Tag Archives: Luderitz

The Ghost Town of Kolmanskop

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.

The wild horses of the Namib Desert

Visitors en route to Luderitz mostly have to pass through the plains of the Garub – a vast, barren expanse of land that is part of the Namib desert.   In this unlikely territory one can see the wild horses of the Namib – a unique breed of horses that has adapted to survive in isolation in the harshest environment imaginable.  With limited food and water and extreme weather conditions, their existence in this part of the world is nothing short of remarkable.

First sighting of a group of horses

Part of the mystery of these feral horses is that no-one is one hundred percent certain of their origin, although there is speculation that their forebears were domesticated and worked in the service of the German cavalry at the time of the occupation.

Feral horse close to the road

Other theories include horses swimming ashore when a ship was wrecked off the coast at the mouth of the Orange River, and horses escaping from Duwisib Castle, where Baron Hans-Heinrich von Wolf bred horses before his death in the First World War.

Wild horses - stunning backdrop

Every year thousands of visitors are fascinated by these wild horses and the sheer beauty of the area that they live in.

Stunning scenery

There have been interventions by humans on behalf of the horses in times of severe drought and a water hole has now been established with a hide overlooking the site.  Visitors are often lucky enough to see other indigenous wildlife drinking water, as the horses share the area with ostriches, gemsbok and springbok as well as the numerous birds of the plains.

Grazing close to the road

The closest campsite (approx. 20 kilometers) to the Garub plains is at Klein Aus Vista, appropriately named the Desert Horse Campsite, where we spent the night before driving on to Luderitz.  Here they have ten well-appointed sites under camel thorn trees.

Campsite at Klein Aus

Surrounded by the Aus Mountains, the energetic visitor can take a short hike up the hill and be rewarded with a spectacular sunset over the sweeping desert plains.  A wonderful spot and seeing the wild horses is even more rewarding!

Shark Island – Namibia’s landmark of shame

We planned to spend Easter weekend at Luderitz, camping on Shark Island. As any traveler knows, it pays to do a little research on an area before visiting it to make the visit more interesting. The facts about Shark Island are rather chilling.

Shark Island campsite

Shark Island, the only campsite in Luderitz, was the setting for one of the low points in the history of Namibia, or rather South West Africa, as it was known at that time. The site of  a concentration camp operated by German forces between 1905 and 1907 during the war between the indigenous Herero and Nama people and the Germans, history paints a gruesome picture of the atrocities that were carried out on Shark Island at that time. The sunshine of the Namib desert did little to warm the hearts of the brutal German occupiers, who left a trail of death and destruction as they decimated the local population.

Shark Island campsite

Situated on a rocky peninsula, Shark Island (or Haifisch Island) overlooks the little harbour of Luderitz. When the weather is calm it is an idyllic spot, but it is almost as if the elements want to remind those who dare to enjoy themselves here of the spot’s brutal history, and cruel winds whip off the cold Atlantic Ocean to show the harsh reality of life on this island.

Luderitz harbour from Shark Island

During the war prisoners were housed in whatever tents were available, with very little to protect them from the  harsh environment. They were beaten and raped by their captors on a daily basis. The majority died of exposure, hunger, disease and cold, and they were all, including women and children, forced to work as labourers on the railway lines and other building projects around Luderitz.  Prisoners died at a rate of about eighteen a day.  It is said that their bodies were buried in shallow graves on the beach at low tide and when the incoming tide washed them into the sea, sharks devoured their remains. Is this where the island earned it gruesome name? Other bodies were allegedly sent to Europe for research on racial anatomy.

View from island to mainland

Today a memorial on the Island honours Cornelius Fredericks (the most prominent of the indigenous guerilla leaders during the war) as well as the brave men, women and children who perished on the island, but history hasn’t entirely been portrayed in a sensitive manner on Shark Island as there are numerous plaques honouring the Germans who lost their lives in the war as well.

Cornelius Fredericks memorial

During our short stay we also experienced  the ‘ill wind’ that blows over the island and after enduring a gale for most of the night, we pulled down our rooftop tent and slept in our car. It gave us a small sense of the enormity of what the prisoners must have endured so many years ago. The next morning we packed up and left Shark Island a day earlier than intended. It was not a place to linger for too long.