Perks of the job
By Will Bendix | All photos by Alan van Gysen
Some jobs have their perks, like free tickets to the big game, a company car you’d never be able to afford on your own dime or share options on listed stock. If you’re Simon James, you get to surf grinding reefs along a restricted coastline with only your colleagues for company.
Profile feature for The Surfer's Journal
44-year-old Simon James is a diamond diver by trade. He has spent the past 21 years working around Alexander Bay in the far northwestern corner of South Africa. This barren stretch of coastline is licked by the cold Benguela current that flows up the west coast of South Africa all the way to Angola. Tectonic uplift and erosion conspired to shape the coast millennia ago, creating a series of headlands, points and reefs that jut out into the restless Atlantic Ocean. The same geological forces also dislodged diamonds, huge swathes of them that were disgorged into the ocean by rivers flowing from the interior. The crown jewel, according to James, is Cape Voltas.
“Cape Voltas is part of the diamond mining area around Alexander Bay called Number One Concession,” he explains. “It bends north towards Namibia, so it picks up all the swell and it’s got a huge variety of waves – points, reefs, beaches. The surf potential is massive. But it’s inaccessible to anybody unless they’re involved in the diamond industry.”
Diamonds were first discovered around Alexander Bay in 1925. It didn’t take long for the government and diamond companies to declare the area off limits, with mining initially limited to land-based operations. Gradually the sub-tidal zone was tapped, using old fishing boats and divers to retrieve the stones. The practice has changed little since.
Divers swim large suction pipes down to the seafloor where they anchor the pipes while removing obstructions like boulders and rocks with a crowbar. The gravel on the seabed then gets sucked up the pipes and goes through a rigorous sifting process to filter out the tiny gems. It’s rugged, physical work. It’s also entirely dependent on the moods of the ocean.
“I can’t go to work unless the swell is under two meters and the period is low,” says James. “But that’s also why I got hooked on the job years ago. You can’t work when the sea is rough; so you surf. And when it’s flat, you work. What better job could you want?”
For the surfer who does not mind the cold or solitude and enjoys big, hard-breaking barrels, Cape Voltas is an inverse paradise, the opposite of the tropical dream. But this marriage of desolate surf and precious stones was far from planned for James.
“I grew up on the coast in South Africa, surfing and lifesaving,” he recounts. “My folks traveled around a lot so I went to lots of schools and by the time I was 16, school just wasn’t for me. I was pretty much living on the beach, surfing, so I was politely asked to leave,” he laughs.
After a four year stint learning the plumbing trade, which he “fucking hated”, James was lured to Namibia by a good friend who was diving diamonds in Lüderitz.
This was the early 1990s, when military service was still compulsory for all young white South African males, but somehow James slipped through the cracks. He wasn’t about to alert the authorities to the oversight and, after completing a diving course, stuck his thumb out and hitchhiked the 700 miles from Cape Town to Lüderitz with all his dive gear, surfboards and even a weight belt in tow. “How stupid can you get, hitching with a weight belt?” he chuckles.
The one thing James didn’t have, however, was a work permit.
“I ended up working in Hondeklip Bay (in South Africa). I was the only surfer. All the guys would leave on the weekend to go jolling and I’d be stuck in town, so I just ended up exploring the coastline around there and surfing.”
Hondeklip had some good waves, but nothing compared to the world-class setups James found when he gravitated further north to Alexander Bay, which lies just inside the South African border below Namibia.
“We used to work on boats mainly, so we would go up and down the coastline. As a surfer you’d look and see ‘there’s a point, there’s a good reef…’ Then later I’d go and surf them by myself,” he says. “One of my other mates ended up coming to work with us and then we’d surf together. That was a big thing, having someone to surf with. Because there are some good waves up there, but they are proper waves. Waves that will break you.”
As it turned out, prospecting for diamonds and surfing were mutually beneficial. It didn’t take long for James to figure out the good surf spots usually held good deposits.
“All the places I’ve taken out diamonds are the places I’ve been surfing,” he says. “The same points and blinders that make waves normally generate a lot of wash, which concentrates the diamonds in those areas. The jig action from the swells moving past creates these deposits. As a surfer you instinctively see where the currents are running and where the lulls are, where the deeper spots are. And nine times out of ten, wambo-jambo! There are diamonds there. That’s how I’ve found my diamonds – because of surfing.”
But before this, James – and the rare fellow diver-cum-surfer – had to get their surfboards into the mines, past the notoriously conservative Afrikaans management.
“Years ago they wouldn’t really allow us to take boards into the mine,” recalls James. “They were so anal about it. Once I was running a shore unit with two divers from inland who weren’t too clued up about ocean conditions. I approached the mine management and said look, I need to take a board in, in case one of the guys gets sucked out with the rip, then I can go and fetch him. They just laughed at me and said ‘Soutie, jy sal enige iets probeer om te gaan surf!’” (Soutie, you’ll try anything to go surfing!)
Soutie literally means “salty” and is an abbreviation of soutpiel or “saltdick”, an expression Afrikaners have long used to describe South Africa’s English descendents. With typical wry Afrikaans humor, it implies the Englishman is not a true native and never will be. Instead he has one foot planted in Africa, the other in England, with his dick hanging in the salty ocean between.
