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Tales from the great north road the qreat Kaokoveld diamond raid.

In 1929 the government of the then South West Africa --now Namibia--declared the Kaokoveld region of the infamous Skeleton Coast a no-go area. The official reason was that the area was too remote and manpower would not allow for adequate police patrols and administration. The real reason, of course, was that certain parts of this rugged and unforgiving terrain were diamondiferous. The Catch-22 was that the area also was too remote for the authorities to effectively police.

In 1930 a Mr John Suskin of Johannesburg, who was a member of a South African syndicate that believed the Kaokoveld coast was strewn with diamonds planned an exploratory raid into the forbidden wasteland. The syndicate had another member who was a politician with a less than honourable reputation, and he assured the conspirators that should any of them be caught they would not be brought to court. Whether he could have actually pulled off that kind of a cover-up no one knew.

Suskin left Johannesburg in June with seven companions. two sedan cars and two trucks. Wanting to avoid suspicion in South West Africa, they drove up into Angola from where they planned to re-enter South West Africa across the Kunene river and head for the coast. They had brought a number of rifles, with which to hunt for the pot, and this caused a three-week delay at the border--the Portuguese authorities were not happy about a group of armed men entering their colony, though eventually permission was granted. They drove on to Mossamedes on the Angolan coast.

Driving south to Port Alexandre, they engaged the services of one Pi men La I, an old Portuguese hunter who had forty years worth of knowledge of the largely-unknown Kunene, for two pounds sterling per day. He led them south to a point on the Kunene about ten miles inland from the coast--there were no roads, and the going was tough through dry riverbeds. A few miles downstream they found a narrow segment of river that they thought they could cross, and the truck--they had only brought one--was dispatched to the nearby hamlet of Tiger Bay to collect empty wine barrels with which to make a raft. I have been to the Kunene, and the currents are strong in the narrows, and so it proved there. After several weeks of toil, they were still on the north bank.

Suskin returned to Port Alexandre and hired a car which took him to Mossamedes where he wired to Johannesburg for money. He then caught a lift on a 50-foot sailing schooner that plied the coastal route between South West Africa and the Congo and when he arrived at Tiger Bay, he found all of his compatriots waiting for him, having run out of food on the Kunene. Re-supplied, they returned to the river for another abortive attempt to float the truck across. At this point, all of the would-be diamond raiders apart from Suskin threw in the towel and returned to Johannesburg.

Suskin hired a gang or native porters, and set out for the Kaokoveld coast on foot. They left food dumps every twenty miles, and carried with them a primitive portable de-salianation plant with which to distil drinkable water from the sea.

The Portuguese steamer Mossamedes had been wrecked off Cape Frio in a dense fog seven years earlier. Of the 258 souls on hoard, six of the seven boats launched, containing 227 passengers and crew were picked up by rescue ships but the fate of the seventh boat remained a mystery. Until Suskin's party came across a large amount of flotsam on the beach at the cape. Deck chairs, ship's furniture, and dozens of demijohns of port wine--still drinkable! Suskin postulated that the boat had reached shore safely, but the survivors had died of thirst. When Suskin awoke the following morning having slept on a sand dune he noticed a pair of shoes nearby. Digging through the sand, he found a human skull. In all, they recovered thirty one skeletons amid the wreckage, and they buried them with what Christian honours they could. In a lighter moment, the porters had brought little in the way of clothing and were feeling the cold. When Suskin's party moved out, the natives were dressed in silk evening gowns from a steamer trunk. "It provided a little comic relief after the discovery of the skeletons" Suskin observed.

South of Cape Frio, the porters announced they were in cannibal country, and Suskin, having found no trace or diamondiferous gravel, concluded that they would never be able to explore such a vast area on foot. The party marched back to the Kunene and drove their truck back to Port Alexandre. There, Suskin abandoned the vehicle, and hired a car to drive to Mossumedes where he caught ship for Cape Town. It must have been nice not to feel the constraints of either time or money!

The syndicate acceded to Suskin's request for a small Baby Austin motorcar, and Suskin and the car took passage from Cape Town to Mossamedes un board the Portuguese liner Continental. Accompanying him this time was an Irish adventurer and former soldier, Mr S O Swailes. Toward the end of April of 1931 they lauded at Mossamedes, and began the trek inland a few days later. While they were trying to ferry the car across the estuary at Tiger Bay it fell in to the sea. There was a delay of a month while the Baby Austin was repaired hack in Mossamedes.



They finally arrived back at the mouth of the Kunene river, where they built a raft but found the current formidable. Fortunately they met up with two diamond prospectors there, one an American and the other a Belgian--with the prospectors' labour force, they knew they could haul the car across without it being swept out to sea. "On the first trip we had shot eight crocodiles near the river mouth" Suskin said. "This time we saw a herd of gemsbok crossing the river in the shallows at the mouth, and Swailes challenged me to wade across. It makes my blood curdle to think of it now. but both of us got over safely". They successfully hauled the little car across, but their hardships were just beginning.

Plagued by vicious sandstorms, they drove south to Cape Frio where they left a fuel dump. Just south of the cape they came across the wreck of a wooden sailing ship at least a hundred yards inland from the shore. There was a deck chair with a brass plate inscribed "Victor N Franco", but whether that was the name of the ship or a passenger they never discovered A couple hundred miles south of the Kunene they came across a stretch of coast that had been pegged by a prospector named Isaacs in 1929, but though they dug samples, they found no diamonds. Near the claim was the hatch cover of a ship that had the name "W McCann" inscribed on it. and next to it lay a skeleton. Nearby they found eleven more skeletons, and they gave them all as decent a burial as they could Though they continued to search the coast, they never did find any gemstones--at least that is what they told the syndicate--and eventually returned to Mossamedes, and from there, Johannesburg.

Swailes' son Sam, in a letter to the author Lawrence G Green said "My father discovered a very rich deposit of diamonds". He divulged this to Suskin when they reached Mossamedes, but said he didn't trust the syndicate Swailes bronchi the hatch cover inscribed by McCann back to Johannesburg, along with the claim board left by Isaacs showing the location of the claims, but eventually destroyed it.

All the time Suskin and Swailes had been prospecting the Kaokoveld coast, they were hunted men, though they didn't know it. Having been reported by the American prospector they had inert at the Kunene the South African police alerted Major C H L. Hahn, the commissioner of Ovamboland, who made a dash into the coastal desert in search of the diamond raiders. He found the tracks of the Baby Austin as far south as Fort Rock Point, but by the time he got to the Kunene mouth Suskin and Swailes were long gone. The story remained one of the more engaging enigmas in the police files for a couple of decades. Lawrence Green knew the truth, but had promised Suskin that he would never record it while either he or Swailes lived. Suskin died in 1954 and Green wrote the story in 1956. How many Suskins will we never know the story of? How many bones of ships and men lie along that rugged coast to this day?
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Publication:African Hunter Magazine
Geographic Code:6NAMI
Date:Aug 1, 2012
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