There are things that most people wouldn’t consider being part of a job description; taking your clothes off probably being one of them. So what would you say if I told you that that is exactly what I had to do?
One of my clients — the largest diamond miner in the world — invited me to deliver a short project which involved a number of site visits to some very isolated places. And so I found myself back in Botswana after flying from Dubai –> Johannesburg –> Gaborone –> Francistown.
From there I drove 220km west to Orapa. Getting out of the office and into the field is a great bonus, driving through Botswana’s countryside is a further treat, the office shackles have been removed.
My excitement was building even before I landed in Francistown but it wasn’t until the hire-car windows were wound down, the cool morning air streaming into the cabin, the stereo pumping and the trees whizzing by that I felt truly free.
You never know what you’ll find next to the road, or blocking your path for that matter. Orapa here I come!
The speed limit is 120km/hr but it’s easy to lose focus and before you realise, the car is speeding down the perfectly flat plain at 160km/hr. It’s not until the vegetation starts encroaching on the road that you start watching the speed — your mind begins to wonder whether a cow, donkey, goat, elephant or even lion will poke its head out from behind the bushes.
It is surprising though, given Botswana’s wealth, to see so many poor communities lining the roads of some of the richest stretches of land in the world.
Lions or other wild animals tend to keep well clear, cows and goats quickly move off but donkeys, for some reason or another, don’t seem to understand that a road is constructed for cars.
It’s not that the donkeys are dumber, on the contrary, they have developed a great ability to — just like a miner would lay claim to his land — donkeys lay claim to the shade being cast by trees.
Much like the sun follows an arc across the sky, so do donkeys the shadow — irrespective of whether it stretches across a grassy patch or a road. You can sound your horn, flash your lights, wave your arms or even try talking to them while you attempt to navigate your way around. It’s no good, give up, they are the traditional and rightful owners of the coolest spot for miles around – and they know it.
Three hours later I was outside a huge gate reminiscent of some paranoid US gated community; and that’s exactly what it was — a gated community for mine employees. Built, owned and operated by the mine for the mine. After having my photo taken, passport scrutinized and various details recorded on the security system I was issued with a bar-coded slip of paper and allowed to drive past the gates.
Nothing out of the ordinary to be honest, a small town with all the rudimentary facilities like shops, gymnasium, parklands, housing estates and office blocks; unsurprisingly everyone knows everyone else and it’s common to see large groups of people catching up outside the main shopping (mall) building.
I made it in one piece but the donkey dodgems had eaten up much of my daytime and it was late afternoon already; I still had to do a meet-n-greet, organize accommodation, get familiar with the place and plan out the activities for the remainder of the week.
The night was not restful at all, not sure whether the foreign bed or the full moon were to blame; my eyes were heavy and the body didn’t want to leave the warm bed (I’d forgotten how cold it gets here in June).
At the office I found out that the security pass I’d been issued was only for entry to the residential parts of the diamond mine; there were a few more hoops to jump through. I was assured however, that the process should be completed by midday.
And so it went:
The above six steps were completed in a couple of hours.
I was escorted to the office of the Chief Security Officer. At first I didn’t think much of it, we chatted about life and world events. Actually, given the trend of the conversation I thought I was there awaiting the arrival of someone more senior. Perhaps this was just a rouse, because following the neutral questions I started to feel as though I was sitting across the table from a KGB operative. I quickly realised that the computer screen, which was facing towards the officer, contained a play sheet with interesting questions as well as my background history.
It was as though I’d stepped 30 years back in time and was once again sitting in front of KGB-affiliated officers. He probed my past intricately, my parents, my father in particular, my movements around the globe, political affiliations — it was all too familiar (ala communist/KGB style). This lasted for almost two hours, at the end of which I was issued with a stamped security clearance form and a smile; although I wasn’t quite sure of its authenticity (the smile I mean).
It wasn’t until the following day that I learnt the company had strong Interpol connections and KGB-style training (provided by ex-KGB agents) for all security employees; anyone intending to visit the mine needed to go through a similar screening process. I guess my past was juicier than most and allowed plenty of avenues for interrogation, err. I mean exploration.
Truth be told, having been born in Poland during the height of communism, escaping to Australia, travelling extensively for the last 20 years to most of the world’s troublesome spots and with a father heavily entrenched in communist politics (back then), was it any surprise I was detained for such a long time? If I were in their shoes I’d probably scrutinize me in even more detail — a sleeper cell no doubt.
With the permit in hand we were off to the mines. One by one, we inspected the mining sites, all surrounded by razor wire fences, and satellite offices and processing operations; but I won’t bore you with the menial details — let’s skip straight to the interesting bits.
At the end of the day it was time to enter the RED zone — the diamond sorting and processing plant. Getting into the plant was very easy, nothing more than a simple swipe of a card — isn’t that always the case, easy to get into something, much harder to get out?
After less than an hour of interviews and discussions with the local technical staff & inspecting the premises it was time to exit and go home. I’d been warned that the exit procedures were significantly more difficult here than anywhere else. Of course, I’m always up for anything — my motto: try anything and everything at least once.
The process seemed fairly simple but required a little bit of coordinated effort. I wish I had my camera because describing this would have been easier — sadly it was confiscated upon entry along with my two phones and laptop.
Firstly, we needed to scrub our shoes on a rotating brush-wheel that collected any diamonds which could have “accidentally” gotten stuck to the base of our safety boots.
Opposite to the shoe scrubbing machine were two doors, one for men and another for women. Above each door green and red lamps, indicating whether you could enter or not; both lamps were glowing red. Hmm, interesting — what now, I remember thinking.
Two cameras mounted at carefully calculated angles captured my impatient pacing. Of course I ignored everything I was told before entering and I continually swiped my card only to be locked out completely by a buzzing sound from the swipe pad and a flashing red light. There was nowhere to go, all the doors that we’d passed were now tightly shut behind us.
After what seemed like eternity, the light above the male door changed to green, I swiped my card again and the automated door opened slowly.
The moment I entered the small room the door closed shut behind me. I could only assume by the small shopping-like basket placed on a wooden bench that it was time to strip. One by one I took off all my clothes and placed them neatly into the basket. Now standing completely naked and holding my overfull basket, the second door opened.
A white-shirted security officer was already waiting for me. He asked me to place the basket onto the x-ray machine and directed me to stand on a circle marked with a large X. With my arms stretched upwards, he asked me to lift each foot, carefully inspecting between each toe. As I opened my mouth and wiggled my tongue I remember thinking that he gave my gums a more thorough inspection than my last dentist.
Having seen plenty of Hollywood crime movies, I was waiting to be asked to bend over, touch my toes and cough a couple of times, but that never happened — not that I was disappointed.
By the time the basket passed through the x-ray machine another door opened — signalling my clearance. I was asked to walk into the next small blue-coloured room and get dressed. Standing there butt-naked I recall feeling sorry for all the employees who go through this on a daily basis. Perhaps people get used to it, just like going to the dentist (although 30 years onwards I’m still not used to the ultrasonic scaling tool).
Much later that day I found out that it wasn’t necessary to undress completely, just to my underwear — I guess I missed that training course. I now feel sorry for the security guard who had to witness my naked show :)