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The Zama-Zama of walking back home: Sauntering from Alexander Bay to Paternoster.

If the sea or security does not come to collect what is due, and you do not cross too many time warps you will have time to dream and listen to Poetry as you meander from Alexander Bay to Paternoster.

Through the Spergebiet

Walking: Deconstructed and broken down into its most basic essence is nothing more than a controlled fall. Something you must commit to, believing that you will not plant your face in the dirt. You must believe that all systems will synchronise and choreograph every single fall into that glorious poetic thing that is walking.

I have had faith in this for more than 50 years.

Why is it then that I am standing on the outskirts of Alexander Bay where the mighty Gariep frees itself of its earthly constraints and flows into the deep blue of the Atlantic Ocean with a lump in my throat, second-guessing my decision to go for a long walk on the beach?

It’s not that my faith in the choreography of falling is diminishing it is just that the sign on the 6-foot fence with a yawning old and rusty three- teeth- gate between two crippled and tilted fence posts is explaining to me that if I dare to cross this divide I will be apprehended, questioned, keelhauled, and probably locked up. Between Alexkor, the Guptas or the Government whoever oversees this diamond area you will not be allowed to take a stroll here where avarice rules.

This here is “The Spergebiet.”

I did enquire about permits and all those other bureaucratic hoops one must jump through but in the end, I did not want the answers I was given so here I am standing with a sign shouting at me in big black letters.


I stand around like a teenage boy at a high school dance, smiling apprehensively at the friends who brought me here.

This is as good a place as any mate,” Says the Australian as he stares at the debris that the river left here when it arrived angrily and annoyed from the Augrabies falls last season.

Saying goodbye is something that should be dealt with swiftly so minutes later they disappear into the ochre light of a Northern Cape morning. In the distance I can see the gateway to my journey, the brittle bones, and sunken eyes of a dilapidated building, peeling as the sea gnaws at its foundations.

I would like to tell a tale of bravery at this point and say I scaled and conquered an 8-foot fence, but I did not, I merely walked through a rusty broken gate making a last stand, trying to keep diamond thieves at bay with one elbow and a knee already on the ground, just waiting to be counted out.

Forward, south, heading home with no idea what might happen over the next twenty-one or there about sunsets that it will take me to walk the five hundred and a bit kilometres between here and Paternoster, I cannot allow myself the luxury of thinking ahead too far. My first mission is to make it to Port Nolloth in three days without being arrested.

The landscape is scarred, worked to the bone, evidence that humans roam here with greedy hearts and tools in their hands. With every step, the coastline plays out like a film noir, a Khoi Shaman with time on his hands and slow poison on his arrows. When all these machines become rusty flakes in the sand and the last diamond digger has left for Mars the ocean will lick its wounds and the wind will roam the dunes as it always has.

I pick up the tracks of a big dog making its way south with a little one following closely. It takes me through dunes stripped of vegetation and rocky outcrops above the high tide as the tracks stay close to the shoreline.

With a hot berg wind from the east and a noon sun in the sky, a small man-made harbour appears where the dunes and rocks were pushed up to the sea’s fringe like a bad haircut, I stroll among people in boats treading water. I am not sure where I crossed the divide, but I seem to have slipped through a time–warp, an unreal reality where I am not seen, I glide through unnoticed, walking as if I belong there.

“You better walk.” Whispers the late afternoon sun as I follow the tracks past a truck-type thing, unrecognisable, distorted and mangled by the salty molars of the Atlantic Ocean.

A dune waves its arms at me and whistles like a goat herder.

Am I dreaming?

I leave the tracks and walk towards the dune still waving its arms.

“Sir! You cannot be here, who are you?”

A talking dune?

I try and look as perplexed as is humanly possible. I know nothing of diamonds, I never saw a sign prohibiting me from walking through an open gate in a closed fence.

To no avail, I even try a little R100 bribe as we walk towards the sight office.

I get the feeling Nico du Preez is laughing quietly at my predicament. Between the static on the radios and everyone talking at the same time, I make out words like scan and X-ray. Who knows what people swallow in these parts of the country? In the end, I answer questions and jump through some hoops until everyone is convinced that I am just a hiker and not a Zama-Zama.

“It is a daily battle to keep the Zama-Zamas’ – illegal miners- out of the concessions,” Nico explains to me as I get transported to a security point further inland.

