Larry Pickering passed away a little over a year ago but he is still sorely missed. His life was full of incredible adventures but the following account is the kind of thing you just wouldn’t read about (except on the Pickering Post of course).
This was previously posted by Larry in 2013 but lost from the site during one of our changeovers.
Fortunately, one of our wonderful readers had saved it and suggested we give it a fresh outing – so here it is:
The Brussels airport diamond heist got my heart racing. It was slick and those diamonds were sold before they were stolen.
In South Africa my friend Vonnie often spoke about diamonds. He and his dad owned hardware stores in Cape Town and Jo’burg.
I had met Vonnie at the Drunken Springbok at the seedy end of Long Street in Cape Town. We sort of hit it off. He would relate exciting boys’ own adventures that were still possible in lawless Africa.
Hundreds of blacks and coloureds are given tin cans by the corrupt Angolan military to fill with alluvial diamonds from the riverbeds. I would ignore the sheilas and the pool games to listen intently to his crazy, notional adventures.
The one phobia I have above all others is being bored.
The Angolan story was good. The Yanks have their own operation there too. No-one steps outside the river bed because of live land mines remaining after 27 years of civil war.
The Yanks and the military pay the blacks a pittance in relation to the value of the diamonds but still a huge amount of money.
The blacks are rolling in mountains of hard US currency but there is nowhere to spend it and the Yanks are rolling in mountains of uncut diamonds to be processed in Europe somewhere.
I had no interest in the diamonds, because the Yanks had an arsenal of modern weapons to shoot anyone who ventured anywhere near the place looking for the precious stones.
Anyway, if you were caught back in civilization with an uncut diamond in your possession you copped a long jail sentence.
We agreed to go there, we were drunk.
My plan was to lease a Huey chopper and fill it with transistor radios, jeans, sneakers, sunglasses, Coca Cola, chocolate and just about everything the blacks would kill for, but couldn’t get.
Vonnie said jeans were worth $US2,000. A can of warm Coke would fetch $US500.
I spent a month looking for a Huey without luck, so I settled for a blue and white, IFR rated, Bell Longranger with extra long-range tanks.
I went around to my advertising agency and got them to make me two 8 inch decals of the numbers “4” and “2”.
In the meantime Vonnie got the goods, wholesale… 150,000 randworth. I figured the goods could realize about $US2 mil.
He bought six assault rifles and a crate of ammo. Two of the rifles were ours and would have full magazines, permanently. The other four would be unarmed and for sale.
The Angolan war had finished long ago but the Angolan army was hopelessly corrupt and fiercely protective of its own fossicking ventures.
If they couldn’t get US dollars, they paid the fossickers in worthless local currency. To the blacks, US dollars, escudo or kwanza are all useless bits of paper to wipe their arses with anyway. They can’t spend it!
The inland Kwango River was the main alluvial diamond area but anything seen flying above it would be shot down by either the military or the rogue Yanks. God only knows what the relationship was between the two.
The upper inaccessible reaches of another river, the Cucumbi, nearer and to the south east, was where we were heading.
The long drought had exposed many areas of the river bed and the military and the Yanks would know about it. They had no chance of stopping the poaching but you could bet your life they would be pouring millions into the area.
I had dealt with Yanks in remote foreign outposts before. They are besotted with their own currency. They believe there is only one World currency. They think in terms of what it’s worth to them and have no idea of its exchange rate or its value in parts unknown.
I arranged to refuel on the way up (and I hoped, back) at a private property near Alldays. They charged an outrageous $US7 a litre, only because they knew we were up to something… otherwise we would have fuelled at Pretoria.
But there was no way I was landing at a public airport. That would require a recorded flight plan. We marked five landing spots in the Cucumbi River from Google Earth.
The main trouble was trying to determine who would actually be there… the Yanks or the military-protected black fossickers.
I couldn’t believe the military would be that far out in such a remote area with no roads and no support.
The Yanks, who had modern rockets, would shoot us down as soon as they saw us. The military might mistake our engine noise for a military aircraft…. And the military would be as keen to get hold of a can of warm Coke and a pair of jeans as the black fossickers would.
It was all looking a bit dodgy tho.
After many long drinking sessions with blokes who knew the area and exactly what goes on up there, we were ready.
