Maverick Life


Good times in Port Jolly – the cowboy town at the edge of the sea

Good times in Port Jolly – the cowboy town at the edge of the sea
The late Alfie Wewege – King of Divers’ Row. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Back in the late 1970s my brother used to sink mine shafts in far-flung Kalahari spots. He and his mates would occasionally storm a little seaside village called Port Nolloth, on a red wine and crayfish raid.

‘Port Nolloth,” he says to me one day. “Been there?”

No, I reply. 

“The kreef walk right up to your stoep and jump into your pot. There are diamonds wherever you look. It’s a real cowboy town. You should go there.”

About three years later I pitch up in Port Nolloth with photographer Noel Watson. We’ve been covering a dreadful murder case in Upington for the Rand Daily Mail newspaper and have driven all night to get here on a weekend road trip. Things have happened along the way, which I will not speak of right now.

Dawn, and we’re driving down a little side-road flanked by shacks.

Port Nolloth

The iconic ship’s anchor of Port Nolloth. (Photo: Chris Marais)

King of Divers’ Row

“Hoezit!” comes the greeting from a bearlike grizzle on a fence. He’s Alfie Wewege, King of Divers’ Row. 

Alfie, Noel and I breakfast on red wine and biltong. He tells us about life out at sea and in the rowdy village of Port Nolloth in general. We get suitably trashed with Alfie, stay over and drive back to the murder trial the next day. Port Nolloth is now forever with me. It’s like a red wine stain on your jeans. Some years later, I’m with Scope Magazine and I book Watson to join me on another jaunt in that direction.

We fly to Upington, grab a hire car and head west, listening rather attentively to Jimi Hendrix’s Angel on a Cape-based radio station, past Steinkopf, over the jagged Anenous Pass, down to the flat lands and into the coastal glass of milk that is Port Nolloth.

Port Nolloth

Port Nolloth. (Photo: Chris Marais)

On a mission from Scope

We’re back with the divers. Standing at the bar counter of the Scotia Inn, I find myself accosted. It’s Louis Kriel, an old schoolmate. A big guy, long jersey, Wellingtons and beanie. No doubt about it. Louis is the real thing.

“What are you doing here?”

“We’re on a mission from Scope.” I don’t know. Looking back, it sounded like a snappy reply at the time.

An impressive number of beers later, Louis comes to a sudden decision.

“I’ll take you guys out for a couple of days. Show you what it’s like.”

Heading out early to sea on a calm day. (Photo: Chris Marais)

First light on a diamond-diving boat. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Let’s just paraphrase the week and talk about the rocking cabin on a boat called the Gemini Star, being appointed official cooks, egg in the pan, egg on the floor, eight-track stereo tapes playing the Rolling Stones’ Beggars’ Banquet really loud, massive storm waves, cheap red boxed wine and long suction pipes being dropped into the sea, followed by men in Jules Verne-type diving outfits. And howling at the moon. That’s all I have to say about that.

Treehouse of my youth

Fast forward 20 years to 2005. I’m taking my wife to see Port Nolloth, the treehouse of my youth. We’re at the start of a gruelling three-month, 3,000km coastal book research tour, all the way from Alexander Bay in the west to Kosi Bay in the east.

We enter Port Nolloth behind a bakkie driven by a Rastafarian guy with more than three metres of dreadlocks under an enormous crocheted doily. The daylight hours are almost done. We go for a spin down to the docks before checking in at the Bedrock Guest House by the seafront. There is great excitement on the loading jetty. A diamond boat is busy sinking for an unspecified reason. Only its nose and captain’s cabin jut out of the waves. 

The sinking boat that ‘drank too much water’. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The people on land are trying to haul it back out with a 4X4 and a suspect length of rope. I ask one of the bystanders what has happened. He looks me up and down with a lazy eye, taking in my sandals and Hawaiian party shirt.

“It drank too much water,” he says, and turns away.

An old friend

Unloading the bakkie is a mammoth task, which I perform with long teeth and a slow trudge. As I come back for a second load, I spot a grizzled old fellow chatting up my wife.

“They wrote about me in the Rand Daily Mail more than 20 years ago,” he says. “It was a really grand article.”

“Hello Alfie.” The big man turns, recognises me and there are loud salutations and hugs. Come to supper, he says. Meet my mates Geoff and Lara. 

Geoff Lorentz – one of the Old Guard of Port Nolloth, pictured back in 2012. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The Bluesbreaker diamond boat, now more of a cormorant roost. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Although the sign at the front door of the Lorentz home says “Out Of It People Not Welcome”, Geoff and I begin drinking whisky within minutes. We sit in the raucous kitchen, surrounded by waves of excited conversation and an overlay of Pearl Jam at top volume.

“I love this job,” says Geoff, one of Port Nolloth’s legendary old-time divers. “Every time we go past that bell buoy in the channel, I think this could be the trip. It could happen today. The big one. But tell me: What do you think of Pearl Jam?”

“It’s an acquired taste,” I reply, blinking across at him with the eyes of a tired old owl. “Here. Why don’t you try this Springsteen instead? Tell me more about the work.”

“It’s a job for kings. Sometimes, you find yourself with perfect weather conditions. You’re in the right spot, the gravel is beautiful. It’s also the kakkest job in the world, when it’s misty and cold and blustery out there.” 

This weird place called Port Nolloth

I catch up with Alfie before the booze catches up with me. He’s been all over the oceans of the world since I last clapped eyes on him, mainly working the prawn boats around Madagascar. 