A friendly old Zulu man who luckily fancies a bit of banter is told to keep an eye on the “prisoner” and scan my belongings while they are waiting for security to escort me out of the area. In the end, security is too preoccupied, and Nico offers me a lift and a place to stay for the night at his house in Port Nolloth.

Chances are slim but maybe he can get me permission to walk the rest of the stretch between Alexanderbay and Port Nolloth if I am willing to hang around and wait for a day in Port Nolloth.

Driving into town under a half-moon I see three kids with a torch and a makeshift sifting pan under a dim streetlight.

“Surely they are not?”

Nico du Preez smiles.

“Yes, they are, everyone here is looking for Diamonds, hoping for the big one that will change their lives.”

Long ago, way before copper and diamonds, Port Nolloth went by the name Aukwatowa, – The place where the old man was taken by the sea. I believe that the big blue has taken more of its fair share of able-bodied divers and other ocean men at inopportune times, but since the sixties, local Legend George Moyses has managed to stay clear of its cold hands.

“I love this place my bru, one time.”  He told me 15 years ago when we first met in Mc Dougal Bay, where he lived so close to the water, he could not flush his toilet when the tide came in.

George is a man in his early seventies, it shows on his face, in his eyes, in the lines around his mouth when he laughs and in the “one time – shoeshine- my bru- English from the eighties that is a testament to the heydays and high days when men were men and diamonds were forever on this coast.

I cannot help to wonder how long salt chews on a man and his prized objects until nothing is left but rags in a southerly wind.

“This here is the wild Westcoast.” He explains to me where we stand around in his one-man-eclectic-diamond diver-baroque-like museum. The Museum is a divergent continuation of his persona. George is the museum, and the museum is George.

He is one of the old guard in town. Circa 1970. He and so many others came here when diamond fever was still an incurable disease with a slight chance of survival if you hit the big payday and had the acumen and gall to walk away from the table. Paydays had come and gone, but George is still here.

“It’s good to see you my bru, when you come again in 15 years or so I’ll have more stories to tell you about this place.” George bravely draws a line in the sand between him and the sea that took so many men.

Nico was unable to get me a permit to go back into the “Spergebiet” so tomorrow I will leave from Port Nolloth.

Lying in bed milling the last two days over in my head I realised that things are not always as they seem. Sometimes the big dog’s tracks you follow are those of a Brown hyena and the small ones belong to a Jackal, a dune that whistles and waves to you is in the end nothing but a security guard doing his work and three children under a half-moon streetlight playing with stones are just trying to do what Zama-Zama means. To try again, to take a chance like most people on the outskirts of the Diamond area and the Spergebiet.

Eyes always on the dirt, fingers dug to the bone with only faith in a dystopian future, faith in the big one that never comes.

My knowledge of the politics and internal struggle of people here is too meagre to have an opinion about the riches here in the belly of the icy Atlantic, but somebody is getting the short end of the stick and I just wonder: who can honestly lay claim to these riches?

Tomorrow, I leave for Hondeklipbaai

Port Nolloth to Hondeklipbaai

I have made peace with the “Spergebiet” and paperwork as I leave Port Nolloth in a thick fog. There are rumours of other mining areas where I might be stopped but that is a problem that will be solved when I get to it.

Two hours on the way to Kleinsee the sun finally pushes the fog back. Silence and dunes, rocks like knuckles on a giant’s hand and the sea’s white dogs running onto beaches and rocky shores barking at the gulls above. To the east lies a vast empty land.

For two days I saunter in silence, far removed from the news of the world.

Just outside Kleinsee, I walk through one of the biggest seal colonies on the South African coast. Google claims a seal population of around 450 000, I am not so sure that this is correct, but it did take me more than an hour to walk through the colony, sometimes stopping, just admiring such a spectacle.

If the characters you meet in Kleinsee are anything to judge the little village by I need to come back here one day. There is the tattooed man Wilf who appears from the ocean in the day and sits on his stoep at night, watching sunsets, not saying much.

At the “Blikbord Restaurant,” Kobus Snyman is the man behind the food. He is a drag queen chef- extraordinaire with stories to tell.

“I’ve been on tv, once in a drag show, and once as a chef.” He says with a smile. He is my kind of man half famous, half infamous.

Somewhere near Koingnaas I leave my belongings on the beach and wander into the cold water naked and swim past the breaker to soak my weary bones. I have not seen anybody for two days since I left Kleinsee.

