By Ron Swilling
Although today the roofs of the old ghost town are tumbling in and sand blow through doorways to create artistic masterpieces and provide inspiring photographic subject matter, the old mining town of Kolmanskop was a bustling centre in the early years of the twentieth century. Champagne flowed freely and women flaunted the latest fashions from Europe, taking the small train to the butcher, baker and general dealer so as not embellish their hems with desert sand.
It all began in 1908 when railway worker, Zacharias Lewala, picked up the first sparkling stone while sweeping sand off the line between Kolmanskop and Grasplatz, 28 kilometres from the town of Lüderitz. Before long, as Lüderitz and German South West Africa awoke to the fact that the desert was awash with diamonds glittering by the light of the moon, the rush was on. Prospectors flocked to stake their claims.
Mining towns sprang up in the desert and ‘Kolmannskuppe’ became the centre of the burgeoning diamond industry, boasting a skittle alley, hospital, entertainment hall and, by 1911, electricity. Goods and materials were imported from the Cape Colony and Europe. Water posed a problem, however, and the towns depended on the precious resource being brought by ship from the Cape, the desalination plant at Lüderitzbucht and the few isolated wells in the area.
By the onset of World War I, more than 1 000 kilograms/5 000 000 carats of diamonds had been processed in the region. The war put a stop to diamond sales and only a minimal amount of the raw stones were processed. In 1927 larger diamond fields were discovered further south, close to the Orange River, and by 1936 the processing plant in Kolmanskop had ceased operating.
In the 1990s Kolmanskop was officially opened to the public as a tourist destination, allowing visitors to imagine the hey-day in the desert and entertain fleeting diamond dreams.
Read about the Skeleton National Park: Namibia’s National Parks: Where Do All the Skeletons Come From?
This post was originally published in the Travel News Namibia Autumn 2013 print edition.