The Unfortunate History of a Fortunate Place
Kolmanskop is an abandoned diamond mining town on the south western Namibian coast. It is isolated by the arctic Benguela currents to the west, and the featureless Namib desert in all other directions. It is hard to imagine the difficulties of traveling there a hundred years ago, much less how it developed as a remote enclave of European luxury.
History started slowly and progressed unfortunately for a long time before the fortune of a lifetime was discovered. In 1487, the first European expedition to sail around the southern tip of Africa found a natural harbor near where Kolmanskop would be, and placed a stone cross there as a marker. However, because of its desolate nature, and inaccessible location, nothing really happened after that for hundreds of years.
Then the combination of the agricultural and industrial revolutions in Europe sent explorers and traders into Africa searching for resources. Finally, in the 19th century, a ramshackle trading post was founded in the natural harbor called Luderitz, by men hunting whales and seals, harvesting guano, and seeking mythical mineral deposits in the desert. Men arrived chasing fantasies of uncountable wealth, while also harboring nightmares of the harsh desert and sea, and the monsters that might call them home.
T. E. Eden sailed to this area in 1845 searching for minerals and guano. While leading his crew on an expedition inland, he described finding whale skeletons scattered in the desert. They debated if it was a result of giant waves created by super storms, or some sort of desert beast large enough to carry whale bones.
This story conveys the spooky frontier feeling of Luderitz during this time. Imagine the choice between camping in the dunes, potentially surrounded by whale eating monsters, or returning to the ship only to worry if an enormous storm might tear it apart. Not many men came, and not much was found in these early expeditions.
Then in 1905, the German military decided it would use the isolated desert location of Luderitz as a concentration camp for captured Herero and Namba people during the vicious Herero genocide. This brutal war of extermination was ironically the event that finally gave Ludertiz life. The German army needed to supply troops to the interior of the country, and built a railway from the port at Luderitz through the Namib desert. However, as soon as the tracks were laid, the coastal winds would blow the sand dunes over them, and a crew of men had to constantly travel the tracks to keep them clean.
August Stauch was managing a team of men that were keeping the tracks sand free, and knowing the legends of the prospectors before him, he told his crew to keep an eye out for shiny rocks. In 1908, Zacharias Lewala found the first diamond ten kilometers inland of Luderitz, and brought it to Stauch, who quickly bought a prospecting license for the area. This is the event that turned one of the most desolate, unfortunate places in the world into unimaginable wealth for a fortunate few. This is where most stories of the legend of Kolmanskop begin.
The Desert Sands Shone like Stars in the Night
Stauch put together a prospecting team as quickly as he could and headed into the desert. According to the legend, his team was making camp in the dunes, when a Herero tribesman named Jakob returned to camp with armload of driftwood for a fire. Stauch jokingly told him to look for diamonds not wood. Jakob dropped the wood in the sand, and then dropped a mouthful of diamonds into his hands. They were everywhere! He did not know how to carry them, so he had been stuffing them in his mouth.
The excitement carried into a rare windless night. Usually the hot desert air mixes with the cold ocean water to blow a mist over the dunes at night, but that night the coastal fog did not come. A big moon rose over their camp, illuminating a sea of diamonds sitting in the sand. They twinkled like stars in the night sky, and the men ran around stuffing their pockets.
It was the largest find of diamonds ever. In the first 20 months, the men collected a million carats of diamonds. Newly minted German diamond prospectors wanted to enjoy their wealth, even if it meant living on scalding sand dunes, far away from everything they wanted. They simply paid to have Europe brought to the Namibian desert.
Lawns and rosebushes were literally planted in the middle of the desert, and fresh water was shipped in from Cape Town. Police patrolled town on camels, and Santa Claus arrived on an ostrich during the holidays. Kolmanskop had a theater with perfect acoustics that hosted operas and orchestras from Europe. It had a casino, bowling alley, ice-factory, and the first x-ray machine in the southern hemisphere. People paid their bar tabs in diamonds, and Kolmanskop boomed.
