Namibia: Luderitz & Kolmanskop

13th July - 29th July 2002


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Luderitz sits on a natural harbour, surrounded by desert. The harbour is considered to be one of the finest natural harbours along the whole southwestern coast of Africa. The early Portuguese explorers first used this natural harbour while searching for a sea route to India. Later on the Portuguese stopped using the harbour and for nearly three centuries the harbour only existed on maritime charts under the name of Angra das Voltas. In 1883 a German merchant, Adolf Luderitz from Bremen sent Heinrich Vogelsang to Angra das Voltas to establish a trading post. On the 1st May he concluded an agreement with the local chief, Chief Joseph Fredericks, to buy the Bay of Angra Pequena and all the land extending five miles in each direction. In August of the same year a second agreement was made with Chief Fredericks for the Luderitz Company to buy all the coastal territory stretching 137km inland north of the Orange River to 26 degrees south latitude.

Chief Fredericks later disputed this agreement about how far the territory reached inland so the Luderitz Company sent a request to the German government for protection. In April 1884 the area around Luderitz was declared a German protectorate. Adolf Luderitz sold the land and rights in 1885 to the Deutsche Kolonial Gesellschaft fur Sudwest Africa (DKG) and died a year later while sailing north from the Orange River. The town was renamed Luderitzbucht in his memory. Luderitzbucht continued as a quiet trading post, mainly because of the lack of fresh water, which had to be shipped in from Cape Town. In 1904 the Nama people rose up against German colonial rule. This uprising fuelled the development of Luderitzbucht, as it became a major port for German military supplies. An 80m long jetty was built in Robert Harbour and the construction of a railway line from Luderitz to Aus, 125km east, was approved in December 1905.

In May 1907 August Stauch arrived in Luderitz as the new Bahnmeister of the Luderitz to Aus railway line. He instructed his labourers to look out for unusual stones while working on the line. In May 1908 a labourer, Zacharias Lewala, was clearing sand from the line near Kolmanskop when he discovered a glittering stone. He handed it to Stauch; it turned out to be a diamond. As news of the discovery reached the outside world a diamond rush gripped the desert. By September of 1908 the sole right to prospect and mine minerals in the Forbidden Territory was granted to the DKG. The forbidden territory stretched from the Orange River in the south to the 26 degrees south latitude in the north and from the coast, inland east for 100km. This area is still today a prohibited area known as Diamond Area 1.

Arriving in Luderitz is a surreal experience. After travelling hundreds of kilometres through endless desert, past rock-strewn plateaus and seas of sand I found myself in what appeared to be a Bavarian town beside the sea. It was quiet on this Sunday morning and I was dropped off outside the Luderitz Backpackers on Schinz Strasse. The door was open but there was no one at home. A note on the reception desk gave a number to phone to let the owner know if anyone arrived; a phone card was under the note. I phoned before making myself at home sitting in the lounge contemplating the journey I had just hitchhiked and promising myself that I would never hitch again. I knew that this would be a promise I wouldn't keep for long. I soon met another guest staying there, Paul from France. We played table tennis for a while until the owner arrived. The hostel was very quiet and laid back, within keeping with the rest of the town.

I asked the owner what people do for fun in Luderitz on a Sunday. Apparently the Sunday eat all you can buffet, at the Nest Hotel was the main Sunday activity. At midday, Paul and myself walked along the dusty streets along the bay to the Nest Hotel. The bright green lawn stood out like a beacon along the rocky shore, a rare sight along this stretch of desert coast. The buffet was excellent and it appeared that every white resident in town was there. After Paul and I had finished lunch we walked slowly back to the Backpackers, unable to do anything more energetic after eating a huge, three course lunch. Later in the afternoon I went for a walk around the town. The town centre is very small and compact stretching around Robert Harbour to the north, Radford Bay to the west and surrounded by desert hills on the other sides. It is the kind of town where you would never find a traffic jam; there are just not enough cars here. This had the advantage of making the town a quiet and peaceful place, apart from the howling of the wind. The wind is one major feature of the weather here, which can blow relentlessly for days at a time, as well as the sea mist rolling in from the cold ocean. You could not escape from the sand and dust, which blew everywhere through the town from the surrounding desert.

The town is packed with architectural gems from the German colonial period, a hybrid mix of Imperial German and Art Nouveau styles. Despite the relatively short colonial occupation by the Germans their legacy remains in the architecture of the towns and cities. Luderitz is the jewel of this architectural heritage. On the corner of Bismarck and Bahnhof Strasse is the colonial railway station, a grand and impressive building. During my visit the railway line from Keetmanshoop was closed so that the line could be upgraded to carry heavier loads from the port. This left the station looking abandoned, sand and litter covering the tracks. Nearly every street revealed something of interest, some reminder of Luderitz's colonial past. Many of the houses were painted in bright colours, blue, red and orange being just some, which added some jollity to the town in the absence of any natural vegetation.

The most striking and visible building from most of the town is the Goerke Haus, perched on a rock overlooking the harbour. It really looked like it had been transplanted from Bavaria and rebuilt here in the desert. Near to the Goerke Haus on Diamond Hill is the Evangelical Lutheran church, the Felsenkirche, built in 1911. It dominates Luderitz from its position on this rocky hill. The church is opened to the public for an hour each evening. I waited outside with a small group of German tourists, trying to shelter from the wind, which blew off the ocean as the sun slowly sank towards the horizon. The church is famous for it's stained glass windows including the window above the alter, which was donated by Kaiser Wilhelm II. The windows looked spectacular as the glow of the setting sun shone through, illuminating the church in a myriad of colours.

