(Photographs © David Harrison)
Jacob rolled off the boat into black water. He fastened supplies to his dive belt, adjusted his goggles, and with an accomplice began kicking toward Robben Island. The old lighthouse, built when the island was still a leper colony in the 19th century, lit the northwestern shore in dim flashes as the men drew nearer. It was just enough light to orient themselves by in the tossing swells. Across the channel, the city of Cape Town appeared as a thin band of lights, its mountains black against the sky.
The rest of the poaching crew — ten divers, equipped with levers for prying and waterproof flashlights — got straight to work, descending to the seabed and filling their sacks with abalone, the forbidden shellfish species from which they all earned their living. But Jacob and his accomplice, two of the youngest men in the group, had told the boat captain that they had a bolder plan. Instead of diving just once, like they ordinarily would have, the two would break off from the group and camp out on the island, snorkel the kelp beds for a full day, and gather up a massive haul of abalone before returning home the following night. For their efforts, the two men anticipated earning $5,000 each. It would be a massive amount for South Africans of their station. But that’s the promise one of Africa’s oddest illicit trade routes, in which poachers like Jacob snatch wild abalone and sell them to transnational crime syndicates that send the shellfish to China, not for cash, but in exchange for quaaludes and the chemicals used to make crystal meth.
This was 2010, and Jacob (a pseudonym) was accustomed to rough conditions; he had already been poaching abalone in Cape waters for ten years. His face and hands stung from the cold as he swam. In one of his dive pouches he carried a fully charged cellphone, sealed against the water inside two condoms. He reminded himself to text his wife, who was waiting anxiously at home with their two young children, as soon as he got ashore. Unlike many poachers he knew, Jacob didn’t blow his cash chasing a party lifestyle, focusing instead on looking after his family. Winter was approaching, the roof needed fixing again, and his three-year-old daughter was quickly growing out of her clothes.
The waves surged as the shelf grew shallower. “There’s a way through here,” Jacob called to his partner, seeing a gap between the rocks. The men crawled onto the beach, slipping on wads of kelp. They heard the boat depart, the grind of its outboard motors fading behind the surf. Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was jailed for 18 years during apartheid, is an exposed outcrop in the middle of Table Bay; the men sat a while catching their breath, watching lighthouse beams pulse across the Atlantic. They unpacked their provisions from sealed bags, changed into dry clothes, and stuffed a bottleneck pipe with cheap marijuana, crushing a small white mandrax (a local term for quaalude, which is used more widely in South Africa than anywhere else in the world) pill into the mixture. Then they stashed everything beneath a bush, lit the pipe, reclined in the grass, and waited for dawn.
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