The history of the village of Kolmaskop in Southern Namibia is typical of the boom-and-bust history of many mining towns around the world; towns founded on the presence of exotic minerals that are collected and sent elsewhere for further processing and sale. When these minerals run out the very reason for the town’s existence vanishes, and the citizens move on. In the case of Kolmanskop, the exotic minerals were diamonds and the boom lasted less than 50 years.
History has it that on 14 April 1908 a railway worker by the name of Zacharias Lewala, who was working on the railway line between Luderitz and Aus, found a “shiny stone” lying on the sand and showed it to his supervisor, the railway inspector August Stauch, who recognized it as a diamond. Stauch obtained a prospector’s license and as soon as it was confirmed that the stone was indeed a diamond, the rush to Kolmanskop was on.
It turned out that the stone found by Zacharias Lewala was far from being an isolated example, and diamonds lay on the surface of the ground in great numbers. It was apparently common for prospectors to lie on their bellies and slowly crawl across the sand, picking up diamonds by the dozen.
The German Government quickly stepped in and declared a large area surrounding Kolmanskop a “Sperrgebiet”, or forbidden area. This Sperrgebiet, which still exists today, stretches from the Orange River in the south for some 350 km northwards and from the sea in the west for some 100 km eastwards.
The village of Kolmanskop, named after Johnny Coleman, a transport rider who abandoned his oxwagon near the spot during a sand storm, and located some ten kilometers east of Luderitz in the dunes of the Namib Desert, was soon flourishing. Fuelled by the wealth that lay upon the sand, the village quickly grew to include a hospital (which housed the first x-ray unit in the southern hemisphere), a school, casino, theatre, ballroom, gymnasium, skittle-alley and even an ice factory. Mansions were built for the senior mine officials in the midst of the sand dunes and Kolmanskop became one of the wealthiest communities in Africa at that time.
Of course water was in short supply and some had to be shipped from Cape Town to Luderitz and then carried by mule to Kolmanskop. The balance of the water came via a pipeline from Elizabeth Bay and even from a small desalination plant. Every morning an ice block and fresh water was delivered to each of the houses, bringing some comfort in the heat of the desert. At its peak, some seven hundred families resided in Kolmanskop.
Shortly after the First World War, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, the Chairman of the Anglo-American Company established the Consolidated Diamond Mines (CDM) by buying up the small diamond companies that had operated in the area. CDM, in fact controlled the diamond mining in this area until 1995 when NAMDEB was formed under the new government of Namibia.
It wasn’t long after the First World War, though, that diamond sales began to drop, and with the discovery of rich diamond fields to the south, near the mouth of the Orange River, prospectors began to leave Kolmanskop. The last residents left in 1956 although mining had stopped some years earlier, and the desert soon began to reclaim its own.
Today it is a “ghost town” and a tourist attraction. Many of the buildings have been restored to show something of their former glory, but the real interest probably lies in those that have been more or less abandoned to the desert. The massive sand dunes have moved forward, depositing many tons of sand into the formerly proud residences, providing ample evidence of the effort that must have been applied to keep them clean and livable during the boom years.
Kolmanskop is well worth a visit, and the little museum provides a wealth of information on the boom years of the diamond industry in the area.