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Diamond digging in the Sperrgebiet in Namibia (photo-essay)

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Sperrgebiet (meaning ‘prohibited area’) is a small town in the Namib Desert of Namibia. It was established in 1936 by Hans Merensky when he discovered significant alluvial diamond deposits on the north bank of the Orange River and the adjacent Northern Coastline.

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It was named Oranjemund meaning Mouth of Oranje in German, as this is the place where the Orange River enters the Atlantic Ocean.

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Oranjemund is in a sperrgebiet which means it is inaccessible to anyone without a permit. With a valid reason for a visit, you must obtain a pre-application 21 days before entering Oranjemund. The little town has a population of little over 4000 and is owned by Namdeb. Oranjemund was booming in the 70’s, since then the town has deteriorated and what is left is a broken sadness.

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The town council is considering opening its gates to the public but this is still in the process of being approved.

The risks involved are too high in my opinion. Diamond theft is a major offence and taken very seriously. Especially around the mining areas. Did you know that if you happen to find a diamond lying around and you pick it up, you go to jail? But if you notify Namdeb or the Town Council of your find without touching or moving the diamond, you get 10% of the value of the stone! Yes, I looked everywhere but unfortunately they aren’t that easy to spot.

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I was lucky enough to have been able to experience it thanks to my husband who was born there. The way he spoke of this little heaven amongst the dunes, I couldn’t wait!

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We drove 2 days to make the border just in time before they closed at 10 that night. We passed the Alexander Bay South African Border post, drove over the Orange River via the Oppenheimer Bridge and entered the Oranjemund Border. Photos were taken, paperwork was done and at last, we entered Oranjemund.

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Driving through the town, you can feel the energy that once existed. Safely tucked away from the rest of the world, they hold on to the nostalgia that lingers in every crack and corner. The buildings are painted bright colours and in some parts of the town it is still very well maintained. They have everything they need, even a Woolworths! It takes some adaption around cooking as certain fruit and veg only come in once or twice a week, but no one complains.

The edges of the town made me feel intimidated by the wide open spaces of sand, roaming Oryx and jackal. They sometimes wander into the parks and peoples gardens for a bigger variety in meals. It was a spectacular site to see. Locals have to build barriers around their trees and plants to ensure the animals don’t ruin it. Namdeb supplied all their employees with housing, furniture and necessities, as well as supplying electricity and water for free until 2007.

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My husband told me that as a child, they would roller-skate at the rink, play all over town and walk the streets late at night alone. Never being in any kind of danger, apart from the lone Oryx or curious jackal. A family pastime was to enjoy weekends at the Mule Derby. Much like a flea market, people would get together to socialise and let the kids play on the rides. Sadly the Mule Derby is no longer being used and has been left untouched for many years. Vandalised and rusted beyond recognition.

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The morning of my birthday, also the day I got my first DSLR, I was surprised with a champagne celebration on the dunes. It was perfect! It was also a great opportunity to take the dogs for a walk. The people of Oranjemund love their dogs and take them for walks daily!

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Every morning my husband’s father and his wife would take a walk with their Scotty, so we joined. It was a very long walk but oh so worth it.

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We then finally got to go to the beach. Fishing is part of daily life in Oranjemund and is not just for fun. It puts food on the table. Everyone got together, packed out their fishing gear and we had brunch on the beach! Do not attempt to drive on the beach if you do not own a Toyota, as said by the locals..

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Oranjemund might be a peaceful town but it is packed with history and activities. All of which you can see at the Jasper House Heritage Centre. Everything from which tools are used to mine, which stones you find in the vicinity of diamonds to what the medical examination rooms looked like. After an information overload you can top up on some much needed grub at The Kitchen.

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Our last trip was a 4 hour drive to Norotshama in the Richtersveld. This part of the Richtersveld is still a part of the Sperrgebiet and permission had to be granted to pass through. Also no stopping of any vehicle is aloud as there are diamonds and quarts the size of tyres that are to be left untouched.

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Norotshama is a lodge, fishing spot and a grape farm, fed by the Orange River in the middle of the desert. Sweet large grapes that get exported to the rest of the world. The lodge has a restaurant and bar overlooking the Orange River and South Africa on the other side.

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We left, and I really didn’t want to but sooner or later we all have to get back to reality. We drove the Namibia to Cape Town route. The scenery was gorgeous with wine farms and rivers touched by blue skies.

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As a tourist you can apply to enter Oranjemund. There are a lot of legalities to visiting a sperrgebiet involving paperwork and rules. However, it is truly a once in a lifetime experience. If Oranjemund is a place you think you would like to visit, head on over to their website for more details on what you need to know before you plan the trip. www.oranjemund-tc.com

Jennifer Heusdens

Jennifer Heusdens is a mom, travel photographer, blogger and business owner. She has traveled all over South Africa and hopes to start traveling the rest of the world soon.

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