Lying there, soaking my sore muscles in the cold water, the sea puts its dark hand around my heart, it whispers in my ear and shows me the dark side of our specie’s greed as I look back towards the scarred land at the heart of the diamond coast. The sea tightens its grip on my heart and squeezes saltwater from my eyes. I float like a baby in amniotic fluid for a while before I swim back to shore and pitch my tent in silence.

Three days later I reach Hondeklipbaai having slept at the old diamond diver houses at Noup the night before where I had to murder a cricket to get a good night’s rest.

At Skulpies kraal where I will be resting for a day, stocking up on supplies for the long trek to Doornbaai I share a meal with an old Durban murder and robbery branch commander back from the days when a police officer still worked for “volk,” fatherland and five rands, circa Bheki Cele.

Like me, he roamed this coast once for a little while and then decided to settle here. He keeps himself busy writing a book, remembering the things he saw, and the times he lived through. I get the feeling he is trying to forget.

With rumours that the snoek is running, I leave the Hondeklipbay well rested a day later as the arrival of the season’s first snoek turns the village from a sleepy diamond town into a hotspot for fish traders from Cape town.

Hondeklip and homeward bound with a Spotify playlist

After dodging some mines with non-existent security, I settle into walking through thick sand and passing signs warning me of even thicker sand as I make my way to Doornbaai, six days trek into the future.

Close to another seal colony deep into the Namaqua national park I pick up the tracks of my friend the brown hyena again. Not being the most graciously movable animals when on land, seals are easy pickings for a beast of 70 – 80 centimetres high weighing 40 – 45kg. I scan the area as I suddenly feel the urge to walk just a little faster.

I settle into the meditative rhythm that can only be accomplished by monotonous meandering getting lost in thought and the vistas of beautiful emptiness framed by blue sky and the sparse vegetation of the hinterland.

I fill my head with songs and poems from a Spotify playlist when the silence takes its toll.

The great Breyten Breytenbach pushes me forward with catalectic verse, making me realise that even if I finish this walk it will never be done.

My friend says this is a big world

you can never fill it with understanding

in the beginning it was empty

except for the rocks that are lumped thoughts from the rhyme outside us

to move is to reach for rhythm

how else will you understand the wind’s words in your face? *

Behind me now lies places with lonely names- Skuinsbaai, Bamboeskamp, Koringkorrel.

At Groenriviermond I manage to phone home, to try and find out if these names ring as true to her as they ring to me. If she understands that Koringkorrel is a holy word if it leaves my mouth in a whisper and she is not there to hear it.

You dial, hear the ring

maybe the wind that rustles or sips the tide

the howl of a dog at the eyes of a goat

she picks up the phone in a far place


I know your voice at night. *

I say Koringkorrel as soft as I can, and the poet leaves me to attend to the realities of filling my bottles with water.

I reach Doornbaai via Koekenaap on schedule, no thanks though to the Australian mine on the banks of the Olifants river that allows no thoroughfare in the area, not even on the beach.

Doornbaai has a winery, a restaurant that was on tv the night before I arrived, and friendly people moving at a slow pace, it seems like a good place to spend a rest day with people you love before they leave again, and you start the final stretch home to Paternoster 5 days walk from here.

I arrive in Lamberts Bay at the same time as the first winter snoek. Boats bakkies and people milling around at the little harbour.

“How much snoek came out today,” I ask a fisherman biting down on a cigarette with the only two teeth left in his mouth.

Without using his hands, he moves the cigarette to the corner of his mouth. I’m impressed.

“Probably 25000,” he says nonchalantly as if it is not a lot.

The sound of happy people fills the Lamberts Bay night, I am happy to be leaving mines and diamonds and other precious metals behind.

Elands bay, Dwarskersbos, Velddrif, all these towns move by in a haze as I head home now, picking up speed like an old sailboat heading to a friendly harbour after weeks at sea.

The Saturday afternoon suddenly seems desolate and empty as I sit on the rocks at Mosselbank beach in Paternoster waiting for a friend to pick me up. It is as if I never left.

But I did, I know that somewhere in the silence of remembering there will always be a tattooed man in Kleinsee, the absolute silence of the saltpan in Papendorp will always be loud and real, and if I say Koringkorrel soft enough, if I make it a silent word, she will know that I walked all this way to get back home.

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