The Longranger struggled out of a farm 50 mile to the east of Pretoria, at about 4pm. We were 300k overweight, which included three 44’s of JetA1 [fuel drums].
There was a full moon bathing the countryside as we refuelled again near Alldays.
We landed again in a salt pan 20 mile north of Alldays, jumped out and stuck the “2” and “4” transfers over two of the existing registration numbers on the tail boom.
We again struggled into the air and followed the GPS north through Botswana and hit the Zambian border with Angola, then north west toward the Cucumbi River.
Vonnie and I had some odd African music blaring through the head phones… it was awful and hardly dampened the wild gastric butterflies.
The Longranger had burnt a lot of its fuel and was travelling nicely as we neared the mountains that hid the river.
Daylight was breaking and Vonnie was studying a map on his knee but had no idea where we were.
The river ran a winding course roughly north-south. “Find that fuckin’ river soon Von, we’re not sightseeing up here, mate.” “Ok, ok, but nothing looks like the bloody map!” I glanced at the instruments. “On the GPS we are definitely west and abeam of it… I’m turning east so we can intersect it, ok?”
“Ok”, muttered Vonnie, “I reckon those high mountains must be the source of it, so go another few miles, then turn east and we should cross it”, he yelled through the mike.
We hit the river and turned south-east toward the source. Shit, it was rough country.
The river was continually turning back on itself and all I could do was head for the darker tree-line ahead.
Vonnie was peering down, looking for some sign of life. There was none. The area narrowed to a valley that looked nothing like the map.
Then the river bed appeared… it had only a trickle of water and there was still no sign of life. The historic drought and resultant lack of river water had to indicate diamonds would now be exposed for the first time.
Who knows, maybe no-one is here… maybe we can just land, off-load our stuff, fill the whole helicopter up with diamonds and get the hell out of here. Yeah, yeah… and then what do we do with them?
But it wasn’t diamonds we were after… diamonds are big touble. It was US dollars we came for and if we were going the get US dollars we had to find people who had been paid in them.
The further I flew up the river the less the trickle. “Shit, this isn’t the source, maybe it’s a tributary of the Congo basin or something… it’s comin’ from the other way!” I yelled at Vonnie. “We’ve gone 10 mile up here and now there isn’t enough water to make a cup of tea! We are only at 4,000ft!… see if you can find one of our landing points.”
Vonnie shuffled through the stack of papers on his knee. “Well, that sort of looks like one of the spots there! Is that a fire or a bit of smoke?…. Shit! I don’t know, anywhere right here should be good!” he said. “Ok, I’ll put her down on that sandbar, right on that bend, ok?” “Ok.”
I lowered the collective and let her glide into the sandbar. We landed and I kept the revs up while I tested the surface to ensure we were not on quicksand.
I stuck my head out the door. It seemed firm, so I dropped the revs to idle. “Ok, where the hell is everyone?” asked Vonnie.
“Dunno mate, but there are footprints everywhere! Look at them!”
The discarded fire in the riverbed appeared to be from the previous night and footprints led off into the jungle. I wasn’t going to shut down the engine ‘til I knew who was here.
The silence below the noise of the turbine seemed safe but ominous.
A bloke with a blue blanket wrapped around him appeared 30 meters away from behind a tree on the far bank… Vonnie grabbed my arm. I beckoned blue blanket to approach. He did, cautiously, one small step after another.
The helicopter was still spewing acrid spent fuel and the loud roar was bouncing off the banks. Then two young boys approached.
Then an older man. Then three more men. All of a sudden there were blacks walking and hopping toward us from all directions. Many had legs missing and were on crutches, others just hopped.
They stopped a few meters away and I signalled them to come closer. They refused. There was no way I was leaving the chopper and they weren’t coming any closer. It was a standoff.
I suddenly realized it was the sound of the chopper that was spooking them… their eyes were wide and in total awe of the machine.
I shut the jet engine down. As the blades slowly wound to a halt, the blacks moved closer. They were either naked or in tatty shorts. Some had ripped T shirts with American sports stuff on them.
The guy in the blue blanket I figured was the leader. I smiled at him and held out my hand. He smiled back exposing only two brown teeth.
