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March 3, 2010

Diamond Panning In Borneo

Tom McLaughlin

Ngabang, Landank, Indonesia – Panning for diamonds? I had heard of panning for gold but never for diamonds. This I had to try!


The cross roads town spanned sides of the mighty, strong flowing, cream-in-your-coffee colored Landak River. Two bridges, both girder arched, connected the two banks. The back of houses faced one side with long rickety stairways leading down to outhouses, laundry, and bathing areas located on floating platforms.


The other side merged into wetlands and then gradual dry uplands. The light brown plots contained trash from the back of businesses arranged around a semi-circle with an attempt at a square.


Our motel, located a long walk from the downtown area, was in the minus two-star category. A temporary home for traveling salesmen and overnighters, we elected to rent the “VIP Suite” for three nights.


The room had six-meter high ceilings, a queen size bed, a television and a single naked coiled energy saving light bulb provided the only illumination. The bathroom had a cold shower and manual water flush toilet crammed together. Added bonuses were the mosquitoes, lack of netting, frequent power outages and washed in the river smelling sheets and towels. The air conditioner blew lazily despite attempts at encouragement.


We told Ah Kim, one of the three owners of this ultra luxury facility, that we wanted to pan for diamonds. My new bride and I both spoke Indonesian so making arrangements was easy after explaining, in great detail, how we found out about this activity.


Suspicious we were big time diamonds buyers, he informed we could only pan if we gave any diamonds we found to local panners. Only Indonesian nationals are permitted to keep and sell the gems. We knew this was the law and quickly agreed.


After bouncing around in an indeterminate, hand-made, four wheel drive, two front seater, with a bed on the back, yellow unnamed vehicle, we arrived on the bank of the Landak River after about 45 minutes. A floating 4m square platform with a small enclosed sleeping area and a large pump used for dredging sand awaited our arrival.


Husband and wife team, Suraini and Dul, watched us negotiate the two bamboo strapped together bridge leading from the bank to the floating area. Everyone negotiated this obstacle with ease. However I found it terrifying and required the assistance from the bemused locals.


After exchanging pleasantries, the relating of who we were, our families and how we found out about this venture, apparently everyone thought this a secret, Dul, got into the chest deep, snake and crocodile infested, fast-flowing river and demonstrated how diamonds were acquired.


To everyone’s surprise after my wimpy bamboo crossing, I ducked into the sleeping area, changed into my bathing suit and joined him. The murky water was cool and refreshing as I kept one eye out for the man-eating and poisonous reptiles said to be lurking about.


Dul handed me a wooden cone-shaped panner(for the lack of a better word) about 60 cm across the mouth, grabbed some gravel from the shore and showed me how to swirl the thing so the diamonds fell to the bottom and the rest of the gravel spun out. After a few tries, I got the hang of it. I asked how the diamonds were found and he related people dove down to the river bottom, grabbed a handful of stones, surfaced and then deposited the muck into the panner.


To everyone’s horror, I dove down and performed this task and we swirled for diamonds. I had gained new respect. For about 45 minutes I thoroughly enjoyed myself diving and swirling. I didn’t find any diamonds but did discover flakes of gold. This was discarded to my protests as the diamonds were more valuable.


I returned to the platform, enjoyed a good meal and we were rewarded with two diamonds that we purchased for five dollars. They were only about the size of a full stop (period) at the end of this sentence but will remain as a precious gift from my diamond panning days in central Borneo.


…life is good


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