Northern Cape's Diamond Coast is a gem for fearless surfers

Jaques Marais finds that, if you dig deep, adventures await along the stretch of Atlantic seaboard that runs from Port Nolloth to the Namibian border

03 October 2021 - 00:00 By Jacques Marais
Jaques Marais rides a wave in the Namaqua National Park in the Northern Cape.
Jaques Marais rides a wave in the Namaqua National Park in the Northern Cape.
Image: Densen Magaisa

The scenery unfolds through the windscreen like a sun-bleached landscape from a Cormac McCarthy novel. Bleak, bad-ass and minimalist.

Every so often the desolation is punctuated by a double-take-inducing snatch of visual trickery. A dust devil dervishes along an infinite fence line. A scarecrow hangs by the neck from a high pole, with a scrawled sign: “Food. Drinks. Open. Oop.” Slag heaps from heavy-mineral-sands mining scar the skyline.

Tiny oxalis blooms bleed in crimson and yellow spatters on barren plains.

Giant onion-skin layers from poison bulbs scuttle amid the scrub like dinosaur scales.

Archetypal Northern Cape scenery — beautiful and banal in equal measure — unfolds as we cruise the straight-as-an-arrow tarmac strip beyond Koingnaas. Somewhere above the bossieveld mirage line, an elusive horizon quivers.

The remote coastal tarmac strip between Koingnaas and Alexander Bay.
The remote coastal tarmac strip between Koingnaas and Alexander Bay.
Image: Jacques Marais

Through the background drone of Dire Straits, coming to us courtesy of Radio Sonder Grense, a vaguely remembered paragraph from All the Pretty Horses ka-chings into my subconscious:

“They rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them .”

I think: “If you're of the calibre of McCarthy, you sure don't need punctuation much.”

A crackle of static from the two-way radio interjects, and I hear Eddie's voice: “This is the gate.” (Last night, we tried to wangle access to one of the Chinese-owned mines to the south of Kleinzee, but got completely stone-walled.)

Here's the rub: bad blood has been brewing between the mining conglomerates and environmental activists, many of them surfers making a last-ditch stand against the extensive destruction of the fragile and unique ecosystems along the Northern Cape coast. A media war flared up and has been escalating ever since.

Peter van Kets jumps for joy in the Koingnaas dunes.
Peter van Kets jumps for joy in the Koingnaas dunes.
Image: Jacques Marais

But we're not here trawling for stories — or diamonds or precious metals or heavy minerals. Our hunt is for stoke, and that comes packaged with the rollers and slabs and grinders which make this stretch of coastline such a legendary surf destination.

From the aforementioned gate, a faint jeep-track sidewinds towards a gunmetal-blue bay, where line after line fire left off the point, each peak trailing veils of spray. The gate is chained shut with numerous locks, but Eddie always has a Plan B (he won't deny or confirm that the B stands for bolt-cutter).

Our man calmly fishes out a fist-sized bunch of shiny keys and, minutes later, we are trundling towards the icy Atlantic.

We roll to a stop close enough to the ocean to feel the spray whipping off the waves, sucker-punched by raw and unadulterated awe.

I've paddled out into the visceral surge of the Diamond Coast a few times before and, if I'm honest, there have been sketchy moments galore. Snapped leashes, kelp-entangled breath-holds where your lungs feel as if they are going to implode and a solid smack-down on a shallow-water reef next to a rusting shipwreck.

But I've never faced off against sets as savagely ferocious as these. Charging swamp-green pit-viper walls — 6-8 feet and rearing bigger on the sets — jack as they thunder onto the kelp ledges flanking the rocky point.

Heavy lips collapse into a cauldron of undertow, then shape-shift into melting Salvador Dali faces. Relentless walls of white water batter the rocky shore, and anyone caught inside will no doubt be brutally mauled before being callously ejaculated.

I glance over at my mate, Pete. He's the hardcore waterman and has gone feral on wild surf sessions up the West Coast for decades, but there is zero steely glint to his gaze today. “Let's grab a beer and check out a couple of spots further along the coast,” has never sounded more like music to my ears.

RULE OF THUMB AND PINKIE

Another key, another gate and another sandy 4x4 track — lined by botterboom, Boesman kers, koekemakranka and other botanical oddities — soon have us juddering along the ocean's edge.

I know you get good days here, even though they may be few and far between, and when you do, even mere mortals like me will get to score a few glassy bombs.

Lady Luck smiles on us as we navigate a slight ascent onto the apex of an ancient, raised dune. A crescent bay shifts into foreground focus, and I see Pete's hand — thumb and pinkie finger extended in the age-old surfer salute — wave out of the bakkie window. We're on!

The first freezing duck-dive is always the worst. You need to be quick and decisive, and speed through those lulls just after the big sets to avoid taking it on the head. Fortunately, the break peters out down the line along a rip, which sweeps us to the backline without incident.

Wild camping on the Diamond Coast near Noup.
Wild camping on the Diamond Coast near Noup.
Image: Jacques Marais

A surfing rule of thumb is that the peaks always seem to double in size once you reach the takeoff zone, and today is no different. Pete hooks into a couple of good waves, charging down the line to jubilant whoops from some mates on the shore.

In the meantime, there's me, working on the rather complicated relationship I'm forging with my latest vintage board, one-part lanky ramp model, one-part ageing Babushka and two parts pure psychopath. It's only my second session and she's way sleeker than I'm used to, so I end up botching a beaut of a take-off on the first bottom turn.

There's zero time to overthink options in the zone, though, and with a perfect face shaping over my shoulder, I paddle as if Sharknado is a real thing. I'm a pretty average surfer, but this time, the planets align, and I hook into the face with the lip.

The universe snaps into a state of liquid equilibrium, allowing me to bask in the understated perfection of this intoxicating desert shore for a few flawless, infinite seconds. And that, my friend, is worth a handful of diamonds in the rough.

There's unfortunately a lot of destructive mining happening along the Diamond Coast — much of it illegal and uncontrolled — and you could help by supporting the NGO Protect the West Coast (find out more at protectthewestcoast.org).


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