Friday, May 20, 2022

Orapa diamond mine discovery story retold

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 according to the company’s first prospectors.

The Consolidated African Selection Trust had in 1955 found on the banks of the Motloutse River located some 250 km east of Orapa what was Botswana’s first diamond in alluvial deposits.

But due to a dramatic discovery of the Orapa pipe by its geologists on the edge of Makgadikgadi Pans and Kalahari Desert in 1967 De Beers decided to stay put in Botswana.

The diamond mining and exploration giant was later to spend over 33 million Rand on its first exploration of diamonds in Orapa according to the company’s original prospectors.

Still within expenditure, the company spent capital amounting to 2.5 million Rands on Evaluation costs and a total of 60 million Rands on construction of the Orapa diamond mine.
On Friday, Manfred Marx narrated to a fully packed Gaborone Sun conference room the story of how he stepped onto what was to become today’s Orapa mine.

Marx explains that in the afternoon of 1st March 1967, a year after Botswana’s independence, the first diamondiferous kimberlite was discovered by Marx. Sixteen days later second diamondiferous kimberlites were discovered.

As fate may tell, the consequent discovery of the Orapa pipe triggered the establishment of the De Beers Botswana Mining Company, which sparked the future of diamond mining in country that was then dependant on Agriculture.

Today, Marx is a surprisingly sprightly 71-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 to the audience that included former Minister of Minerals, Dr Gaositwe Chiepe, Marx speaks of a Botswana that he holds dear.

Marx explains that 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 compromising exploration manager, Dr Gavin Lamont and Jim Gibson. 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 kilometres. 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.

In 1971, the Orapa mine was officially opened at a development cost of 21 million Rands. To date, Orapa mine remains the largest conventional open pit diamond mine in the world and the world’s largest diamond mine producer by volume.

Of course the quest for diamonds did not end there. In 1969 De Beer’s geologists moved south and started prospecting the southern district of Botswana. This was the birth of Debswana. An agreement was signed between the ‘people of Botswana’ and De Beers, which was in fact the establishment of Debswana.

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