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The sea cowboys and diamond divers of Port Nolloth

Maverick Life

Escape in Northern Cape

The sea cowboys and diamond divers of Port Nolloth

A trio of diamond diving boats moored off Port Nolloth. Image: Chris Marais

For those looking for juicy stories surrounding the discovery of diamonds, the Northern Cape seaside village of Port Nolloth is just the ticket.

As you drift off to sleep in your beachfront cottage, you hear the distant tinkle of a bell somewhere out there in the mists of Port Nolloth. And when those mists congeal into a dense fog that rolls in from the sea, you have what is known by locals as the malmokkie.

Port Nolloth – where men still dream of striking it rich in the coastal waters.
Port Nolloth – where men still dream of striking it rich in the coastal waters. Image: Chris Marais
A quiet sea day – perfect for diamond hunting along the West Coast.
A quiet sea day – perfect for diamond hunting along the West Coast. Image: Chris Marais

For regular visitors to this part of Namaqualand and into the Richtersveld, the buoy bell of Port Nolloth has become a familiar, welcoming sound. It guides diamond boats and fishing vessels into the harbour that once bustled amid the copper boom of northern Namaqualand. 

Many freighters have come to grief on the reefs of this region.

The location of this port originally bore the name Aukwatowa, linked to a legend of “where the water took away the old man”. It was later called Robbe Baai (Seal Bay) and then renamed in honour of the settlement surveyor, Captain MS Nolloth. 

Copper ore was mined in the interior around Okiep, and eventually transported 154km by narrow gauge rail to Port Nolloth, followed by a difficult loading procedure. Ore-carrying ships later grew in size, and loading from Port Nolloth harbour was abandoned. Okiep then sent its copper ore south by truck to link up with the rail system at Bitterfontein.

Part of the historic copper train that ran on narrow gauge tracks between Port Nolloth and Okiep.
Part of the historic copper train that ran on narrow gauge tracks between Port Nolloth and Okiep. Image: Chris Marais
George Moyses: storyteller, retired diamond diver and curator of the Port Nolloth Museum.
George Moyses: storyteller, retired diamond diver and curator of the Port Nolloth Museum. Image: Chris Marais

Port Nolloth slumped for a couple of decades until alluvial diamonds were discovered in 1926. Since then, the story of Port Nolloth is heavily laced in diamond legends – which adds to the attraction of this seaside village.

Small-scale diamond diving still takes place from the various boats you see bobbing at anchor in the port, and fishermen head out when the weather is good, in search of crayfish – also known as rock lobster.

Along with the nearby McDougal’s Bay, Port Nolloth has become a popular holiday destination for travellers looking for a remote place with a fascinating history, or adventurers wanting a springboard to their journey into the Richtersveld. They also go on day trips from Port Nolloth to Lekkersing to meet the local Richtersvelders.

For an insight into this part of the world, there is no better starting place than the Port Nolloth Museum run by George Moyses, a colourful veteran of the local diamond diving fraternity. 

In the spring, Namaqua blooms surround Port Nolloth and the village is alive with the buzz of “flower tourists” enjoying the blaze of colour that lights up the Diamond Coast.

Where to stay

Historic seaside dwellings, now part of the Bedrock Lodge complex.
Historic seaside dwellings, now part of the Bedrock Lodge complex. Image: Chris Marais

Bedrock Lodge Cottages & Museum: Tel: 027 851 8865 or 082 259 8865

Richtersveld Experience: 072 543 2132

The Beach House Self-cater Cottage: 074 107 2422

Scotia Inn Hotel & Restaurant: 027 851 8353 or 027 851 8232

Nemo’s Restaurant: 079 717 1871

Anita’s Tavern: 084 726 7092

Vespetti Restaurant: 027 851 7843. DM/ ML

“Karoo Roads”, “Karoo Roads II” and “Moving to the Platteland” by By Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit book covers.
“Karoo Roads”, “Karoo Roads II” and “Moving to the Platteland” by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit book covers.

For an insider’s view on life in the Karoo, get the three-book special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Moving to the Platteland – Life in Small Town South Africa by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais for only R720, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at [email protected]; for more information, contact the Northern Cape Tourism Authority.

In case you missed it, also read Carnarvon: A Karoo town with ears on the universe

Carnarvon: A Karoo town with ears on the universe

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