A tale ripped from the pages of Aladdin belongs in the realm of fantasy. True events that unfolded in Namibia over the last 100 years would also seem more fantasy than fact, with tales of intrigue, immense riches and priceless treasures.
Above: Marine Diamond Mining - Sperrgebiet, Namibia [Attribution: www.diamondfields.com]
A cursory look at a map of the terrain and vegetation of Namibia reveals a predominantly arid country with a vast swathe of desert and semi-desert extending 800 miles (1300 km) along the full length of Namibia's Atlantic shoreline and stretching hundreds of miles eastwards.
The ancient Namib Desert encompasses much of this region -- a region almost completely uninhabited by humans except for indigenous pastoral groups and a number of small settlements. The landscape of the Namib is however breathtaking, with seas of towering dunes, ancient geological formations and desolate shores. It sets the stage for adventurers and scientists to explore, not for shipwrecked mariners to survive.
The Atlantic coastline of southern Africa has long been feared by mariners. Tracing the route discovered by 15th century explorers, trading ships sailed around the southern tip of Africa to reach the spice ports of India and beyond. Lashed by ferocious storms or straying off-course in coastal fogs, many foundered on the uncharted reefs of the Namib Desert shores.
The Portuguese trading ship Bom Jesus set sail out of Lisbon in 1533. In that same year, Portuguese maritime records show that the ship was "lost on the turn of the Cape of Good Hope."
In 2008, a geologist on a remote stretch of beach known as the Sperrgebiet (forbidden zone) discovered a copper ingot in the sand. Soon a team of archaeologists were at work, uncovering the wreck of the Bom Jesus and the treasures it contained: 22 tons of copper, more than 2000 gold coins, ivory, astrolabes, cannons, swords, chain mail and muskets. The most priceless of all was the wreck itself: a 500 year old Portuguese East Indiaman. For years to come, archaeologies will study the remarkably preserved vessel and its rich content of artifacts.
It's not known what happened to the crew. However, personal belongings were not found in the wreck. It is possible that a number of the crew escaped injury and drowning and crawled up onto what must be one of the most desolate, arid and remotest shores known to man.
Those that dragged themselves ashore would soon make an amazing discovery. Sprinkled along the beach, stretching as far as they could walk, was a fortune in diamonds. A dream come true for any man, but even this fortune would not be able to buy them survival.
What is truly unbelievable about all this is that these desolate beaches were ignored by prospectors, who searched the Namib desert sands for many years during the 1800's and early 1900's, looking for minerals.
It wasn't until 1907 that a railway worker would reach down to pick up a raw diamond lying in the sand. The rest is history - the diamond rush, the hundreds of prospectors and miners scraping the diamonds out of the sands and crevices, first by hand, then with shovels and then with machines. This region of Africa at that time was known as German South-West Africa. It was not long before the government imposed control over diamond mining and declared this vast region of Namib's coast to be the Sperrgebiet, forbidding access to anyone and everyone not licensed by them to mine the diamonds.
Fast forward to the 21st century. The independent country of Namibia and De Beers Consolidated Diamond Mines still maintain rigorous control of the diamond riches within the Sperrgebiet. Long gone are the loose diamonds lying in the beach sand and within the bedrock crevices. Open cast mines and sophisticated ships harvest the gems from onshore and from the sea sediments.
The percentage of high quality gems recovered is very high. After all, the weaker faulted diamonds were destroyed by river and ocean, wind and weather over the millennia that the diamonds were exposed to the elements.
The African continent is home to a number of known kimberlite pipes (all that remains of ancient explosive volcanoes that expelled the diamonds from the earth's mantle hundreds of miles beneath the surface). The most famous of these are found at Kimberley and Cullinan in South Africa. The Orange River and its tributaries flow from east to west, draining a large inland region of Southern Africa. This flow of water across hidden kimberlites finally found its way to the mouth of the Orange River, emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. Ocean current, storms and changes in sea level over the millennia did the rest, distributing the diamonds along the Namib shores.
Today's traveler to Namibia is sadly not permitted to walk the beaches of the Sperrgebiet! The treasure for the tourist can be found in the adventure, the spectacular landscapes, the culture and customs of the people and the wildlife of Etosha National Park.
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