Old mining towns and Bogenfels arch
by Ron Swilling
The desert around Lüderitz is steeped in mining history. Tales of diamond smuggling and intrigue abound, and the sands cover and uncover remnants of the lives of those intrepid folk who ventured into this remote arid region to live in the small mining towns scattered amongst the gravel plains of the Namib Desert.
The old railway siding of Grasplatz is where it all began in 1906. Shifting sand dunes made it necessary for teams of workers to clear the tracks on a daily basis. It was here that Zacharias Lewala found the sparkling gem that set off the diamond rush to the area and resulted in a handful of small towns springing up in the inhospitable terrain. Kolmanskop, 10 km outside of Lüderitz, was the first town to be developed—all its building material, supplies and water brought by ship from Cape Town.
Afterwards, the rush spread southwards and the small mining settlements of Pomona and Bogenfels sprang up. The populations usually comprised families with children and an Oshiwambo-speaking workforce. The houses for the elite, such as the mine managers, were ostentatiously large, with Kolmanskop bathrooms even boasting a marble bath, and then becoming smaller and smaller according to the occupant’s decreasing status level. Trappings of high living included a fully-fledged skittle alley, a concert hall complete with stage, and a soda factory. Today the long buildings that housed these facilities lie disintegrating in the sand, as testimony to a short-lived age of frivolous luxury.
A harsh and thirsty world
Although Kolmanskop can easily be visited from Lüderitz—or Lüderitzbucht (Lüderitz Bay) as the Buchters still like to call it—the later settlements lie abandoned in the Sperrgebiet and can be visited only on an organised tour. Coastways is a tour operator with concession rights to enter the Sperrgebiet, offering a guided day tour southwards through the desert, stopping at the ghost towns as desert sands build up and attempt to reclaim their land, causing roofs to fall in and walls to crumble. The highlight of the tour is Bogenfels, a massive rock arch that straddles the coastline and sea, comparable to a 20-storey building at an impressive height of 55 metres.
On its back window the Coastways vehicle has two cautionary stickers that epitomise the area. One depicts the solitary brown hyaena of the desert region and the other the strong winds for which Lüderitz is notorious. Our first stop is Grillental, an old fresh-water station that was utilised for its underground water, a boon in an area that was devoid of the life-giving fluid. As we drive on through the diverse terrain and vegetation of the desert, and co-lours transform from browns and oranges to earthy yellows, our guide chats about the fascinating mys-teries and stories of the time; the need for German women for the eligible young men to marry; chickens ordered to be slaughtered for the possible diamonds in their bellies; and castor oil that had to be drunk by workers when their contracts were completed to ensure that they didn’t carry any sparkling stones back home with them.
We motor up a sand dune and drive down its slip-face to the accompaniment of the dune ‘roar’ing below us. Vegetation changes with the rainfall it has received, and in an area that receives only 15–30 mm per year, most of the gravel plains are bone dry. In places, long yellow grass blows in the breeze, and in others, lithops—the so-called stone plants—cling tenaciously among the gravels. The pink flowers of the spiky Bushman’s candle are delicate symbols of hope in an otherwise harsh and thirsty world. Rock cairns supporting poles appear here and there, remainders of the faith of many who staked their claims on the land. Rusting remains of the mining industry litter the ground and barrels, once used for transporting water by mules to the settlements, lie discarded across the sand.
Eroded by time
When we reach Pomona, two flat-topped hills appear, surrounded by small gravel heaps created from tailings from the search for stones. Narrow railway tracks lie rusting in the sand from this lifeline that joined communities together and enabled supplies to be transported in between. The houses hold a beauty in their disintegrating frames, and like in Kolmanskop, make picturesque subjects to photograph. It is easy to imagine the skittle alley bustling with after-work residents, and the mine manager and his family in the large house that has 1912 inscribed on its outer wall.
A lunch of Wiener Schnitzel and potato salad is set out on tables in the old schoolhouse and I feel that even the ghosts have abandoned the skeleton of this building for the day.
Driving further, springbok pronk into the air and a black-backed jackal disappears into the desert. A mist bank appears on the horizon, a strip of blue and then a shi-ning ocean and the Bogenfels rock arch. Eroded by time and a crashing sea, the arch towers above the group gazing up at it, cameras in hand. In the distance, the new Bogenfels plant and the old ruins vie with each other for attention in the bleak world. The drive back is spiced with inside information on life in Lüderitz and a group of people that are still linked to the mining world, its successes, disappointments and dreams.
This article appeared in the Dec ‘10/ Jan ‘11 edition of Travel News Namibia.