When I returned to the Backpackers in the evening I found some more guests had arrived, two girls from Holland with a hire car, a valuable asset in this vast, sparsely populated country. Together with Paul, the four of us agreed to go and visit the ghost town of Kolmanskop the following morning.

The diamonds lying in the desert along the coast north of the Orange River are alluvial diamonds. They originally came from the rich diamond seam at Kimberley, in the Northern Cape of South Africa. Through erosion they were washed into the Orange River and then washed by the river down into the ocean. There is a very strong cold-water ocean current known as the Benguela Current that flows north along the coast of South Africa and Namibia from the southern ocean towards the tropics. This current washed the diamonds along the seabed and north up the coast of Namibia until they were deposited on the beach. From the beach the wind then blew them inland and across the desert for distances of up to 100km. The boundary of the forbidden Diamond Area 1 encompasses this area where the diamonds have been washed up and blown in the wind. The further north along the coast from the Orange River the smaller the diamonds become, hence the largest diamond found in Namibia was discovered at the mouth of the Orange River. When diamonds were first discovered they were literally picked up from the surface of the desert. Early miners used to crawl on their bellies in the night, looking for diamonds glinting in the moonlight.

Kolmanskop was built as a mining centre after the discovery of diamonds in the desert around Luderitz in 1908. It is 8km east along the main road out of Luderitz near the airport and just south across the railway line. The town was named after Jani Kolman, an Afrikaner trekker whose ox-wagon became bogged in the sand here. The town is built on the eastern side of the low rocky hills that divide Luderitz and the coast from the shifting sand dunes inland; it is a very desolate and isolated location. During the height of the diamond rush, money was no objective and mine workers built elaborate houses out here in the desert. The town also boasted a theatre with a skittle alley, a hospital and a row of shops providing groceries, bread and meat. The most elaborate commercial premises were the ice works. Each household was given a block of ice each morning, which served a dual purpose. It was placed in a cold store in the kitchen to provide refrigeration and as it melted the fresh water was collected for drinking and cooking with. The power to drive this town in the desert and all the modern comforts provided came from a large power station built on the shores of Radford Bay in Luderitz. Coal was shipped from Germany to fuel it and it provided enough power for both Luderitz and Kolmanskop. Nearly everything was imported from Germany, from mining equipment, building materials, the latest hospital equipment to fuel, food and clothes. At the theatre the latest stage shows from Germany would be preformed with the original cast. Despite the isolation and the harsh terrain for hundreds of kilometres around Kolmanskop, it must have felt like a home away from home. Diamonds made anything possible.

In 1928 rich diamond deposits were found on the northern banks of the Orange River. The focus of the diamond industry headed south and by 1938 most of the equipment and workers at Kolmanskop had relocated to the new, richer deposits at Oranjemund. By 1956 the last residents had left Kolmanskop and the desert began to reclaim what man had built.

Today Kolmanskop is a deserted ghost town. As you approach the town it looks almost like an illusion, the once grand buildings rising out of the sand dunes. It is a popular tourist site with two guided tours a morning around the town; we arrived in time for the first tour. Some of the buildings have been restored to their former glory, including the theatre and skittle alley, which can be hired for special occasions. Inside the restored houses you could appreciate the standard of living here during the towns hey day. The houses were large, two floors, balconies, high ceilings, wooden floors and large sash windows. Once inside the house you could almost forget that there was a desert on your doorstep. Most of the buildings though had not weathered the harsh conditions here over almost half a century very well. The wind had taken its toll, sandblasting the brickwork, blowing off roofs and driving sand dunes through the doors and windows. There was always an eerie creak or groan from the buildings as the wind gusted, blowing through the broken windows, or under the roof. Some houses were so full of sand that you had to crawl through the door to get inside; others had collapsed walls where the sheer weight of sand had eventually won against mans construction.

Diamond mining still continues in the area and there is strict security at the checkpoint by Kolmanskop to enter the forbidden area. Every vehicle is searched and you can only enter with a permit, which is not easy to obtain unless you are a mine employee or on official business. The wind is still blowing and the sand is still shifting, so it is only time before the desert gives up some more of it's treasures. With today's modern technology mining has moved out into the ocean, looking for the channels in the seabed that the Benguela current washes the diamonds along. The Elizabeth Bay mine 24km south of Luderitz is still producing diamonds, as are beach and shallow marine contractors.

By lunchtime I returned to Luderitz and spent the rest of the day relaxing. I ate lunch at a local restaurant along Kratzplatz Strasse and dinner at the Kapps Hotel. During the afternoon I did some research on where to go and what to do with the last few days of my trip. I hadn't yet bought a flight home to London but I had pencilled in the last week of July as a return date. When I reached the capital, Windhoek I would make my final arrangements. The clock was against me and as much as I would of liked to spend some more time in Luderitz I decided that the following day I would try and hitchhike to Windhoek. Somehow the memory of the ride I had hitched a few days earlier had faded and I felt confident once again to go and stand beside the highway taking my chances.

Continue reading this journey: Journeying to Windhoek