North from St Helena Bay, the hook of land 100km north of Cape Town, the long, lonely west coast of South Africa has two simple components: the cold, grey Atlantic Ocean, and the dominant sandveld vegetation, hardy but infertile. There isn’t much more to the region: between the mouth of the Olifants River near Vanrhynsdorp, and the Orange River over 400km to the north, there is just one sealed road connecting the N7 highway to the coast. It leads to the only settlement of significance, Port Nolloth.
Namaqualand’s first diamonds were discovered in 1925, confirming that diamonds could be carried the length of the Orange, washed out into the ocean and then dispersed by currents and the processes of longshore drift. Although initial prospecting was carried out along the course of the Orange and in the coastal dunes, the diamonds lying offshore on the sea bed are now more eagerly chased, mostly by boats operating with huge underwater “vacuum cleaners” and divers working in often dangerous conditions. Whereas much of Namaqualand’s coast remains off-limits thanks to the presence of diamonds, the “Diamond Coast” from Port Nolloth to Alexander Bay, the mouth of the Orange River, is visitable. Springbok serves as a good access point.
During flower season, the rains fall first on the coastal areas, and you can often see displays beginning about 20km inland, making the few roads down to the coast from the N7 worthwhile detours. The dirt R355 road through the Spektakel Pass between Springbok and Kleinzee is one of the most spectacular drives in Namaqualand, and the Anenous Pass on the tarred R382 between Steinkopf and Port Nolloth is also impressive. Along this road you’ll also see wandering herds of goats belonging to the pastoral Nama people living in the area, as well as the peaks and valleys of the Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, the mountain desert occupying the area immediately south of the Orange River. The area surrounding the park is home to several developing community tourism initiatives, providing an excellent introduction to the life of the Nama.