The mostly misty Port Nolloth lies near the southern Richtersveld region, at the top end of Namaqualand, in South Africa's far north-western corner. For more than 150 years it has been an occasionally rowdy seaport catering to copper miners, seafarers, diamond divers, fishermen and, these days, overland travellers with a sense of adventure.

Did you know?

Because of rough seas, Port Nolloth diamond divers only work an average of four days in a month.

As you drift asleep at night, deep under the covers in a rented sea shanty in Port Nolloth, you will hear the distant ‘tong-tong’ of a bell buoy.

That almost-romantic sound has accompanied the dreams of most who have overnighted here for more than 100 years. The bell buoy is attached to a guiding wire channel that helps small craft enter this notoriously tricky little seaport at the foot of the large, arid Richtersveld region in the Northern Cape.

The first name for this mist-shrouded cove in the sand dunes was given by the Nama people who lived here: Aukwatowa, which means ‘where the water took away the old man’. No one, it seems, has yet pinned down the story about ‘the old man’, but it could well have something to do with a high Atlantic tide and a fisherman who had a fatal day.

It then became known as Robbe Bay (rob meaning ‘seal’ in Afrikaans) because the Nama sold sealskins and dried seal meat to the hardy copper miners who began to drift up into the area in the mid-1800s.

The bay was later renamed Port Nolloth after its surveyor, Captain MS Nolloth.

Not only has the approach into the bay been an awkward one, but the landing at the pier was also difficult. Younger, nimbler passengers leapt across from deck to pier, while the older ones were winched across in a cylindrical basket and ‘deposited less than gently on the landing’, wrote a visiting bishop.

In 1874 a narrow-gauge railway linking Port Nolloth to the copper mining centres of the interior was completed. But shipments of ore out of the port were a challenge and Port Nolloth slumped back to its former status as a relatively insignificant settlement between sand and sea.

In the 1920s, however, diamonds were discovered around Port Nolloth and a boom ensued. Fortune-hunters arrived from everywhere and the town turned reasonably rowdy. Less than 50 years later, diamond beds were discovered out in the Atlantic Ocean, washed down the Orange River, and Port Nolloth became a young fortune hunter’s dream all over again.

Like the myth of Timbuktu, Port Nolloth gathered a legend unto itself as the place where you arrived poor and left wildly wealthy.

There are still stories being told of those who ‘struck it rich’, but most of today’s diamond divers just get by on what they can recover from the ocean. But don’t think for a second that they’re unhappy. It’s a grand old life at sea with your mates on board and the prospect of treasure down below...

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