In no time there were black blokes everywhere. I shook hands with blue blanket. He spoke to me in French. “Shit”, I thought, “does everyone speak French?” “Anglais?” “No, no Aglais!”
He went off into some other language that could have been Portuguese… I settled for the French to dispense with the niceties.
When we opened the doors of the chopper to display the goods, the excitement was unmistakable.
I rubbed my thumb and forefinger together… “US Dollar?” They looked at each other and started chattering madly. Hands and arms were flailing everywhere as they were now talking in some native language and pointing up the hill into dense jungle!
Blue blanket ordered a young bloke to go to whatever was up the hill…he scampered off.
I looked at Vonnie, “It looks like we may have come to the right place, mate. These blokes look ok.”
“Well, I did a rough count mate, and there are around 198 of ‘em more than us! So let’s not count our chickens just yet.”
We had the loaded rifles still within arms’ reach in between the rows of Coke and they had seen them so I wasn’t shitting myself just yet.
The young bloke came running back down with a hessian bag. His bare feet traversed the river rocks, dancing, like they knew each one intimately. “Shit”, I thought, “that looks like quite a few Yankee dollars!”
He gave it to blue blanket and stood back. Blue blanket reached in it up to his elbow and pulled out a handful of dull white stones.
“Diamonds”, he said in clear English. I turned to Vonnie… “Diamonds? We don’t want fuckin’ diamonds!”
I turned to blue blanket rubbing my fingers again… “US dollar!”
“No No No”, he said shaking his head and pointing down the river (or was it up the river). “Guerra, Guerra!”
I froze, “shit”, I said to Vonnie, “I think that means soldiers or something! Whoever they are, they know we are here… we must have flown right over the top them!”
This was a real problem. We had to get out of here quick. “There isn’t a doubt in the World they will be here within minutes… grab that bag of diamonds and start shoving the gear out of the chopper.”
We must have thrown half of the gear on the ground as they all madly scrambled to get their share. I managed a grin at the one-legged blokes hopping off with pairs of sneakers slung over their shoulders.
They went for the sneakers before anything else. I began to start the chopper as blue blanket signalled frantically that he needed more gear for his diamonds.
Vonnie threw him all the sneakers, kicked out boxes of sun glasses and a dozen parcels of jeans wrapped with string.
It started a stampede… enough for me to get the engine started.
When the jet engine lit up, they scattered. We took off with the doors still open. Blue blanket was shaking his fist at us and doing a war dance in the riverbed.
When I reached 500 feet AGL I looked back to see blokes in uniforms jogging up the riverbed… little puffs of blue smoke were drifting to the side of them. We could hear clicking sounds and a fizzing noise above the roar of the engine. “What the fuck is that!” I yelled at Vonnie.
I glanced at him, he was as white as a sheet. I figured that was about my colour too.
The dense foliage was matted with vines all the way up the face of the valley. I flew directly away and up from the river, presenting a smaller target. I was praying for airspeed as the chopper groaned under full power maintaining 1000 ft a minute.
I saw a ridge in the face of the valley off to the right and waited until the last second before I exposed a side-on profile in a ninety degree turn and plunged the chopper down below the tree-line.
The chopper’s agility was breathtaking. We were now flying parallel to the river and back toward the soldiers as I desperately tried to keep out of sight.
I had no idea where we were and didn’t really care as long as we were avoiding those bastards in uniform and the little puffs of blue smoke.
We snaked our way around trees and in and out of small gullies. We alternated between four G’s and negative two, desperately trying to hug the invisible contour lines.
This machine had never performed these topographical manoeuvres before. It was creaking and complaining of the stress.
I ploughed the landing skids through the tree tops. I could feel the aircraft yawing as the tail rotor pruned overhanging branches.
The main rotor blades momentarily lost inertia as they ripped at the adjacent foliage.
After a few minutes I figured it was safe to gain altitude. I pulled up and watched the dense jungle recede from below.
“Phew, fuck that was close!” I looked at Vonnie and managed a wry grin; “get your headphones on!”, I yelled.
I got reoriented and looked for a cleared area, nowhere near a river. We needed fuel. I landed on a small plateau and hand-pumped in the fuel from our drums with the engine still running.
I noticed three neat bullet holes in the boom. One had gone neatly through the triangle in the false “4”. All three had gone clear through without touching the tail shaft… I hoped.
