A Namibian ghost town

NEIL RATLEY
Last updated 11:00 21/03/2013
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Neil Ratley

SANDCASTLE: This former German community in Namibia was once thriving during the diamond rush. It's now a ghost town being eaten by the desert.

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Neil Ratley
SAND DUNES: The once opulent home is being flooded by sand.
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Neil Ratley
A SLOW MOVING SWELL: A vast desert ocean is pouring through the open doorways and windows like water.

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The once opulent home is being flooded by sand. A vast desert ocean is pouring through the open doorways and windows like water through the breaches of a doomed ship.

In the southern reaches of Namibia, the once thriving town of Kolmanskop is sinking. The vast dunes of the Namib Desert - like a slow moving swell - are enveloping the abandoned buildings and gradually drowning out any signs of a once thriving settlement.

As I stand in Kolmanskop, now a ghost town fighting an unwinnable war to stave off the hungry desert, there is a deathly silence that seems far removed from what was once a town buzzing with diamond fever and more importantly life.

When diamonds were discovered around Kolmanskop it was said they were in such abundance it was common practice for prospectors to crawl around on their stomachs under the full moon and pick up the sparkling stones by the dozen with their bare hands.

It was just over 100 years ago when a railway worker by the name of Zacharias Lewala found a sparkling stone in the white expanse of the desert while clearing sand from the railway line. When he showed the shiny rock to his German supervisor it started a diamond rush that continues to make the desert of south-western Namibia an important resource for both the world's largest diamond company, De Beers, and the Namibian government.

A few kilometres inland from the port town of Luderitz, Kolmanskop became the centre of the Namibian diamond rush and once the German authorities realised the abundance of diamonds in the region they declared it a Sperrgebiet (Forbidden Area). Only those sanctioned by the German government were permitted to enter.

Today visitors still need to obtain a permit - available from operators in Luderitz - to visit the remains of Kolmanskop as it remains in the Sperrgebiet.

Driven by the enormous wealth of the original diamond miners, Kolmanskop rose out of the desert - a Bavarian village instead of surrounded by the Alps, hemmed in by mountains of sand.

The German architects replicated the styles of home with amenities and institutions that included a hospital, ballroom, power station, school, skittle-alley, theater, sports hall, casino, ice factory and the first x-ray-station in the southern hemisphere, as well as the first tram in Africa.

There was also a railway link to Luderitz so the town folk could enjoy a day at the seaside.

The rail service like the inhabitants of Kolmanskop has disappeared so I made my journey by car through the unforgiving landscape of shifting sand and lunar rock formations. I was conscious not to take a wrong turn or pull to seek my fortune because the Sperrgebiet surrounds the road in and out of Luderitz and if anyone is caught wandering in the restricted zone there is still a chance of being shot at by armed guards.

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While the lure of finding a diamond lying in the sand was tempting, I was looking forward to getting back to Luderitz alive and enjoying a big steak and a cold German beer that evening.

Kolmanskop's history is short. In a span of 40 years the town had lived, flourished and died. It is an eerie feeling picking your way through the remains of a dead town as the desert moves in, devouring the sun bleached skeletons of the last defiant dwellings.

Visitors to the ghost town can take an hour-long tour offered daily from Monday to Friday. The tour reflects on the town's boom and bust. A museum established by De Beers in 1980 displays old mining implements and an extensive collection of photographs from the town's halcyon days when around 300 Germans adults, 40 children and 800 Owambo contract workers called Kolmanskop home.

The shopkeeper's house, the restored mine captain's residence, the butchery, gym and skittles alley are all worth an inspection but the fading glory of Kolmanskop is best experienced after the tour when you can wander through decaying buildings, many the former homes of miners and their families, on your own.

I walk down an empty hallway where I feel if I strain my ears hard enough I'll hear the footfall of the kinders' feet running to meet their papa after a day digging for diamonds. A parlour that in the past welcomed visitors is devoid of any furniture except for the scattered and shattered remains of a dining table or a cabinet. It's hard to tell. There is no aroma of brot (bread) or kuchen (cake) wafting out of the derelict kitchen because the hausfrau is long gone.

Creeping up a leaning staircase I dare not rest my hand too firmly on the banister. On the second floor I enter a desolate bedroom. In some small way it feels like I am intruding. The loving couple who once lay close to each other, possibly fresh faced settlers coming to terms with the solitude of a foreign land far away from the verdant green alps or a pair of hardened souls chasing one last chance at fortune are nowhere to be seen. I can't shake the feeling of being an uninvited guest.

I walk across the creaking floorboards to a rectangular opening in the wall. Shards of glass lie scattered on the floor below what was once a window and I try to imagine what the occupants must have thought of their view. There is nothing to stop grains of sand floating on the breeze from gently scratching my face as I stare out to a blinding sea of shimmering white on the endless horizon.

Kolmanskop reached its pinnacle in the 1920's. However after World War I the diamond prices crashed and the discovery of even more profitable fields to the south signaled the beginning of the end for the town. A small haven of German culture in one of the driest places on earth began to evaporate. By 1956 the last resident had gone and with no one left to defy it, the desert began to move back in.

On the hilltop that overlooks the town there is an old water tank, just another symbol of the obstacles that challenged those trying to survive without the natural resources essential to sustain life. A scurrying lizard pauses briefly on a rock beside me. A reminder that maybe it's just the human species that tries to flourish where it shouldn't.

The wind picks up. I head back down the hill and wander through several more crumbling buildings. A few are putting up a brave fight against the tide of sand but most seemed resigned to their fate. Eventually the desert will prevail and only the history books will tell of the relatively fleeting existence of Kolmanskop.

Where Oompah bands played to finely dressed Germans in a gilded ballroom, ice was delivered each morning to homes and housewives, brooms in hand, waged a futile war at their thresholds against the endless onslaught of the Namib Desert.

Getting there

Plane A number of airlines fly into and out of Namibia. Including Air Namibia, British Airways/Comair and South African Airways.

Bus Intercape Mainliner buses offer a service to Namibia from Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Victoria Falls. Visit the Intercape Bus page for bookings and information including routes and timetables.

Staying there

Bay View Hotel Prices from $55. A budget hotel with a friendly family atmosphere.

Island Cottage Prices from $15. Well-equipped and maintained self-catering apartments on Shark Island

Luderitz Nest Hotel Prices from $75. A prime sea-front location is complimented with sea facing rooms, a top class restaurant and a private beach

Seaview Hotel zum Sperrgebiet Prices from $90. A 22-room hotel with sea views - facilities include a heated swimming pool and sauna.

Shark Island Resort Prices from $15. Budget accommodation on Shark Island

- Stuff

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