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

Getaway (South Africa) - - NEWS - WORDS BY TONY JACK­MAN

This once off-lim­its di­a­mond town is open now. Tony Jack­man re­turns to the scene of his child­hood


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.


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).

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