Farewell to a Port Nolloth Legend

Story and Photographs by Chris Marais

What makes Port Nolloth, that misty little port on our far north-western shores, so damn sexy? Is it the sand? Is it the wind, the pure rock & roll of a deep-sea diver’s life, the little scandals, the dodgy scams in back rooms, or is it just the moonlight romance of a bell buoy tong-tonging away in the tricky channel as the little diamond boats weave in from a wild tangle with the Atlantic Ocean?

Port Nolloth, named after a man who arrived here in a boat wisely called The Frolic, has to be one of the most seductive, bad-ass towns in Africa. The men, with their gaunt faces and faraway eyes, the women, with their feisty mien – it’s all pure frontier.

One of those guys is George Moyses, a man I’ve been hearing about for years. George is a scribe, a photographer and a diver. Most importantly, his life is embedded in the legend of Port Nolloth. He rents a little beachfront place at neighbouring McDougal’s Bay and now finally, in the spring of 2008, we drive out to his spot with some friends.

We wake him up, and he emerges cheerfully, pulling a strange fawn coat about him to ward off the morning chill. George, I hear, was once a handsome young West Coast gent until a propeller blade took a shine to his nose. Battered he may be, but that twinkle in his eye says there’s something awfully Irish going on with George.

Cormorant-bedecked diamond boats in the Port Nolloth harbour.

The Diamond Pigeon Scam

“But let me show you another face, one that has seen a lot more wine, fish, sun and east wind than I have.”

And he takes us inside to meet the spirit of Boeta Macaroni, whose photograph is displayed all over the place in various sizes and colour tints.

“Who was Boeta Macaroni?”

“Oh, one helluva guy.” But he won’t say more.

We discuss diamonds, in particular the infamous homing pigeon scandal when smugglers fitted little harnesses to the birds and sent them flying out of the restricted areas, fully laden with stones.

“The authorities at Alexander Bay were discussing the posduif scam one day when a pigeon landed on a window outside,” grins George. “It just sat there cooing with exhaustion, because the four-carat diamond in its pouch was just too heavy.”

For a while there, George Moyses used to be the filmmaker of Port Nolloth. And because of various dodgy diamond deals going down in the unlikeliest of places all over town, the cheerful diver’s camera was not always welcome.

“I walk in to a shop with my video camera, and everyone just ducks behind the counter. I say hey, I can see you, and eventually they all stand up.”

George ‘One Time’ Moyses and the camera everyone hides from in the village.

Return to Port Nolloth

So what a pleasure, again, in 2011, to be driving into Port Nolloth and straight to the jetty to make the sunset light. And here’s George Moyses at the seaside, in his ancient old fleece and beanie. Hi George.

The next day, we go out and find him at his McDougal’s Bay spot. Within a minute, it’s clear to see that George has become the local raconteur, taking over from Alfie Wewege, who’s left Port Nolloth for greener pastures in the Lowveld.

Since we were last here, his house has been converted into something of a museum. Outside, it looks like a permanent garage sale for all things nautical and offbeat: frosty old bottles from the seabed, shells, driftwood, pet rocks, signs that proclaim “Everybody Loves George”, “Are You Free or Are You Dom?”, “Silence – Filming in Progress” and, simply, “Strandloper”. And of course, there is a dustbin called ‘Bin Laden’.

Inside the house, most of the space is still dedicated to that fellow called Boeta Macaroni. There’s also some serious history around here, including George’s old diving suit and re-breather.

George at home in his McDougal Bay house museum.

The House Museum

“Back in the late 1950s, someone was granted a diving concession north of here, near Luderitz, but he didn’t know how to exploit it,” says George. “So he hired Navy divers from Simonstown. They went down with hard hats (old-time diving bells) and scooped gravel into galvanised buckets underwater with their hands. The first diver came up with 22 carats, and the game was on.”

George Moyses charges R10 entrance to his house-museum and sells his rough-and-ready diver DVDs for R120 each. I buy some.

“Ja, thanks hey. One time.” Later, prepping for this story, I watch the series and it’s like first footage of a documentary: raw but real. I like it.

There always seems to be a diver called ‘One-Time’ in Port Nolloth. Now that a veteran called Wally One-Time has died, the mantle has passed to George.

It’s a term from the Navy diving school, which is where most of the diamond divers originally came from. There was a guy there, said George, who always said “One Time!” if a task was done well. It kind of caught on.

“In fact, few people know me as Moyses these days. I’m George One-Time!”

Sailing cheerfully in the HMS Moyses, George’s house museum.

The Navy Diver

George’s personal history with Port Nolloth really begins down in the Cape with the SA Navy Diving School.

“I headed for Simon’s Town to join the Diving School and qualified, but the sanctions at the time meant that options were limited.

“I heard a friend had hit it big at Holgat north of Port Nolloth. From nothing, suddenly big bucks. And plus, you work so little. Just 40 days a year.

“So I eventually ended up at Doring Bay. It was my first experience of diamond diving. I was used to the discipline of the navy. But here! I mean the skipper was drunk. There was Pratley putty on the air receiver.

“And then we were underwater, with bubbles all over the place. It was like the Lichtenburg rush, but underwater! People are gyppoing each other’s stuff, switching off people’s compressors. Jy moet net pomp. Suddenly the diver next to me helps me. Thumbs up.

“Just then, I pick up this beautiful shiny stone, all colours. I reckon this must be a diamond. It looks huge. Up on the surface it looks a bit smaller. You know the water magnifies everything. It’s a 3.2 carat stone. I give it to the skipper and go down again.

Boeta Macaroni, mystery diamond-diving icon of Port Nolloth.

“Pity, because I’ve never picked up another diamond like that, in my hands.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years now, and it’s been a jol. I’ve done it for so long it’s like routine. I’m still quite fit although I smoke and have a dop and all that stuff. I eat a lot of fish. Sometimes I get some limpets or abalone. Sometimes I sell kreef. My diamond diving days are finished. I’m writing books now.”

We never did hear the story of Boeta Macaroni. George Moyses died on Friday, September 30, 2022. He is still mourned by his community and the travellers who visited him at the museum.

This is an extract from Karoo Roads I – Tales from South Africa Heartland. For an insider’s view on life in the Karoo, get the Three-Book Special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III (illustrated in black and white) by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at julie@karoospace.co.za

2 thoughts on “Farewell to a Port Nolloth Legend

  1. Joy Smith says:

    A brilliantly written piece ! I loved it! The Karoo is sprinkled with so many interesting characters- thank you for finding them!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.