Oranjemund is a small town in the far south-western corner of Namibia, situated – as the name implies – at the mouth of the Orange River, where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
It is an unusual town, because although it has a population of about 4 000 – a small to medium town by Namibian standards – it is ‘closed’ to the general public, is not part of the national local government system, and is run by the Namibian diamond-mining company, Namdeb, a subsidiary of De Beers.
You still need a reason and a permit to go there (there is a security-card-operated turnstile to leave the small airport!)
Formerly an almost uninhabited area, Oranjemund was founded in the 1930s to cater for the workers of the company exploiting the lower Orange River alluvial diamond deposits, which were discovered by the legendary geologist Hans Merensky, who also discovered the world’s richest platinum deposits in South Africa.
Oranjemund has one school, one supermarket, one roundabout and one hospital, but at least six churches!
There is a library containing rather venerable books and a fascinating small museum. Nearly everything is owned and run by Namdeb, including the school, with undoubted advantages for the inhabitants.
For instance, until recently, water, electricity and local telephone calls were free.
Unlike in most of Namibia, there is plenty of water, because of the perennial Orange River close by, so there is an abundance of public gardens, lawns and huge shade trees. Do not expect to see any diamonds, however – the mining operations are situated well out of town, and surrounded by impenetrable security.
Although there are a few modern structures, most of the buildings and houses date from the early founding days of the 1940s and 1950s, so that when in the town you experience a strong sense of being in a time capsule.
Similarly, when flying overhead and seeing the compactly laid-out little town surrounded by the boundless rolling sands, and ocean, you are reminded of science fiction classics like Solaris. The frequent, thick early-morning fogs add to the sense of other-worldliness.
On the ground, in the sunshine, the scenery is spectacular, with the timeless landscape of the river threading though the Namib Desert and merging peacefully, almost imperceptibly, into the sea.
On the horizon you can see the other diamond mining settlement of Alexander Bay in South Africa, and the modern Oppenheimer Bridge linking the two towns. Until recently, the only road link to the town was via Alexander Bay, also a restricted area, which took care of unwanted visitors.
A new road leading to the other largely one-company town of Rosh Pinah has now been constructed.
Both the road and Oranjemund itself have just been proclaimed, which means that the town is now a real municipality.
It’s not freely accessible to the public quite yet though – Namdeb and the Ministry of Mines still have to make some security arrangements to ensure that visitors do not have the opportunity for unofficial diamond prospecting.
When Oranjemund is finally open, it would be fun if some entrepreneur could organise a trans-Namibian road race, say from Katima via the Caprivi and Kalahari Desert, through the streets of Windhoek, southwards through the Namib, and ending at the Oranjemund roundabout!
It would be a fitting rival to the Paris Dakar rally.
This article appeared in the Sept'11 edition of FLAMINGO Magazine.
Photos courtesy of media photos from http://www.namdeb.com/multi_photo_gallery.php?cId=11