In the mid 1980s, Elon Musk’s father Errol and a copilot were on their way to England aboard a plane they hoped to sell when they landed there.
They never made it to their destination. Instead Errol returned to South Africa with a half-share in a Zambian emerald mine, which would help to fund his family's lavish lifestyle of yachts, skiing holidays, and expensive computers.
It was that lifestyle, Errol says, that turned Elon into the kind of merchant adventurer who would later break the rules of the motoring business with Tesla, then go on to change spaceflight with SpaceX.
The way Errol tells it, that all started with an inconvenient religious holiday.
On their way to England, Errol and his copilot got word that their original flight plan was going to cost a lot of money.
“We were going to fly into Jeddah and there was a religious holiday and they said if we come in now we have to pay $2,000 but if we wait 10 days we can come in at no charge. So we decided to head back to Lake Tanganyika from where we were, I think we were in Djibouti.”
There, the two South Africans ran into a group of Italians who, as it happened, were in the market for an airplane. Errol named his price, and a deal was done.
“So we went to this guy's prefab and he opened his safe and there was just stacks of money and he paid me out, £80,000, it was a huge amount of money,” he said.
Standing with the cash in his hand, Errol was made another offer he couldn’t refuse: Would he like to buy half an emerald mine for half of his new riches?
“I said, ‘Oh, all right’. So I became a half owner of the mine, and we got emeralds for the next six years.”
It was a lucrative decision. Errol employed a cutter in Johannesburg and sold the stones wherever his travels as an engineer or family holidays took him.
And, on at least one occasion, his now famous son also took his hand at dealing in the gems, with peculiar results.
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