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AAs 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. The buoy is attached to a guiding wire channel that assists small boats 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 always been an awkward one, so too has the landing at the pier. Young, nimble passengers would leap across from deck to pier, while 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...
TTravel tips & planning info
Who to contact
Tel: +27 (0)27 851 8865/7176
Cell: +27 (0)83 259 8865
How to get here
Port Nolloth lies about 700km north of Cape Town, or an eight-hour drive or so. Take the N7 past Springbok to Steinkopf, and turn west on the R382 through the Anenous Pass.
Best time to visit
Springtime in Port Nolloth is great. The September/October blooms of Namaqua daisies are sprinkled throughout the town.
Things to do
You can go on day drives to Springbok, Kleinzee, Alexander Bay and some of the Richtersveld villages like Lekkersing and Eksteenfontein.
Namaqualand is to the south of Port Nolloth, and is an interesting area to visit, particularly during the flower season, when millions of blooms blanket the otherwise fairly sparse landscape (the flowers usually bloom in late August/September/October). Check the listed Northern Cape Tourism website for details.
What to pack
Even in summer (November to March), you can get chilly nights if the mist descends on Port Nolloth, so pack something warm in case. Summer days can be scorching, so pack light clothes, and it can get warm during the day even in winter.