There was another bullet hole in the main fuselage below the open back door. It had pierced dozens of cans of Coke and the sticky brown shit was slopping around in the floor well.
We dumped the empty 44’s and with full tanks we began our trek home. The only topic of discussion was: “What the bloody hell are we going to do with a hessian bag half-full of uncut diamonds?”
Was this was another of my giant fuck-ups?
e refuelled again near Alldays, ripped off the false decals, and headed for Pretoria.
We returned the Longranger to its owner and copped an assessment of 50,000 rand to fix the bullet holes.
“What were you guys doin’, up there, man?” “Aw, nothin’ much, I reckon some blokes got bored with hunting and took a few pot shots at us… we didn’t even know about it ’til we stopped for fuel”, said Vonnie.
“Won’t insurance cover this?”, I asked him. “Doubt it. If it does, I’ll send you guys a refund.”
We piled what was left of our stuff in Vonnie’s Landrover and drove back to Cape Town.
It was late at night when we arrived at Vonnie’s place but he had to make a call to a diamond cutter he knew.
“Can you come around Alex, I need to talk to you now, like right now?”
We were sipping coffee when Alex arrived. He was a big, pale Afrikaaner bloke with a thick neck. He wore blue jeans with a white and red check shirt and expensive suede boots… his sleeves were rolled up, exposing huge bronzed arms. He looked nothing like a diamond cutter. He would have looked more at home with a shovel in his hand.
“Have a look at this!”, said Vonnie, handing him the hessian bag. Alex reached in and pulled out a handful of stones. “Bloody hell! Where did you guys get these from?”
“Are they worth
anything?” asked Vonnie. “Yeah, about ten years on Robbin
[Robbin Island is a gaol off the coast where Nelson Mandela was exiled during the apartheid era.]
Alex went out to his car and returned with a small bottle of liquid, a clean chamois rag and an eyeglass. He rubbed part of one of the stones and peered intently at it through the eyeglass.
Vonnie and I sat motionless, waiting for some response. “What do you reckon mate?” I asked. Alex said nothing. He just kept moving the stone around, in and out of the light.
We searched his stoic face for some indication of his assessment. There was none.
It seemed like an hour before he eventually removed his eyeglass and turned to Vonnie, “Where’d you guys get these?” “Angola”, said Vonnie. “Fuck, man! Each one of these stones is a ticking time-bomb! Who gave them to you?”
We relayed the whole story to Alex over another coffee. Alex was sitting down with his face in his hands, thinking.
It was past midnight. Vonnie’s wife emerged from the bedroom. “Hi Alex, hi Larry, what are you doing here this time of night?” Alex and I acknowledged her, “Hi Trish.”
Vonnie turned to Trish, “Can you give us a bit of time here baby… we just have a business thing to tie up. I’ll be in soon.”
Trish went back to bed.
“They’re a good size for alluvials”, said Alex. “But, shit… have you any idea what they are worth on the open market?” “No, we wouldn’t have a clue?”
Alex reached for the bag and started poring through the stones.
“Some of these are dodgy, too many faults, but a lot of them are exceptional. This one here is a cracker”, he said, holding up a rock of a thing, triangular looking and about a half inch across. “There is at least an 8, maybe even a 12, carat stone in this and a lot more.”
He poured the other stones back into the bag and held it up, bouncing it, assessing its weight.
“What are they worth, man?”, asked Vonnie impatiently.
“Look, if these stones had gone through the right channels to the right people and they were professionally cut… mmm. Shit, this damn thing alone must be worth…”.
He held the big one up to the light again. “There are probably only two people in the World who could be trusted to cleave this one.”
I could see that Alex was a bit shocked by all this. I turned to Vonnie, “Maybe we have struck the mother of all mother-lodes here mate. Maybe we were lucky we didn’t get US dollars.”
“Not so fast guys” said Alex. “At the moment they are worth nothing! You might as well paint them white and line your garden path with them. Everyone will know where these have come from, it’s easy to tell.”
Alex settled back in the lounge chair and put both hands behind his head, “Look, if you guys are caught with these, it’s big shit for you! I’m licensed… I’m allowed to be in possession of them but I have to be able to show how I got them, or I go to gaol too, man.”
