Skeleton Coast in Namibia, by Amy Schoeman

Amy Schoeman was the first author to describe the scenery of the Skeleton Coast in Namibia in an illustrated book.

Amy Schoeman  

Prospectors, miners and fortune hunters

The lure maximal, the yield minimal. Diamond prospectors are a breed on their own. They are romantics, born optimists, the most positive of thinkers and inherent gamblers, people who are prepared to suffer great hardship for the big bonanza that they believe will sooner or later come their way. Those who went to the Skeleton Coast were no exception. The question was not whether there would be diamonds, but rather how best to dispose of them once they had been found. The area has exactly the kind of magnetism that attracts people such as these. Its geographical remoteness, the fact that entry has been restricted since 1907 and the discovery of rich diamond deposits at Alexander Bay and Oranjemund did much to create and perpetuate the myth that somewhere along the coast lay untold wealth. Certain people will always believe in the existence of these legendary mineral riches, if for no other reason than that they want to. When the Kaokoveld was declared a prohibited area in 1907 it was not, as many had thought at the time, to prevent the discovery and exploitation of diamonds by private individuals. It was mainly to relieve the police from having to patrol the long waterless wastes and also to create a cattle-free zone to expurgate the lung sickness that had been spreading from Angola. This seemed to add to the attraction. Time and again adventurers risked their lives by entering the area illegally to search for diamonds. In many instances they were followed, tracked down, arrested and convicted, but rather than serving as a deterrent, this increased the magnetism. Some of these fortune hunters never returned, as is evidenced by the human skeletons and unmarked graves found in the vicinity of deserted prospecting camps.

In search of whiskey

It was not only diamonds that made people risk their lives. The late Jannie Peters-Hollenberg, an adventurous farmer from the Keetmanshoop district, heard that there was a large quantity of whisky which had not been salvaged from the wreck of the Dunedin Star. This was in 1946, just after the war, when whisky was virtually unobtainable. Landing on the beach in his small Piper Cub tandem plane, he made several retrieval trips between the wreck and a farm in the Outjo district which bordered on eastern Kaokoveld, where he kept a supply of air-craft fuel. By now the tides had washed the ship closer to the beach. At low tide, using motorcar tyres that lay strewn around, he was able to build a kind of staircase up to the ship. The tanks of the Piper Cub could hold sufficient fuel for a single trip.

On his way to the wreck a supply of fuel for the return journey was stacked on the back seat, while on the way back the space was occupied by whisky. He made several trips, but, finding that he had to pay so much in tax to Customs and Excise that financially it was hardly worth his while, he eventually gave up. His late father, who had been appointed first Mining Commissioner for South West Africa in 1903, had given him several maps on which possible diamond deposits were indicated. So, whether he risked his life for the love of whisky, which is unlikely since he was virtually a teetotaller, or for the love of diamonds, or possibly simply for the love of adventure, as he had done a good deal of scouting around while he was there, he was fortunate that he lived to tell the tale.

The diamond hunters from the Theodora

Shortly after the Kaokoveld had been declared a diamond area in 1929, a syndicate of diamond hunters made a daring entry from the sea into the forbidden zone, in an exercise which nearly cost them their lives. They set out from Cape Town, where they had made arrangements with Charles Broker, the owner of a ketch, the Theodora, to land them on the Skeleton Coast. They claimed that they were in possession of details of a rich occurrence of diamondiferous gravel north of the Hoanib River. What they didn’t know was that the police had come to hear of their intentions and were keeping an eye on their movements. Unsuspectingly they left Cape Town early in October 1931. They were plagued with misfortune from the outset. The ship’s mate was inexperienced, and the six diamond hunters were novices as sailors and useless as deck hands.

After several close shaves they managed to reach Walvis Bay, where they replenished their supplies and set off northwards. When they reached the mouth of the Hoanib River, which was as far as Broker had contracted to take them, they saw signs of smoke on the beach and decided to go ashore. Two of them set out in a dinghy with a supply of food and water. Being inexperienced, they reached the shore only with great difficulty, losing their provisions in the process. The weather had deteriorated, which confined them to the beach for five uncomfortable days and five even more uncomfortable nights. In the meanwhile the men on the cutter had constructed a raft to which they attached two drums of water. Two of the diamond hunters tried to reach the shore on the raft, but were thrown off and only just managed to reach the beach.

At this point the police patrol, which had been on the lookout for them, arrived on the scene and instructed them to return to the cutter, using the dinghy, once the sea was sufficiently calm. They were then to proceed to Walvis Bay, and on arrival to report to the nearest police station. Broker had other ideas, however. After retrieving the four men, which he achieved only with great difficulty, he headed northwards for Mossamedes. Once there, he prepared for the return journey to Cape Town, but because of poor weather, was forced to go ashore at Walvis Bay. Here the diamond hunters were promptly arrested and Broker fined £40 for having landed them in a prohibited area. Although the experience put paid to any further attempts by these particular fortune hunters, they still insisted that there was a large diamond bonanza just waiting to be taken. [...]

This is an exerpt from the book: Skeleton Coast, by Amy Schoeman.

Title: Skeleton Coast
Author: Amy Schoeman
Struik Publishers
Cape Town, South Africa 2003
ISBN 9781868728916 / ISBN 978-1-86-872891-6
Hardcover, dustjacket, 21x28 cm, 148 pages, throughout colour photos

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