Earlier this year, I visited the small town of Oranjemund, which is about 300km South of Luderitz (previous blog), Extreme Southwest part of Namibia.
Oranjemund is one of the world’s richest diamond areas, where the Orange River flows into the Atlantic Ocean, the River being the boundary between Namibia and South Africa.
At 10mn away, there is the border post to South Africa, at Ernest Oppenheimer Bridge, and the nearest town in South Africa is Alexander Bay
The diamond mine opened in 1936 and belonged to De Beers. (today 50% De Beers, 50% Namibian Government).
Almost everything in Oranjemund belonged to the Mine. That is why it was not opened to the public until 2017.
Before 2017, the Public was forbidden to enter the Town. Only employees and their relatives were allowed access.
Unlike Kolmanskop, the diamond mine in Oranjemund is still open and extracts in the region of 2 million carats (400kg) per year.
At the time of the diamond rush and later, people living in Oranjemund (about 15,000) came from countries as diverse as America, France, Greece, Scotland, England, Ireland, Wales, Germany, South Africa, Australia, Poland Yugoslavia, Italy, Canada, Angola, Rhodesia, Zambia, Botswana, Argentina.
In the pubs around town, these individuals would be known by their nicknames like Gordon the Butcher, Danny the Greek, Big Dirk, Magic Allen, Tommy the Shark, Mike the Gypsy, etc.
Contract of employment at the time: 54 hours a week
In the 30s, their contracts of employment stated: 54 hours are to be worked per week, so that they worked from sunrise to sundown as a rule.
If one person had been employed for a whole year without a day off, then he was granted 5 days off work, and after 5 years of employment he was eligible for 9 days’ holiday.
Flying to School
There was no High School in Oranjemund, so most youngsters were shipped by planes to various schools in South Africa.
At random, the employees and their relatives were X-rayed when leaving town.
Diamond theft is heavily punished, and one wonders how it is still possible to smuggle the precious stones from the mines.
It is fascinating to see how creative smugglers can be.
During the early days of the diamond rush, diamonds were smuggled in cigarette packets and matchboxes, but of course such tricks were soon well known so the thieves had to be ever more innovative.
The diamonds were transported in radios and tape recorders, shoes and heels, sewn into clothing, in guns, and even in the stomach or intestines. There were also the carrier pigeons.
There was the story that an employee had trained a pigeon to memorize the route from his home to the Diamond mine. One day, going to work at the Diamond Mine, he hid the pigeon in his lunch box. When the time was opportune, he strapped a little pouch on the chest of the pigeon, and filled it with diamonds, so that the pigeon could fly to the man’s home with the booty.
Unfortunately, the pouch with the stolen diamonds became too heavy, the bird struggled to fly and landed exhausted, at the entrance of the Mine, almost at the feet of a Security Guard.
When the Guard saw this unusual pigeon, he raised the alarm. They recovered the diamonds, released the pigeon and followed where the pigeon was heading to later arrest the culprit.
There are many stories of smuggling diamonds.
Some make it, some get caught.
The Flight of Diamonds
Another unsuccessful and fantastic story was one of a geologist who worked for the diamond company, who stored a valuable cache of diamonds, on the coast, and then left the mine.
He then travelled to Cape Town and found a pilot willing to fly him back, up to the diamond fields, to recover the cache.
They flew up and landed on the beach near the cache, but when they landed the aircraft became bogged and they could not take off again.
Shortly afterwards, the men were arrested with the diamonds and the aircraft was confiscated.
Something that my Friend Judy told me, whose father was working at Oranjemund mine from the 1966 to 1975 is that when DeBeers celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Company, they generously gave 1 carat of good quality diamond to all their employees and company’s pensioners.
Who knows how many people received the 1 carat diamond!.
Good evening everybody. See you next time for Part 2.