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SMALL MINING IN THE ERONGO MOUNTAINS
Text and photographs Annabelle Venter
Just 3 hours after leaving Windhoek, and several years since we last visited the Erongo mountains, my husband’s first words on arrival are how he ‘feels the silence and peace washing over him’.
L ying before us and filling our view is the mighty Hohenstein Mountain, translated as ‘highest stone’, or highest peak of the Erongo range. It’s lunchtime and even the birds are taking a siesta, so we take their cue for a nap after greeting the staff and checking into our comfortable room.
Our hosts for the next 24 hours are Karin and Ralph who manage the lodge at present. Hohenstein Lodge, part of the Ondili group, lies on the western side of the Erongo range and is just 25km north of Usakos. The lodge offers several activities including bird watching (it’s a birding hotspot for Namibian endemics), fat biking and walking trails, but the special attraction is the guided trip to visit the small miners of the Erongo Mountains.
After tea at 3pm, our guide Jansen takes us on an interesting half hour’s drive in an open Landrover to the base of the mountain to start our ascent, armed with sunhats and water.
Up through the ‘Boulder Forest‘ we go, taking in the expansive scenery that unfolds behind and below us. It’s a gentle climb but one should wear closed shoes. Beautiful trees abound and we identify at least three species of commiphoras. Above us little green parrots rush past, filling the air with loud shrieks – it’s nesting time! These rosy-faced lovebirds are an endemic Namibian species and their home range is the Erongo area. We also spot another endemic, a pair of mating Rüppell’s parrots, during our stay.
An hour later we stop and Jansen makes a phone call to let the miners know that we are on our way. He points to a specific rock up the mountain where we would see the men waving. Searching the mountain side with our eyes we have no idea how far or near we should look. But suddenly they snap into view – still a way to go, but Jansen assures us it’s just a short stroll now! Several boulders further on we finally meet the small group of men plus two dogs and a cat, waiting together on a flat rock in the fading light. I take in the view. Spectacular and vast, to the far west the Spitzkoppe mountain is just visible in the sinking sun.
We follow Jansen between the boulders and suddenly we are amidst the miners – each sitting quietly beside his display of gemstones. It’s like entering a sacred spot and momentarily we feel like intruders, although this is where they usually receive tourists. Understandably they are a little hesitant at first, but when we start speaking our common language, Afrikaans, the ice is broken.
Arnold Somaeb is the spokesperson and we are in his cave. He is from Khorixas and says he has worked in several other areas before coming to this spot in the Erongo in 2011.
Ricardo Awaseb arrived here in 2000 from Angola and works with his son Ronnie. They explain that the men work in teams of three to four, because co-operation is the key to success and survival on the mountain. Ronnie says he has tried lots of other jobs in Windhoek but doesn’t like the city life. Besides, he says, the money is better on the mountain and he has a girlfriend in Usakos. Two others make up the group today. Josef Kalembila first worked the Kleine Spitzkoppe and Brandberg, and Kaaro Tjambiru joined the digs from Opuwo.
Ricardo is the longest resident here and explains that most of their excavation work takes place at an altitude of 1800m, which is a lot higher than where we are sitting! The summit is 2319m above sea level, which is a dangerous altitude with smooth granite sides and slippery slopes. Visitors are not generally taken there. The small miners work mostly in the early and late hours of the day when it is not too hot. Often they continue at night when the temperatures drop, using headlamps and torches to negotiate the slopes.
Arnold shows the vein where they insert a metal rod to determine the direction it runs
Kaaro Tjambiru and ‘Aqua’ share a quiet moment
A vein of black tourmaline
Small miners are defined by the fact that they use hand tools and occasionally a drill and generator, but no heavy machinery. This determines how deep they can excavate. Arnold explains that they start by looking for a black tourmaline vein on the granite surface. If it has a little hole next to it, they will insert a metal probe to see in what direction it runs. Alongside this vein lie the sought-after pockets of aquamarine, quartz crystals, tourmaline and fluorite. If they feel that there is potential, excavation will start and they’ll create a hole or tunnel just a bit wider than the human body, following the vein along its course. Four or five times a year they might be lucky to strike a pocket with collectors’ quality gemstones. Big pockets are rare and the last time they found one was in 2010.
It is dangerous work and the oxygen diminishes the deeper they dig. Sometimes their excavations go down to 20 or 30 metres where it is also extremely humid. There is the added risk of faulty ropes and several miners have fallen to their deaths in these mountains.
But the men remain philosophical about their lifestyle and say they wouldn’t change it for anything. When I ask them why, the unanimous reply is that there is no rush or pressure and they work for themselves. When it is too hot they rest, but they can also work all night if they like. They love the silence and solitude up here. Once or twice a year they go home but always look forward to returning. It is a hard slog but they feel that it is well worth it and that only a very special type of person chooses this lifestyle.
Arnold says the toughest part of their work is drawing water out of old excavations in buckets on ropes, collecting firewood down on the plain below and carrying all their food and supplies up from the road about 6kms away.
The specimens that we see are souvenir quality. So how do they sell their collectors pieces? Ricardo explains that in the nearby towns they have ‘agents’ who lend them equipment for drilling but take the pockets to sell. Hence the miners have little control over the selling price and must accept what the agent gives them.
The guided tours from the lodge, however, are now bringing potential clients to them and with smart phones and Whatsapp the miners have direct access to clients locally and even overseas. Therefore it is in their interest to own their equipment and exclude the middleman. Arnold has already bought a generator and is saving for a jackhammer. Ronnie says that a hammer which they can service themselves costs about N$ 12 000 to N$ 16 000 and is out of their reach at the moment.
During our conversations with the miners we are aware of a sense of calm camaraderie. They help each other in times of crisis but respect each other’s spaces. Even the dogs and the charming cat called Aqua sleep contentedly through our visit, occasionally stretching among sparkling stones.
Arnold takes a long look into the distance and says he is happy here but he has a dream. He shows us an image of goats on his phone and says that is his dream – to farm with goats back home.
We are reluctant to leave but the light is fading. Bidding us farewell, Arnold tells us how much he enjoyed our visit and being able to speak with us in Afrikaans! As we clamber over the first boulders I turn to wave goodbye but the mountain has already swallowed them and silence fills the air.
Later that evening, after a delicious dinner at the lodge, I sit outside our room and gaze at the mountain. I can just make out tiny lights flickering on the slopes and I feel a special respect for the people up there. I would love to return and explore their fascinating world with them.
Gifts to take along for the men on your guided tour, if you can: Clothes, tinned food and fresh fruit and vegetables.
Watch this amazing movie about the miners’ lives, made by the son of the current owners.
This article was first published in the Autumn 2016 issue of Travel News Namibia.