On the edge of Oranjemund, facing one way, you’re in a verdant town. Turn around and you’re in a desert. A little boy left this spot in April 1969. Forty-nine years later, he took a long drive back to his youth
This once off-limits diamond town is open now. Tony Jackman returns to the scene of his childhood
WHEN I LEFT ORANJEMUND I WAS 13,
and on my way to the sandy airport across the Ernest Oppenheimer Bridge to fly to my Windhoek boarding school. Three months later my parents pitched up to take us to Swakopmund, then, mysteriously, to Cape Town. To live.
The wrench was not so much the change of life as the little spot in the semi-desert where my brother lay buried. Phillip Garry Jackman had been born in Yorkshire, England, but died in Oranjemund at six, courtesy of his bicycle hitting a bollard, hurling him onto hard ground. Some hours and a brain haemorrhage later, and he was gone.
Everyone I’d ever known was left behind. Danny, my friend across the road. Stephen, the only one quieter than me in class. Teresa next door. My expat parents Cyril and Betty Jackman had been there 17 years, since late 1952, fresh from Yorkshire.
A life happens. You become a journalist, despite your desperate truancy habit; you write some plays, bring out a cookbook/memoir in which the first several chapters are about the strangeness of life in Oranjemund. Something is kindled.
You’re born in 1955 in the diamond dorp of white expat families, where your dad is given a company Land Rover because your own car has to be parked in the garages on the Orange River, and you’re given a rent-free house, furnished, paying only for food and household goods. The price, you learn later, of your captivity. You grow up to hate the town for its confining ways.
But while writing your memoir, a window creaks open on to what Oranjemund might be like now. One day, in Richmond in the Karoo, you’re talking to a roomful of people about your book and growing up in Oranjemund, and a woman says, ‘Did you know that Oranjemund is open now?’
I wanted to find Stephen, my childhood best friend, because I’d heard years ago that he was still there, working in the grocery store; that he’d never left. I knew I needed to go back.
Oranjemund is far from where we live now, Cradock in the Eastern Cape. We needed to head for Graaff-Reinet and sweep across on the R63 to join the N7 north, skirting the Camdeboo to Murraysburg (as quintessential as a Karoo dorp gets) and on past an N1 four-way stop to Victoria West. Then on to Loxton and Carnarvon before the long stretch to Williston and finally Calvinia in the Hantam Karoo for our overnight stop in the Boekehuis, host to many a Karoo writer.
Next morning we were on the N27 past Niewoudtville and down the breathtaking Van Rhyns Pass, picking up the N7 at Vanrhynsdorp to head for Springbok – back then, hidden in the mountains; now more than doubled in size and enjoying a massive boom. Fifty kays further on there was little Steinkopf, a colourful settlement against a koppie. Today it straddles the N7. This is where you pick up the R382 to Port Nolloth. About 20 kilometres on is the Anenous Pass, now tarred, but the little boy in me saw himself on a treacherous gravel pass, wide-eyed and looking down at rusted car wrecks, wondering if that one, there, was the one that killed most of a family he knew.
In Port Nolloth, the illicit diamond-buying capital of the world, there’s a spot that was my kink in the road, a portal to freedom after we’d left Oranjemund for our annual holiday. Returning home, it was a cattle-gate back to a year of confinement. It’s gone, but soon we’re on the first road I ever knew outside of a town, 50 miles of gravel through undulating dunelands, like a beach that wondered off and got lost. This region resembles a remote planet. You remind yourself: this is where you came from.
Finally we’ve driven the 82 kilometres to the border post. We don’t need visas but we have letters proving ownership and insurance of the car and the requisite ZA sticker. And we’re on the narrow bridge, a lump in my throat as we approach the old rows of garages, to find that they’ve become a hostel for migrant workers.
It’s seven kilometres on, at the point in the road where the town begins and the desertscape is behind you, that your eyes are drawn upwards. The trees have grown for five decades. And the oasis town where once the only black people were ‘houseboys’ is now predominantly middle-class black, a world away from its expat origins. Nor is it Consolidated Diamond Mines any more. It’s Namdeb. Two weeks before we arrived, a memorandum of agreement had been signed between the Namibian government (Nam) and De Beers (Deb) in terms of which Nam would pull out.
I’ve arrived as Oranjemund is to change from the diamond-mining town it has been since the 1930s to a brave new future. Its horizons have been flung open. Where once there was captivity, everyone drives in and out in their own cars; people jog past the point where desert starts and off towards the Pink Pan. The old clubhouse there, which I saw being built in the 60s, is a Namdeb corporate facility, but the waters are still pinkly pretty (due to the pan’s salty bed and the proximity of flamingos), although the boat sheds are empty.
One evening we arrive at the pan with a bottle of wine, and two okes have had the same idea. One of them is Patrick Hamann, the new transformation manager, and he tells us about the Diamond Route between Port Nolloth, Oranjemund and Lüderitz, including the splendid new tar road via Rosh Pinah and Aus to Kolmanskop and Lüderitz. On a whim we take the route, spend two nights in Lüderitz and suddenly I have a new perspective on Oranjemund and its place in that diamond terrain.
I learn that Stephen must be long gone, that Danny died many moons ago, that the animals get along with the humans now. As you drive into town, you see your first gemsbok, a pair grazing on the green verge.
Two distinct moments will stand out forever. The first is visiting my brother’s grave. This crystallises things for my wife Di, the thought of that little boy having been brought from the moors of Yorkshire to be buried on the edge of a desert. She leaves me alone with him, and it’s as I turn to go that the tears come. ‘I’m sorry’ is carried away by the hot desert wind.
The second is the Moth Shellhole, my dad’s pride. In the mid-60s he’d had a velvet banner made in Cape Town in rich blue and gold. I remember the day it arrived and he spread it out between his arms in the lounge and took it to the Shellhole the next day. It’s still there, as good as new. And now the Shellhole has the story of that flag.
Oranjemund, I’ve made my peace with you. And I’ll be back a little sooner next time.
‘WHERE ONCE THERE WAS CAPTIVITY, EVERYONE DRIVES IN AND OUT IN THEIR OWN CARS’
ABOVE The mouth of the Orange River is nine kilometres from town, and a favourite hang-out for flamingos.TOP Oranjemund’s new airport welcomes flights from Cape Town and Windhoek. The old airport was on the other (SA) side of the river. RIGHT Writer Tony Jackman with his big sister Pat in the late 50s.
ABOVE Gemsbok wander around town, helping the council trim the verges. TOP, FROM LEFT The scary old Anenous Pass, a narrow, winding gravel track with no railings (the sleek, new tarred road is behind the author as he took this picture); the grave of Tony’s big brother, who died age six, is in the cemetery at the edge of the desert.
ABOVE An abandoned railway station at Garub in the Namib Desert, between Aus and Lüderitz. RIGHT A former mine building on the windswept beach at Alexander Bay. OPPOSITE The road out of Oranjemund, heading to the bridge, border post, Orange River Mouth and Pink Pan (to the right).