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The ‘Far Side’ beach hut at the Noup Diamond Divers’ Cottages on the Namaqualand Diamond Coast

76 Travel Africa Winter 2012/13


South Africa

D amonds Ann and Steve Toon travel across South Africa to investigate The Diamond Route, a series of new conservation properties that are now open to the public. While their pockets are not filled with gems along the way, the same can’t be said for their memories. © ALL IMAGES BY ANN &Steve Toon WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY

a zing out to sea, with our feet up on a driftwood deckchair and only liquoricecoloured lizards for company, it’s hard to imagine anyone living here having the energy to crack open another Castle beer, let alone go prospecting on the seabed for diamonds. According to the guestbook in our Barney Rubble-style beach hut, dubbed fittingly ‘The Far Side’, we shouldn’t really be telling you about this hidden gem of a coastline. Nor should we be spilling the beans about our precise location, which according to the wonky, weathered handmade sign is ‘Sunset Boulevard’. But then this road trip around South Africa’s dust blown Northern Cape province has been one surprise after another in a region we thought we knew well… For the past ten days we’ve been following The Diamond Route, a little-known, loosely connected necklace of multi-faceted nature destinations that showcase the unexpectedly diverse conservation interests of the Oppenheimer family and the De Beers mining

TA

Ann and Steve Toon are freelance photographers and photojournalists with a fascination for wildlife and conservation. They have written several books and are regular contributors to Travel Africa magazine.

Winter 2012/13 Travel Africa 77


company. The idea in creating the route was to open up ‘closed’ areas of land initially acquired for mining to tourism and ecological research. Having the chance to visit these new conservation properties, which encompass pristine bush, open savannah, arid Kalahari landscapes and now this remote, windswept coast, is like being handed a special invitation to peek at the family jewels. The route is now being marketed, but you get the feeling these precious nuggets of cultural and natural heritage are secrets to be shared with a select few. Not only are The Diamond Route destinations a real treat for wildlife lovers looking to go beyond the traditional Big Five experience of an African wildlife safari, there’s the added bonus of being able to steep yourself in the country’s past, practically reliving the diamond era days for yourself. Whisper it quietly, but you can even overnight at a private ‘shooting box’ reputedly used by Cecil Rhodes on Rooipoort, one of the De Beers reserves west of Kimberley. It’s an unspoiled Victorian museum-piece of a national monument originally shipped out from the UK in kit-form, where the drawing room still echoes to the chatter and clink of glasses after successful hunting weekends. If you visit, make sure to dip into some of the handwritten logbook accounts of shooting parties held here as far back as the early 1900s. During the day you can head out to see rock etchings or chill out at Bushman Fountains watering hole – a tranquil oasis attracting lots of game and birdlife. We clocked up hartebeest, wildebeest, gemsbok, warthog, kudu and an exhausted dung beetle labouring with his dung ball, all in the space of half an hour.

The dusty, diamond-rush era antiques of the shooting box are in real contrast to the rustic and quirky divers’ huts we’re now staying in. From a distance they look like a space lab on a remote planet. This misty Namaqualand coastline, near the once-booming diamond-mining towns of Kleinzee and Koingnaas, is like Namibia’s Skeleton Coast in miniature, complete with the rusting hulks of shipwrecks, distant seal colonies and weird, desert-adapted plants. It’s bleak to be sure, but it’s also breathtakingly beautiful and intensely photogenic. Our basic cottage is charmingly decorated with driftwood ornaments and bleached animal bones. Each hut has its own custom-built features reflecting the personality and requirements of the individual divers who built them. They came here risking their lives for the diamonds to be found on the seabed beyond De Beers’ heavily guarded mining operations – they’d search from the surf down to about 30m. There’s not much in the way of rich pickings left, and De Beers sold their mining business here a few years back, but you still get the sense you’re on forbidden territory. To enter this alien world today you still need a special permit and must pass through a couple of windblown checkpoints. And although the coast may be littered with desolate ghost towns, both tourism and plans for the area to be incorporated into the Namaqualand National Park are the big hopes for the future. It seems like an age ago, but our journey along The Diamond Route began in Kimberley, the

Some 100,000ha in size and limited to a maximum of 30 guests, it is hard not to appreciate its vast haunting beauty, with red dunes and golden grassland stretching out to the distant horizon 78 Travel Africa Winter 2012/13


