Kolmanskop: Desert(ed) Ghost Town

2012-04-30 09:28
"Did you go to that blue house at the end? I definitely felt a presence. It came to rest heavily on my shoulders when I walked through the door," one of our party asked as we reassembled after our exploration of the famous Namib Desert ghost town, Kolmanskop. "No, never made it that far. But I definitely felt something similar in the hospital! I was just overcome with sadness, and told the ghosts to go rest," another answered.

Well, to be quite boringly honest, in my hour or so of lone wandering I had felt no supernatural presences bearing down upon me, no eyes staring from the walls, no weird whispers apart from the ever-present wind gusting through the pane-less windows and doorless frames. To me the eeriness of Kolmanskop was greater and more far-reaching than (possible) single presences inhabiting the shells of houses that populate the dunes. Instead, my sixth sense told me that whatever malignant, harmful or even vaguely mischievous apparitions once lurked here, they had long since gone drifting, leaving the town more deeply abandoned, neglected and profoundly sad than ever before.

Or maybe they just decided to seek the company of those more susceptible than me...

Either way, the fact remains that Kolmanskop is one of the most beautifully desolate places you will ever come across on your travels. The sight of sand flowing through doorways, succulents pushing through floorboards and stairways leading to nothing creates the strange impression of wading through one of Salvador Dali's surreal paintings... made even stranger by the thought that it was once a fully operational, rather ritzy diamond mining mecca.

So what tragedy occurred to make it what it is today? Surely something as time stopping as Vesuvius casting Pompeii into an everlasting sleep, right?

Well, not quite. The outflow was gradual - starting in 1924 and quietly concluding 30 years later - and left very little human tragedy in its wake. In fact, the very human qualities of survival and greed were largely to blame for the sudden decline, as more promising diamond deposits were discovered in the Orange River further south.

But before we get too caught up with the end, let's take a look at the swinging years of its prime.

The zenith

Southern Namibia's diamond rush began on 14 June 1908 when railway worker, Zacharias Lewala, found the first precious stone at Grasplatz, near Lüderitz, the coastal town located about 12 km away from Kolmanskop.

He passed it on to his supervisor, the German railway inspector August Stauch who sent it away for inspection. The good news about the stone's luminous potential soon reached them and so started a brave new era of adventure, discovery and riches. By September 1908, the German colonial government proclaimed a ‘Sperrgebiet' stretching from the 26 degree latitude to the Orange River, restricting prospecting and unauthorized entry into its borders.

Fortune hunters from all over the world, but especially Germany, converged on this far-flung area with hope in their hearts. In the book Wild Horses in the Namib Desert, Ron Swilling describes the frenzy as follows: "diamonds were picked up by the handful as they glittered in the light of the moon. Photographs of the time reveal men crawling across the sand on their bellies searching for the prized stones."

And with this the quiet settlement of Kolmanskop - named after a transport driver one Johnny Coleman who abandoned his ox wagon during a sandstorm here - burst into a thriving mining community built in the architectural style of a German town. At its prime it housed 700 German families and 800 Owambo contract workers, Encounters reports. With riches flowing in and through, the town lacked for nothing, boasting fantastic facilities including a bowling alley, a ballroom, butchery, a casino, a theatre, a swimming pool, a hospital complete with the first X-Ray machine ever to be operated in the Southern Hemisphere.

The town's only drawback was its lack of fresh water, but with no shortage of funds, this little problem was quickly solved with a weekly shipment all the way from Cape Town. As Swilling points out "It is said that in Kolmanskuppe... champagne was cheaper than water" and with daily deliveries - free of charge, if you please - of ice, soda water, lemonade and milk to each household life was pretty good.

Too much too soon

Perhaps it was just too much too soon, because within less than 10 years, Kolmanskop started suffering a steady decline. First came the drop in diamond sales shortly after World War I, and then followed the discovery of richer deposits further south in the Orange River. From 1924 onward the town steadily started running dry until the last stragglers finally left in 1954.

Kept at bay for too long, the desert wasted no time swooping in, claiming the abandoned houses as its own and over time the once prosperous town became a relic of an era gone by.

Although left reasonably undisturbed for a good few decades, it got a second lease on life as a popular tourist attraction when De Beers mining company restored a number of the buildings and established a museum on the premises in 1980. These days Kolmanskop is run by the joint NamDeb firm and its moon landscape look is a favourite subject for artists, photographers and filmmakers.

Want to check it out?

Kolmanskop is located on the B4 that runs between Keetmanshoop and Lüderitz. You will find it on the left hand side only 12km before Lüderitz.

There are daily tours of Kolmanskop (Monday - Saturday 09h30 and 11h00, Sunday and public holidays - 10h00), which are really a great concept because they start off with a general guided walk, and then visitors have the opportunity to wander around on their own. Tours cost N$55 (R55) per adult and N$35 per child (4 - 14 years)

Just take note, if you do find a diamond, it's best to give it up than try to hide it - they search you!

Light lunches and snacks can be enjoyed in the Ghost Town Tavern, formerly the Champagne Bar in the Casino.

See more photos in our Kolmanskop gallery.

Thanks to Air Namibia for getting us there, NTB for all the arrangements, Gondwana Collection for accommodation and Abenteuer Afrika for showing us around.

Take a look at our package deals for Namibia.

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