But then, all of a sudden, it didn’t anymore. For all the glory that was there, it just survived for a blink in time. Such fortune could never last in such an unfortunate place. World War I broke out, British troops landed in 1915, and Germany was forced to cede administration of German South West Africa to South Africa in 1919 at the end of the war.
However, life more-or-less muddled along until 1928 when an even greater wealth of diamonds was found farther south at the mouth of the Orange River. Greed migrated, and the town began a long period of decline. Mining operations in Kolmanskop finally stopped in 1950, and machinery was scraped. Without anyone to take care of Kolmanskop, grains of sand beat on the windows and doors, and flowed through cracks and into the floorboards, until the little mining town was no longer on top of the dunes, but a part of them.
Visiting the Kolmanskop Ghost Town
We arrive just after dawn, as the rising sun illuminates the dunes, but before we can feel its heat. Not only is there no one else there, there is no sign of anyone else having had been there for decades. There are no ticket booths, or tour guides. There are no paths or signs. There are not even footprints in the sand, as the winds sweep the dunes back into place every day. It is as if some force is constantly trying to preserve the glimpse of glory that occurred on this spot. Savoring the only moment in all of time when it was something other than just another set of sand dunes in the vast Namib desert.
Kolmanskop is just a group of a couple dozen dilapidated buildings peeping out of the sand dunes like melted candles on a stale birthday cake. Everything is still and silent, but it is not peaceful. It resembles the opening scene from a Hollywood apocalypse movie, as there is the uneasy feeling that a disaster occurred there. An antique enamel bathtub lays outside in the dunes, as if providing a clue to a catastrophe that befell those who lived there. It is a pleasure to have such a mysterious piece of history to explore by yourself, but it is also spooky to be there alone. You keep wondering if there is a reason no one else is there.
I enter the first house tenderly, hearing hundred-year-old floor boards creak somewhere under the piles of sand on the floor. Sand is piled everywhere, sometimes almost completely filling doorways. Some doors have been stuck open by the dunes, and you can pass through into further rooms. Other times they are shut behind the intruding dune, and your mind flashes a horrifying scene of somebody getting caught in the sand sealed room behind it.
I climb-up broken staircases, and walk along roof rafters inspecting the patterns of tattered wallpaper, and a Tok Tokkie beetle moving mechanically up a dune like wind-up toy. The sand blowing on the walls makes a soft hissing sound. Broken window panes rattle and rusty water tanks creak, while the wind whistles through doors stuck ajar.
It occurs to me that the sounds I am hearing are probably the only ones for kilometers, because even as a ghost town, Kolsmanskop is still the closest thing to life in this desert. It cannot last though, as the desert is relentless and never dies. It seems only fair that it should have Kolmanskop after all that was taken from it. The fate of Kolmanskop is that same as a sand castle built on the waterline at low tide.
Covered by a dune, Kolmanskop will be preserved under the desert sands like a mammoth in a glacier. It will be a mummified memory of Portuguese explorers, English whalers, German gemologists, Afrikaans soldiers, Herero freedom fighters, and that is the best life a ghost town can hope to have. As while diamonds may last forever, the men who find them and the mines they build are usually soon forgotten.
Notes for Nomads: There is nothing close to Kolmanskop, so visiting it is a commitment. As a photographer, and someone interested in this fascinating chapter in Namibian history, I quite enjoyed it. The best way to visit, is to self-drive (drive yourself), as it allows you to visit Kolmanskop at dusk and dawn when the light is best, and generally no one else is there. The only accommodation is in Luderitz, so you need to drive out to Kolmanskop and back yourself.
In Luderitz, we stayed in the The Shark Island Lighthouse, which while rickety, is a fun experience for a couple nights. Luderitz is famous for its crayfish, and you can buy delicious oysters by the dozen from the aquaculture farms, so definitely indulge in the seafood while you are in town. Also, Barrels Pub claims to have the best eisbien (pork knuckle) in Namibia. It just might, and is certainly worth judging for yourself.
Finally, large parts of this story are based on the museum exhibit in Kolmanskop. It is open in the middle of the day, and is worth a visit if you are interested in the history behind the ghost town. There is also a tour, but I did not go on it.