“Surely there must be a black market in these things, Alex?” I asked. “I mean, why not off-load them at, say, half their value?”
Alex leaned forward, his big face became stern. “Listen guys, you have not the slightest idea what you have got here. These things rightly belong to someone else, probably the Angolan military junta, from what you tell me.
“Look at it this way, the blokes who gave you these were working for the military, right? They will have seen all the sneakers and other shit you guys dropped off there and they will know their diamonds are missing.
“Also, they even know the colour, and probably the registration number, of your helicopter, man. Do you expect them to do nothing about it?”
I explained to Alex about how we altered the registration number. He seemed unimpressed
“Shit! You reckon they’ll
turn up here?” I asked.
“No, they won’t do that… they wouldn’t be game to come down here.
“Look, the problem is this: It all comes down to where they were disposing of them. It could be De Beers or any one of ten different Israeli organizations, or New York.
If those guys know where they come from, and they will, a few phone calls will tell them who they belong to. It could even be one of their existing clients. To those Israelis my life isn’t worth one of those stones.
“The best thing that can have happened here is that those blacks had more than just these diamonds. Maybe a few hessian bags full. If they did, then they might have convinced the military that you actually got away with very few.”
Alex pursed his lips, thinking, “Tell me exactly what happened again.” We related the story once more, not missing a thing.
Alex sat back in his chair and took another deep breath… “Look at it this way, what if the guy in the blanket intended to give you only one stone for all that shit. What if he was just letting you look at them?”
I looked at Vonnie. He was already looking at me. “Faaaaark!” said Vonnie, “We took off with the whole fucking bag, man!”
“Shit!”, I felt a cold shudder creep up the nape of my neck. “That could be right Von! Fuck! Perhaps they were about to let us choose only one of the stones.”
“Yeah man”, said Vonnie, who was now a shade paler, “I thought blue blanket was screamin’ for more gear. He could have been screamin’ that he wanted his damned bag back!”
“Ok, well, if that’s the case”, said Alex, “then the blacks would be mad tellin’ the military guys that they gave you a half a sack of diamonds for a few sneakers.
But it could also be that these diamonds had been kept from the military by the blacks. They could have been stashing a few away over a long period. If that’s so, they’ll have to keep their mouths shut!”
I started to relax, “Mmmm, hadn’t thought of that. Ok, so what are these fuckers worth then, Alex?”
“My guess, as legitimate stones, properly cut and faceted, somewhere between 50 and 100 million US dollars.
“On the black market only a fraction of that… maybe only a few hundred thousand, depending how it’s done.”
“What! Fifty million!” I exclaimed, standing up, “Faaaark , I don’t like this Alex, you have to get rid of these things for us real quick, mate! Just get rid of the damn things… if you can’t, I’m chucking them in the nearest river.”
“I think I can get the ball rolling Larry, but they will have to change hands at least four, maybe five, times. That’s a lot of commissions and I will need a little something too.
“It’s my guess there won’t be much left at the end of all this.” Alex stood up appearing confident, “It’s best I take them with me now.” “Yeah, yeah, take ’em, take ’em”, I said.
We shook hands and Alex left with the stones.
“Holy fuck! This could be a nightmare mate… did he really say 50 millon bucks? I need another coffee… no, have you got a beer?”
Vonnie cracked two Castles and we settled down to excitedly recap what had actually happened, “…that’s right ya know, you told me to grab the bag and I did!”
“Don’t blame me mate, I was just tryin to get out of there!” I said.
“That’s probably why the bloke in the blanket was doin’ that war dance on the sand bar”, said Vonnie.
“Mmmm, maybe”, I mumbled. “I can’t think clearly any more… I’ll finish this beer in the truck, give me a lift home mate, will ya? I’m stuffed!”
I crawled into bed with Anne, woke at 11 the next morning and went to work in Long Street. I never breathed a word to anyone about what had just happened.
I returned home to The Gardens at 5pm to see hundreds of kids, black kids, in the front yard. There was a long line of them out on to the street and down to the next corner.
“What the hell is goin
on?” I muttered, as I fought my way to the front door. “Anne! What’s
“I’m in here, in the kitchen”, she called.
