Karoo Routes: The Fred Cornell Richtersveld Diamond Route

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Your journey starts here: The old anchor at Port Nolloth – icon of the town.
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End of the trip: Cornell’s Kop, on the way to the Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park.

Words and Photographs by Chris Marais

It’s a bright morning in Port Nolloth, start of the Fred Cornell Route to the Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. The very short rush hour (rush minute?) happens and everything settles down again.

The seagulls perch on old boats and railings of pizza shops, hoping for scraps. The diamond divers take advantage of the calm sea conditions and gun their little boats through the slalom-like channel to the open sea and, hopefully, a pocket of precious stones lying somewhere on the sea bed.

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The 85-km stretch between Port Nolloth and Alexander Bay.

We happy travellers are going north towards Alexander Bay, the once-great diamond town near the border with Namibia.

We’ve booked a Thursday tour of the old diamond diggings, the seal colony and the oyster farm.

This is part of the old stomping ground of Fred Cornell, a prospector who came looking for diamonds – and found nothing but wonderful adventures along the way.

Fred Cornell thought his destiny lay in the shiny stones he could almost smell up in the Richtersveld, on either side of the Orange River. Somehow the rich finds constantly eluded him. But he stuck to his guns, lived under the stars and wrote one of the best travel books ever – The Glamour Of Prospecting.

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The gathering flamingos at the mouth of the Orange River.

It contains humour laced with hardship, describing the foibles of a prospecting crew toiling up and down a river, desperately searching for signs of diamonds. Fred sailed to England to look for investors, went for a drive in a sidecar motorcycle and was killed in an accident with a London taxi.

The honours of discovering the world’s largest treasure house of diamonds lay with other men like Dr Hans Merensky and his team of geologists.

In Glamour, however, Fred had the sublime grace to say:

“I have been richly compensated for the few discomforts and hardships I have experienced by the glorious freedom and adventure of the finest of outdoor lives, spent in one of the finest countries and climates of the world.”

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Early morning traffic on the road west to the national park.

In honour of Fred – and because it’s just so lovely out there – we take sundowners at the mouth of the Orange River, where the flamingos are like pink flames gathered in ponds and along the banks as they feed.

Today we head east towards the park. It’s dirt, ostriches and massive banners along the way warning you of the dangers of IDB – illicit diamond buying. A few clicks before Khuboes we turn left on the Sendeling’s Drift road. This is where we find Cornell’s Kop.

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Cornell’s Kop – one of the two legacies Fred left behind.

The hill is ringed with rather exquisite false quiver trees (Aloe pillansii) – some of the last of their kind left in the world.

Near here is the Wondergat, a deep hole allegedly connected to the Gariep River, through which The Big Snake With Diamond Eyes occasionally meanders.

And suddenly we’re at the wondrous Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park – a mouthful to pronounce, but a masterpiece in stark desert mountain landscapes nevertheless…

  • Disclaimer: The Fred Cornell Route is a Karoo Space name for this route, and not necessarily recognised as such by tourism authorities or easily found on a municipal map. After your trip, you are encouraged to come up with your own name for this route – and tell us about it in Your Karoo.
  •  For the best-crafted stuff (travel stories and images) on the Karoo visit our Ebookshop HERE.
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    Port Nolloth to the Park: map hand-drawn by Gil Vermaak.

2 thoughts on “Karoo Routes: The Fred Cornell Richtersveld Diamond Route

  1. Andre du Toit says:

    Fred Cornell actually descended into the Wondergat, and to his dismay found nothing but phosphate minerals formed by the deposition of bat manure. He was an adventurer of note as well as a remarkable story teller with a polished use of the English language.

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