One of the largest diamond mines in the world and also Indonesia, it’s difficult not to get caught up in gem fever when exploring the Cempaka diamond and gold mine in Kalimantan’s Martapura.
A source of diamonds for centuries…
…Borneo’s Kalimantan region of Martapura is from where the biggest diamonds in the world have been discovered.
Where is Martapura?
Only 45 kilometres east of the bustling city of Banjarmasin, Martapura in 1998 seemed more like a sleepy town than a small city in southeastern Kalimantan.
Martapura’s proximity of only 15-minutes north of the Cempaka gold and diamond mine makes the city a haven for those seeking jewellery made with diamonds, gold, precious stones, silver, and even imitation precisely-cut stones. All of which are dredged from fathomless depths of Borneo’s earth. Renowned globally for its jewellery, it’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of gem fever when visiting Martapura.
Catch an early morning local bus from Banjarmasin bound for Martapura, for the almost 45-kilometre ride.
Transport in Banjarmasin is such a breeze and also very cheap. Opelets, tiny vans, or hitching a ride in the back of a Bemo-type utility vehicle, provide an efficient transport system.
On arriving at Martapura, all the hotels are fully booked so find one that agrees to hold our packs for the day, before heading to the local market for some food. This market includes the usual handmade goods and delicious regional food and is also full of intricate handmade rattan crafts.
Getting to Cempaka
From Martapura, we take a car to Cempaka for the 9-kilometre trip, south of Martapura.
The car stops short of the mine and without any signs, locals point us in the right direction along the way. A narrow dirt track leads over a haphazardly-built rickety bridge on stilts, sitting over the muddy water to “the” infamous area.
Cempaka Gold and Diamond Mine
Not sure what to expect as, in 1998, there isn’t any available information, but the working conditions of both mines is a shock.
On arriving, the gold mine is not at all what I expected, definitely not modern, and quite confronting.
People are everywhere and panning for gold in teams. Under the scorching sun and stifling heat, panners work long hours in abysmal conditions, in the desperate hope of striking it rich or just finding a few nuggets to feed their family. Life is so very hard at the mine.
Some workers rig old torn shirts between two bamboo poles or scrappy sheets of plastic in the hope of a little shade and shelter while sitting for hours in muddy water, digging and panning.
There isn’t any respite from the arduous backbreaking work of searching frantically and relentlessly for gold – a disheartening and demoralising job.
Never could I imagine that anything would be worse than the conditions in this gold mine, until making our way to the diamond mine. Cempaka is foreign-owned and for all its continual centuries-old wealth dug out of the ground, I see no wealth here – workers are so poor.
The diamond mine is extraordinary and extraordinarily dangerous!
Filled-in pits exhausted from diamond mining, scar the area and resemble a cratered moon surface.
Old pits sit dangerously side-by-side with new holes containing makeshift shafts some 10-plus-metres deep. Everyone smokes the cheap Indonesian Kretek cigarettes to help pass the onerous and monotonous hours away, waiting. Perhaps a momentary respite of how hard life is at this mine.
Climbing in and out of these dangerous shafts is by using bamboo horizontal supports fastened to vertical bamboo struts. Muddy water fills the bottom of the deep hole that awaits the diamond miners. The bottom of the mine is panned for diamonds manually using crude bowls, these are then passed up manually to the surface for emptying, before starting all over again. Typically, only two miners are down the shaft at the same time.
Workers still smile even in these horrendous conditions while enduring slow and tedious work, without any machinery or automation. When labour is cheap, there isn’t a need for machines.
Both men and women work the mine but also children have the responsibility of working the mine.
A 6-year-old boy with a damaged left eye, probably due to an accident – already a little man – draws on a Kretek cigarette like it’s his last breath. So tragic to see this child starting up the pump, which in turn pumps out the muddy water from the bottom of the mine.
Starting the pump by connecting 2 wires together and making sure the pump keeps running, is the boy’s job all day long every day. The noise is deafening. No shelter from the blaring sun. No protective clothing. Just his little hat and shorts. Extremely proud of his job and its importance, I doubt that in his short life he has ever been to school.
Everyone holds a pouch full of unpolished diamonds at the mine and is willing to trade for absolutely anything. The only problem is that we don’t know what is real or imitation, so only splurge AUD$10 for pieces of what turned out later to be cut glass. Guilt sets in but the miners are desperate to trade. Everyone is in a bartering mood. A group of miners gather around, so we trade a leather hat bought a few months earlier in Yogyakarta and a pair of old sunglasses for 3 tiny uncut diamonds. Most diamonds at the mine are in their natural state – uncut and unpolished – before going to the polishing houses.
As the only foreigners here today, a motorbike takes us to a polishing house.
The craftsman shows how diamonds are cut and polished with ancient precision. Then, several 5-Carat pink diamonds are proudly displayed on a rolled-out royal blue velvet mat. At thousands of dollars for each diamond, we back out of the polishing house quickly while thanking our host and bidding farewell.
After a fascinating and interesting but confronting day, catch a local bus back to Martapura to pick up our packs from the hotel’s storage locker.
Returning to Banjarmasin
Decide to take another local bus bound once more for Banjarmasin and the Borneo Homestay. The owner will be happy to see us again as no one is staying at his homestay.
At the tail-end of the 4-month Indonesian island-hopping sojourn, the time has finally come to start heading back to Pontianak, Singapore, then Australia, but not before spending a day or two in Banjarmasin…