I crawled over another twenty kids getting to the kitchen to see Anne and Ava the maid making sandwiches from hundreds of loaves of bread.
You couldn’t hear yourself think above the noise of the kids.
“What in the hell is all this about?”, I yelled.
Ava stuck her black face over the kids, a broad grin flashing her white teeth: “Missy Anne, she made a mistake.” “Yeah I made a mistake”, yelled back Anne.
“I got home from shopping yesterday and there was a little kid sitting in the gutter. So, I asked him if he wanted something to eat. He said yes, so I got him a peanut butter sandwich and an apple.
He’s obviously got 500 of his friends with him tonight. “Ava was giggling, “I told Missy, a big mistake!”
After a week of pretending no-one was at home, the kids finally gave up.
I kept ringing Vonnie, “Has
Alex got back to you yet?”
“No, man, give him time!”
South Africa was still reeling from the apartheid changeover and it had left gaping holes of corruption in every sector.
In Australia, there was no way you could offload that quantity of rough diamonds.
South Africa is more of a third world country now than it was during apartheid.
Affirmative Action had seen to that! Uneducated blacks, who were living in cardboard boxes a while ago, were now assistant bank managers dealing with heads of Public Service Departments, who were also recently living in cardboard boxes, and equally on the take.
A month passed before Vonnie got a call from Alex.
“Drop into my place at 7 o’clock tonight, Alex is comin’ around to see us.”
Alex was already there when I arrived. “How’d ya go mate?” I asked eagerly. “Oh, so so”, said Alex.
“It was a headache guys… the rocks are gone to who knows where and some money has landed in my bank account. I’ve got no idea who sent it and I don’t want to know.”
“Great job mate!” I said, organizing in my head a whole raft of further questions.
Alex continued, “You know that I need 25% for this job?
“I expected about that”, said Vonnie. “How much did you finish up with?”
“Exactly 3.45 million United States dollars, best I could do”, said Alex, with a broad grin. “Where do you want it?”
“Bloody ripper!”, I exclaimed, “that seems ok, considering what has happened. We can do it all again next week, eh?”
“Ok, Larry ol’ son, but I won’t be here. You’ve got no idea what I’ve had to do!”
“I was joking Alex. Look, I will need a different arrangement for my half than Vonnie, I’m not a resident here.”
“I’ve got no problem getting a foreign currency account right here”, said Vonnie.
“Yeah, that’s ok for you mate. I’ve got some thinkin’ to do.”
“Ok”, said Alex, “I’m off. Let me know the details of where you both want the green stuff and I’ll send it on… less 25%!
“But if you bastards pull this sort of stunt again count me out!”
I looked seriously at Vonnie: “Why couldn’t we do it again? I mean it’s a bloody sight more exciting than drawing cartoons and floggin’ hardware and we know exactly where to go.
“They can’t be the only black fossickers on that river. All we need is a diversion to distract the military.
“You are a crazy, man!” said Vonnie.
“No look, seriously, we got there at daybreak so everyone would be at their camp, right?
“I mean during the day the black guys could be miles up or down the river lookin’ for the diamonds.
“The military will have their camps too, so we locate the military camps and drop a couple of napalm bombs on their fuckin’ tents. That’ll keep the bastards busy while we do the deal.
“We get in quick, and out quick… whadya reckon?”
Vonnie snapped open two Castles: “You’ve got rocks in your head, man. You’re forgetting we went there to sell jeans and sneakers for US dollars and we finished up stealing half a sack of diamonds off the Angolan military for Christ’s sake.
“What’s the first thing they are goin’ to do when they hear a chopper in that area again? Are you actually sayin’ we should steal another bag of diamonds?”
“Mmm… ok, you’re probably right, but give me time. I’ll think of something.” I didn’t think of something.
Vonnie and Trish saw us off at the airport. I had my diamond money safely socked away in a Malta account.
Vonnie handed me an envelope with $US2,000 in it, “I took a big loss on all that gear we had left over, man”, he said dolefully.
Trish grabbed him affectionately by the arm, “I don’t know what you guys were up to, but we own our house outright now, and I’ve got a brand new Mercedes station wagon in the driveway!”
Vonnie smiled. I swear I saw a tear in his eye as he shook my hand, “We’ll meet again Larry.”
We never did, well not yet.