“That was the mentality at the time, they just didn’t like the English guys wanting to surf,” says James. “But we got around that by starting a surf club and getting the guys to sign indemnities, because the biggest thing for the mines understandably is the liability. If there’s an injury within the mining area, that’s a big fuck-up. So with the indemnity the guys can’t hold the mine responsible for an injury sustained while surfing.”
12 years ago, James started his own business running a shore unit that supplies raw diamonds to the concession holder for the area. Instead of a boat, the shore units run off a tractor parked at the water’s edge. Part of his hiring policy has been to employ fellow surfers, with an easy-going ‘surf when the waves are good’ approach.
“What often happens is we’ll go surfing, and we take dive gear with and we’ll bomb down the kelp just to go have a look to see what’s there,” he says. “If we establish there’s a deposit or something to pump, then we’ll bring equipment in.”
The first telltale sign of a deposit is a cluster of boulders. “All the diamonds in the region have come down old rivers called paleo-channels. They’ve been rolled and rolled and rolled,” explains James. “So if you find rounded rocks, they’ve been rolled too, they’ve come down the same rivers.”
The next clue lies in the gravel found under the boulders. Divers look for a concentration of colorful, high-density stones like limonite, ‘koffie-klip’ (coffee-stone) and olivine. “They have a tendency to flow with diamonds because of their similar density,” says James. “The sea washes off all the light stuff and concentrates the heavies, the dense stones. So once you find these pretty little stones, the chances of diamonds there is likely.”
Then it’s a matter of extracting the gravel. The divers swim the pipes out from shore, which are attached to a centrifugal pump running from the tractor. “It’s different from other commercial diving,” says James. “We run an airline out to sea and the guys just dive with a diving mask and a DV in the mouth. So there’s a lot of freedom associated with the diving, which is really lekker.”
Once the gravel is sucked up through the pipes it gets run through a classifier, which is basically a rotating barrel that eliminates the overburden – any gravel over 25 millimeters in diameter. Anything smaller than 25 mils falls into a sand sieve, which removes the sand and water. Diamonds are then meticulously sorted from the remaining gravel.
“We’ve also got a boat but it works on exactly the same principle,” says James. “It’s basic, but it’s very effective.”
If conditions are good, the crew will start work before daybreak and finish after dark. Divers typically work in two-hour shifts with a 40-minute break in between. Water temperatures are frigid, currents are strong, and it can be dangerous work – fatalities are not uncommon in the industry. But according to James, the most demanding aspect of the job is the isolation.
“When you’re stuck up the coast for years and years and years, you wonder if life’s passing you by. It’s the mental aspect that’s hard. It’s wonderful, there’s a lot of freedom and you get to surf cooking waves with no crowds. There’s good camaraderie. But there’s nothing around you, you’re stuck in the bloody arse-end of the world,” he laughs. “There’s nothing here.”
Once the rough diamonds are produced, the concession holder takes the stones to the Diamond Board who cut, market and sell the jewels.
“Basically we’re just the chumps” says James, only half-joking. “We take on all the risk, all the liability, all the cost in producing, but we only get a small slice of the value, which has then got to sustain the divers, pay the crew, maintain the equipment, buy new equipment… It’s hardly a get-rich-quick scheme. But every now and again, you get these little things called jackpots. That’s when everybody’s smiling.”
A jackpot, he says, is either one diamond or a lot of diamonds found in one fell swoop that’s worth a lot of money.
“There is definitely some luck involved. You don’t know if you’re going to pump a high quality diamond out of your deposits. But the harder you work producing diamonds, the luckier you get.”
With such a high-value commodity, security around the mines is intense – especially when one illicit stone smuggled out can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market. “They do body X-rays and baggage X-rays every time you exit the mine,” says James. “Sometimes I’m in and out of the mine all day, and that evening I’m pissing powder from getting nuked,” he jokes.
Theft is a primary concern, but the biggest crooks are sometimes the ones running the business. “When I started out I got absolutely ripped off,” says James, who claims unscrupulous employers have been known to shortchange divers, while people contracted to market the diamonds occasionally try cut the prices to benefit a buyer and receive kickbacks in turn.
“The integrity associated with some of the contractors is not very good. Often people get ripped off for huge amounts. That was one of the reasons why I started my own business and said to hell with that, it’s not going work like that. Now, if we produce diamonds, we get a broker’s note that specifies each diamond’s value. That way the divers know exactly what the value is and what their percentage should be.”
“I can’t complain about the diamond industry though,” he continues. “I love it and I’ll never pull out of it. But it’s also taught me the true value of things. You get astronomical values on diamonds, stupid money. It’s unfathomable that you’re supplying humanity’s vanity with these little stones that people pay so much money for. We get so crazy about the accumulation of wealth and finances. But at the end of the day, the most valuable thing is time. Sure, we’ve all got to make money, but what is it worth if you can’t have fun and enjoy your time? If you don’t have the ability to govern your time and go diving, or fishing, or to go surfing. That’s more valuable than any diamond to me.”