“What’s so wonderful about being here?” I slur at Geoff. As if I don’t know.

“It’s the whole life. Being out at sea with your friends. And it’s this weird place called Port Nolloth. It has a separate reality.”

Waiting for a calm day at sea – part of the Port Nolloth flotilla. (Photo: Chris Marais)

“You can say that again,” Lara Lorentz chimes in, having attacked a bottle of reasonable red with the help of my wife, who has given up the technological battle with her digital recorder and is making chicken scratches in her moleskine notebook. 

“Have they told you about the Desperate Divers’ Wives Club yet?”

My head is swimming. I have to get some fresh air. I stand up from the table and fall face down onto the floor. Jules helps me up.

“Excellent!” cheers Lara. “You mean your husband does that too?” 

The events of the day, not to mention more than a wee dram of something Scottish, have overcome me. We sing Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock as we walk arm-in-arm down the road. 

Geoff Lorentz and his crew returning home from a four-day stint at sea. (Photo: Chris Marais)

The Port Nolloth channel has to be carefully manoeuvred. (Photo: Chris Marais)

Later, tucked up and ready to drift off, I can hear the bell buoy tong-tonging out to sea in the mist, where what remained of my good name is floating off in the general direction of Uruguay. Life cannot get much better. 

Dry Land Diver

Two years later we pitch up in Port Nolloth again – and bump right into Alfie Wewege, who says there have been no sea days for six weeks.

 “They call you the Dry Land Diver around here,” says Alfie to me. “Geoff even installed a carpet where you fell last time, just in case you do it again.”

Over at the Lorentz place, the conversation is all about comets, specifically the recently spotted Comet McNaught. Geoff Lorentz and his crew were out at sea when it overshot southern skies earlier in the year. Someone looked up and said hey, what’s that star with the smudge on it? For the next few nights on the ocean, they watched McNaught in fascination. No one on board had read or heard about the comet. Was this really the end of the world? Was this the comet that was coming to wipe out life on Earth as we know it?

“We got back to shore and found there was no mention of the comet,” says Geoff. “I was convinced this was a conspiracy of silence, that the comet was actually headed straight for us.”

George Moyses and Boeta Macaroni

Finally, I am going to meet George Moyses, a man I’ve been hearing about for years. George is a scribe, a photographer and a diver. Most importantly, his life is embedded in the legend of Port Nolloth. He rents a little beachfront place at neighbouring McDougal’s Bay and we drive out there with the Lorentz family.

We wake him up, and he emerges cheerfully, pulling a strange fawn coat about him to ward off the morning chill. George, I hear, was once a handsome young West Coast gent until a propeller blade took a shine to his nose. Battered he may be, but that twinkle in his eye says there’s something awfully Irish going on with George.

If good sea stories were diamonds, the late George Moyses would have been richer than all his tribe. (Photo: Chris Marais)

George Moyses and the camera everyone hid from in the village. (Photo: Chris Marais)

George at his first home-museum in McDougal’s Bay near Port Nolloth. (Photo: Chris Marais)

“But let me show you another face, one that has seen a lot more wine, fish, sun and east wind than I have.”

And he takes us inside to meet the spirit of Boeta Macaroni, whose photograph is displayed all over the place in various sizes and colour tints. 

“Who was Boeta Macaroni?” 

“Oh, one helluva guy.” But he won’t say more.

For a while there, George Moyses used to be the filmmaker of Port Nolloth. And because of various dodgy diamond deals going down in the unlikeliest of places all over town, the cheerful diver’s camera was not always welcome.

Boeta Macaroni, mystery diamond-diving icon of Port Nolloth. (Photo: Chris Marais)

“I walk into a shop with my video camera, and everyone just ducks behind the counter. I say hey, I can see you, and eventually they all stand up.”

As we say our goodbyes, I know that one day we’ll come back to Port Nolloth, to hear the story of Boeta Macaroni. I might even perform an Olympic-standard half-somersault onto my designated carpet once more, in honour of both Alfie Wewege and George Moyses, who are now chasing diamonds up in heaven. DM

This is an extract from Karoo Roads I – Tales from South Africa’s Heartland, by Chris Marais and Julienne du Toit. 

For an insider’s view on life in the Dry Country, get the three-book special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III (illustrated with black and white photographs) for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at [email protected]


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • David Bristow says:

    I spent a week with the divers squatting in the old crayfish factory once in my travels and travails. Legendary stuff. Been one of my top places ever since. I remember more weed than wine.

  • Helen Swingler says:

    Boeta Macaroni and a mission from Scope. Beautiful.

  • manjik2004 says:

    Chris Marais – you’re such a gem.

  • Niki Moore says:

    Ag, Chris, your stories are a treat. You make roguery sound quite respectable! Along with little phrases and vignettes that are worth their weight in diamonds.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Scotia inn,Ananous pass,Blou Kamp,McDougall s bay,brings back memories

  • Ken Randell says:

    Howzit FG – love reading about all your travels. It seems English periods with Murray, Swanepoel, Hogg et all paid off! 🙂

  • Andre Cruywagen says:

    Thanks for a great story. I worked that area training tour-guides a few years back and at that stage the museum on the beachfront with the makeshift fish-and-chips restaurant next-door served the best deep-fried hake and chips in South-Africa. If you go to Port Nolloth and you do not fall in love with the place, something is amiss

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