
Mike our guide getting stuck for the umpteenth time.
Me in my luxury bed and Mikey on the floor developing a backache.
Setting up camp after an exciting day. With something cold in hand.