How Orapa was discovered

14 Aug 2013

The 24-year-old geologist gingerly climbed out of the exploration pit. In his hands he clutched a historic stone – the first piece from the world famous 188 hectares kimberlite at Orapa.

It was the afternoon of April 19, 1967. Finally, 15 kms north of Letlkhane, a year after Botswana’s independence, the first diamondiferous kimberlite – the host volcanic rock that brings diamonds to the earth’s surface – was discovered.

Some 12 years earlier in 1955, the first diamond find in Botswana, in alluvial deposits, was made by Consolidated African Selection Trust prospecting geologists on the banks of the Motloutse River at Foley siding, some 250 kms east of Orapa.

On this balmy afternoon of 1967, you could almost imagine the medley of celebratory hoots as the other geologists closed in excitedly around Manfred Marx, the young geologist newly graduated from the University of Cape Town.

Some 46 years later, eyes twinkling with the merriment of remembrance, Marx narrates the thrill of that historic find. He is huddled across a table at The Telegraph.

Today, he is a surprisingly sprightly 70-year-old consulting geologist for Pangolin Diamonds, which have concessions in the Orapa and Tsabong areas, and is based in Pert, Australia. As he stirs the memories of that eventful discovery, Marx speaks of a Botswana that he holds dear.

“I was retired, but then Dr Leon Daniels, chairman of Pangolin, called me from Perth and asked if I was up to the excitement of finding another Orapa in Botswana,” he says. “I have so many happy memories of Botswana so I came back.”

As he narrates the story of how he stepped onto what was to become today’s Orapa mine, Marx reveals how it all started in 1966 when he came to Botswana as a budding geologist.

The story of this discovery is told in BOTSWANA DIAMONDS – Prospecting to Jewellery a book by geologist Michael C. Brook. In its eleven chapters, Brook’s book details the story of behind Botswana’s diamond success, follows the diamond from “Mine to Finger”, or “Rough to Store”, in what is known in the diamond business as the diamond pipeline.

Following some fruitless exploratory work in the wake of the initial find in 1955, De Beers was mulling the prospect of scrapping prospecting work in Botswana altogether.

Dr Gavin Lamont, exploration manager, persuaded the then consulting geologist in Johannesburg, Dr Louis Murray, to allow him and his assistant, Jim Gibson some more time. Some reconnaissance sampling ensued in the western Kalahari Desert towards Orapa.

“It led to the discovery of the Orapa Kimberlite Field in which today the Debswana Orapa, Letlhakane and Damtshaa mines operate, along with Boteti Mining’s A/K6 Karowe Mine and Firestone Diamond’s B/11 mine,” Brooks writes in his book.

In just three months, Lamont and Gibson scoured an area spanning 4600 square kilometers. Traditional walking methods of sampling along traverse lines made progress slow and arduous. So the two geologists set off in two vehicles with a team of Batswana. They followed the tracks made by hunters and cattle farmers throughout the vast area, collecting soil samples at regular intervals.

There were no formal roads then. At the end of the rapid soil sampling campaign, they set up a base camp for washing and screening samples. They were excited to find numerous “indicators” in many samples and sensed immediately that they were about to stumble onto a kimberlite. It was at this time that Marx joined the exploratory team.

Initially, a five hectare kimberlite (dubbed 2125B/K1) was found, becoming the first diamondiferous kimberlite to be discovered in Botswana, on March 1, 1967. It was followed on 17th March, 1967 by discovery of the second one (2125B/K2). Then on April 19, Marx emerged from the pit with world famous 2125A/K1 kimberlite.

“Dr Lamont sent me to do a subject survey and I was lucky that on the 21st April, 1967, I stepped onto what became the Orapa mine,” says Marx, as he huddles across that table at The Telegraph.
He reels off the names of the Batswana team leaders that accompanied Dr Lamont’s crew on this historic exploration, remembering the names as if it as yesterday: Rexon Saranyana, Setekia Wassanena, Jacob Ramorwa, Ramakatse Letsholo, and Moses Molefhe.

“I don’t know if any of them are alive,” Marx says. “Maybe this article will help locate any of them or their families.”

On November 14, 1968, a year after the find, Harry Oppenheimer, chairman of
De Beers Consolidated Mines, announced that De Beers had established that the diamond pipe at Orapa was a major discovery.

“This is very important for us, and we also believe that it is very important for the new country of Botswana,” Oppenheimer said. “I cannot help feeling that that somehow providence intends that this should be a highly successful and happy country. I do hope that our friends here in Botswana will feel, as we do, that the discovery of an important diamond mine is going to make a real contribution to the development of the country.”

In 1971, the Orapa mine was officially opened at a development cost 21 million South African rands.