Kolmanskop: Where Dreams Turned to Dust
“. . . there are soft boundaries between what is real and what is remembered, and each place in front of us is somewhere else too.”
– Deb Wilenski
As I gaze towards the outlines of the scattered buildings in front of me I marvel at how uninviting they look in the half-light of a cold, grey morning. I’ve long dreamed of visiting Kolmanskop in this tucked away corner of Namibia, but for a brief moment as I hover outside the gate I fail to experience the tingle of excitement I expected to feel. I shrug off my disappointment, pull my jacket closer to my body to brace myself against the wind, and head towards where the buildings peter out at the edge of what was once one of the richest towns on earth.
Nothing remains of the European luxuries that once abound in Kolmanskop. The hospital which is said to have housed the first X-ray machine in Southern Africa now hunker down against the onslaught of a persistent wind, and while the theater, ballroom, sports hall with skittles alley, and ice factory have been partially restored, the rest of the town is slowly being swallowed by the Namib Desert. The small tram line that was constructed to help residents avoid the inconvenience of trudging through sand, and the champagne, fresh caviar and strawberries that could be found in the local grocery store, now feel more like figments of someone’s imagination than the truth.
The wheels of fate Zacharias Lewala set in motion on an ordinary workday in April 1908, when he showed his boss the strange stone he picked up while working on the railway line at Grasplatz have not only changed the fortunes of the people who got sucked into the ensuing diamond rush to this inhospitable place, but also the landscape. Although diamonds were discovered in a variety of places in the area, it was Kolmanskop that became the centre of the thriving industry. It is said that diamonds were so prolific in Märchental, or Fairytale Valley, close to Pomona that diamonds were twinkling like stars in the moonlight, and that workers crawled around on their hands and knees picking them up with tweezers from among the rocks and dust. In a rather bizarre attempt to prevent theft the workers were said to have been locked up for the night in sleeping quarters that resembled coffins.
The scarcity of water did not dampen development. A monthly supply of a thousand tons of fresh water was initially shipped to Kolmanskop all the way from the Cape in South Africa, until the problem was solved by an underground aquifer that was found at Grillental which fed four boreholes that could then supply the surrounding mines and settlements with the fresh water they needed. At a time when one out of every five diamonds in the world came from the area, 300 hundred German adults, 40 children, and 800 Ovambo workers called Kolmanskop home. But the boom was short lived, and with the changing fates of the World Wars, depression, and discovery of higher deposits of alluvial diamonds in Oranjemund, mining in Kolmanskop ceased in 1930.
Walking through the remains of this one’s thriving community it is hard to fathom the excesses and luxuries that coloured daily life, although hints linger in the architecture, fittings, fading patterns and colours on the walls, and peeling wallpaper.
The notes of the resident orchestra have been replaced by the moan of the wind, the saltwater swimming pool has been emptied by the rays of the sun; and the memory of children’s laughter echo only in my mind and not the empty school building I shuffle through.
No longer controlled by the whims of human hearts and hands, the desert is gradually returning to its original state of equilibrium, or at least doing its best to do so. The gardens with their manicured lawns, rosebushes and eucalyptus trees would have been the first to disappear. In all likelihood long before the last couple of families eventually left town in 1956.
Its current inhabitants, those tiny critters who come out after the heavy footsteps of the tourists have retreated for the day, don’t care about the past, or changing fortunes of those who once dreamed and laughed here. Their tiny imprints on the sand, and subtle interplay of light and shadow, both inside and outside the crumbling buildings, fill me with a nostalgic sadness as I am reminded of just how fleeting our presence on earth really is.
When I leave the last crumbling mansion, I think of Zacharias Lewala, and wonder if he also managed to make his fortune. If he did, history is silent about it, as it was his boss, August Stauch that in the end got credited for discovering the rich diamond fields, and who became a very wealthy man. For a while at least, because in a twist of irony he lost his fortune in 1931, and died a poor man in April 1947 in his home town of Ettenhausen in Germany of stomach cancer.
## Diamonds in the Desert: The Story of August Staunch and His Times by Olga Levinson (Published by Tafelberg in 1983)
** Click on any image to view bigger versions of the photographs.
# Opening hours is from 8h00-13h00. Guided tours are included in the entrance ticket and take place at 9h30 and 11h00, except for a Sunday and Public Holidays when there is only one tour at 10h00. The Champagne Bar in the erstwhile casino now serves as a restaurant where visitors can enjoy breakfast or a light lunch. (8h30-13h00)
Entrance fee is N$100 for adults, and N$20 for children (6-14 years).
If you want to visit Kolmanskop outside of opening hours for sunrise or sunset, you need to obtain a Photo permit beforehand, which you have to display on the dashboard of your car when you park just outside the main gate. This costs N$235 per person, and can be bought from Lüderitz Safaris & Tours in Bismarck Street. (They are open until 18h00.)
Remember to be sensible when exploring the buildings, and to dress appropriately for the conditions.
# Mining operations included Charlottental, Meob, Conception Bay, Grillenthal, Bogenfels, Elizabeth Bay and Pomona, where abandoned buildings face the same fate as those in Kolmanskop, but as they are in the Sperrgebiet (prohibited area), where mining operations continue today, it is not possible to visit them independently. Coastways Tours in Lüderitz does hold a concession for a tour into the Sperrgebiet, which, since February 2009, is also a National Park, and includes a visit to Pomona ghost town, which clocks the highest average wind speeds in Southern Africa. This is not a tour you can decide on at the spur of the moment, though, as you need to send them a copy of your passport at least a week in advance for them to arrange the appropriate permits.
# What is today known as Lüderitz was historically called Angra Pequena (Little Bay) by the Portuguese explorers who happened upon it in 1488. It makes for a great base to explore the area (Kolmanskop is only 11km out of town), and is a lovely town to discover on foot if the wind isn’t blowing. Spend at least two nights here, as both Felsenkirche and Goerke Haus are only open for an hour or two a day.
# There is something about abandoned places that stir my soul, especially when I find myself completely alone in them, as I did in Kolmanskop. Other favourite abandoned villages of mine are Kayakoy in Turkey, and Jazirat al Hamra in the UAE.
Visited: February 2019