HAMILTON -- “Things happen in India that don’t make any sense,” says Rob Towner of Hamilton, an expert underwater gold miner and diamond hunter.
“Sam calls it a magic place. It’s more than magic.”
Towner spent six weeks with his friend, Sam Speerstra, in the world’s second-most populous nation last winter while filming a Discovery Channel show called “Lost Treasure Hunters,” which aired on the Animal Planet channel.
When he wasn’t dealing with deadly vipers and cobras or watching his Indian crew members sacrifice a goat to appease the angry river gods, Towner was vacuuming diamonds off the bottom of the Krishna River, one of the longest rivers in central-southern India.
The show is marketed as an action-packed documentary about a team of highly skilled extreme prospectors attempting to rediscover the long-lost source of the great diamonds of Golconda, India.
The Golconda diamond mine was last mined in the 14th century. Using a mix of ancient maps and modern geology, the team raced to find the untold riches in diamonds before the monsoons arrive.
The show is the brainchild of Speerstra, a professional prospector who discovered the lost diamond field. The area is the source of the infamous Hope Diamond, which is supposedly cursed and is housed at the Smithsonian Musuem of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
Towner’s job, as the team mechanic, was to make sure that everything ran smoothly, which it never did.
The group, which included a film crew and underwater experts, used a giant floating barge to navigate the brown waters of the river and dredge up dirt, then filter out diamonds.
They sometimes used an elephant to pull the barge along the shore.
“I would put on scuba gear and use a big hose to suction up the bottom of the river,” he explained.
“One day, there was a huge Russell’s viper in the water that we had to kill. Those snakes kill 20,000 people a year. They’re one of the most dangerous snakes in Asia. We also had cobras to deal with.”
Towner saw his share of misfortune in India.
Besides the filming trip, he traveled there several other times. Two Indian men he worked with in 2007 were killed in freak accidents -- one was electrocuted, and another was sucked into a dam.
During the filming of the show, a friend of the man who had been electrocuted was involved in another accident.
“He stepped out onto the barge, and the pump exploded,” Towner recalled. “He was blown into the water, and a camera caught the whole thing. His best friend was the guy that got electrocuted, I couldn’t believe it.
"So we had to stop everything because the Indian crew we were working with said the river gods were angry and we had to make a sacrifice.”
While the Americans and other crew members watched in fascination and shock, the Indian men prepared a small goat to be sacrificed.
“They allowed us to film it, which surprised me,” he said. “They were all chanting. It was interesting and a little bit on the bizarre side.”
Towner clicked through a slideshow of pictures on his computer as he told the story. The pictures show the Indian men smearing the goat with colorful paint and preparing a large machete-like blade.
“As you can see, the goat was surrounded by people,” he said. “It escaped. It shot through everybody, and went up on the island and got away. So they all went roaring after it and captured it again and brought it back.
"We were weirded out. You got myself, another guy who was a Navy SEAL and Sam. We’re all no-nonsense, and we’re seeing all this weird stuff. They got the goat, and did their chanting. And you can see, we’re not very happy about this.”
The pictures show Towner and the other men, hands on their hips, frowning as they watched the spectacle.
“There’s the knife right down here,” Towner says, pointing to another picture. “And then they immediately decapitated the goat. And they had to spill the blood right into the river.”
The pictures show a bright red pool of blood, and the lifeless carcass of the goat.
“And they put the blood on their hands,” Towner says. “We’re fairly disturbed over this whole thing, of course. They put the goat head on my boat. Now I got a dead goat head on my boat.
"They went around, they put bloody hands on the boat. They took their hands, put it in the blood, and put it all over the boat. Sam was aghast. Susanne was aghast. We just took it as part of the local customs.”
The whole trip was a whirlwind of emotional highs and lows, Towner said.
He has traveled all over the world, from Venezuela to New Zealand to the West Fork of the Bitterroot in search of gold and diamonds, but India appears to be an experience that made a huge impression on him.
“It was high adventure,” he said.