South Africa administrative capital of the province and, fittingly, where the country’s first diamonds were discovered. De Beers’ Dronfield Nature Reserve, just 10km from the city, was our base for exploring, which meant we could retreat to the tranquility of the bush whenever we tired of the town traffic. From our self-catering chalet we combined game drives to see rare roan and sable antelopes (as well as the white-backed vultures for which the reserve is known) with trips to town to peer into the famous Big Hole. This is the massive chasm from which a staggering 2772kg of diamonds were extracted. Kimberley’s diamond-rush days are recreated in a newly revamped, theme-park style museum and visitor attraction. The highlights are the old frontier-town buildings, where you can pan for diamonds, play the skittle alley, see Kimberley’s oldest house and then step into a bank vault full of glittering diamonds (in case you need reminding just what the fuss was all about). The surrounding area, a junction of several key eco-zones, is big with serious bird lovers – The Diamond Route was originally marketed as a birding route and across its full length can lay claim to some 500 different species. We hooked up with Lucas Namanyane, a De Beers bird guide who took us out on to the company’s nearby Benfontein farm (famed for research on nocturnal species including black-footed cat and aardwolf) to look for endemics. The flat grassland and saltpan terrain is starkly different to the thornveld of Dronfield and is home to large herds of black wildebeest and blesbok. Lucas found us two new ‘specials’ we’d never clapped eyes on before, the long-tailed pipit and the Kimberley pipit. The latter was identified as a separate species only in the last ten years. Already firm fans of the Kalahari wildlife and landscape, we didn’t need selling on the thirstland attractions of our next destination, Tswalu. Owned by the Oppenheimer family, it is one of South Africa’s top luxury private game reserves and is easily the brightest gem in The Diamond Route collection. Some 100,000ha in size and limited to a maximum of 30 guests, it is

Main: A roan antelope at Dronfield Nature Reserve Top: Tswalu Kalahari Reserve’s habituated meerkats always stand out Above: The Noup Diamond Divers’ Cottages Right: black rhino cow and calf at Tswalu Bottom right: Jolyon Neytzell - de Wilde showing devil’s claw fruit Bottom left: Big hole, Kimberley

Winter 2012/13 Travel Africa 79


South Africa n Benfontein Nature Reserve n Brenthurst Garden n Dronfield Nature Reserve n Ezemvelo Nature Reserve n Kimberley Big Hole n Namaqualand Diamond Coast n Orapa Game Park Makgadikgadi (Botswana) n Rooipoort Nature Reserve n Tswalu Kalahari Reserve n Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve

Shipwreck, Namaqualand Diamond Coast

hard not to appreciate its vast haunting beauty, with red dunes and golden grasslands stretching out to the distant horizon. On our first game drive, with guide Jolyon Neytezell de Wilde, we were lucky enough to enjoy sundowners in the company of a rare desert-adapted black rhino and her calf. These endangered rhinos are never easy to see, and our tracker spent most of the drive searching out this special sighting, even climbing to the top of the tallest thorn tree in the area, like a meerkat sentinel. On our drive back to the lodge we managed to catch up with a comical colony of the said suricates; they were busy with some intense, bed-time burrow-keeping and completely ignored us as we crept to within a few feet. Tswalu’s meerkats, habituated by researchers, are understandably a huge hit with visitors. The next day, having stopped to enjoy the sunrise over Bushman Hill, we headed out with Joe to find some lions. The pride was giving us the runaround, but no matter, the Kalahari always has plenty of treats in store: we quietly observed a graceful herd of eland, munched on velvet raisin bush fruits, peeked into the tiny nest of a Cape penduline tit and admired clever plants like the devil’s claw, which lives up to its name by attaching itself mercilessly to unsuspecting animals in order to propagate itself. We did finally catch up with those lions, which was great, but somehow it’s the secret little things this route reveals that make the experience priceless.

Getting there The Diamond Route properties are best linked by vehicle, so having a hire car or 4WD to pick up on arrival in Cape Town or Johannesburg is the best option. When to visit There is no bad time to travel along The Diamond Route, though spring (mid-September to November) and autumn (April and May) are ideal times of the year.

Visas Most visitors do not require a visa to visit South Africa. Books Lonely Planet and Rough Guides both have new 2012 editions of guidebooks to South Africa, which include chapters on KZN. Find out more The Diamond Route (www. diamondroute.co.za)

Venetia Limpopo Reserve

BOTSWANA NAMIBIA

Tswalu Kalahari Reserve

Namaqualand Diamond Coast

MAP TO COME

MOZAMBIQUE

Ezemvelo Nature Reserve Brenthurst Garden SWAZILAND

Dronfield Nature Reserve Rooipoort Nature Reserve Benfontein Kimberley Big Hole Nature Reserve LESOTHO

SOUTH AFRICA

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125miles 250km

Winter 2012/13 Travel Africa 81

Diamonds in the Rough  

Exploring South Africa's Diamond Route, Travel Africa magazine

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