It’s tempting for anyone driving to northern Namibia to visit Etosha National Park, the traditional land of the Owambo people, and the lush green regions of Kavango and Caprivi, while ignoring one of Namibia’s smaller towns en route – Tsumeb.
Tsumeb is a hidden gem, literally and figuratively, and to miss out on a two- or three-night visit is quite frankly a mistake – a missed opportunity to delve a little deeper into Namibia’s fascinating past, to miss out on unique Namibian geological formations – two deep, ice-blue ‘bottomless’ lakes and fascinating caves – and, of course, the biggest meteorite known to man.
Besides, if you forego a chance to overnight in Tsumeb, you would lose out on viewing an ancient ostrich-eggshell necklace thought to have been crafted in a creative moment some ten thousand years ago.
Most of all, you would be missing out on the amazing people, who have cooperatively managed to forge an astounding, fascinating collective memory – one that contains an underwater museum, gives you a glimpse into the ancient traditions of the Bushmen, provides an unexpected insight into Namibia’s industrial revolution, and conveys the many stories around the famed ‘green hill’.
As described by one writer: “Tsumeb can justifiably be listed among the greatest natural wonders of earth. Never before has a mineral source delivered so much extraordinary material, mineralogically and aesthetically speaking, in all phases over a period of almost one hundred years.”
Over the past century many of these world-famous minerals, which attracted an array of eccentric mineral hunters from across the world and gave rise to several mineral conspiracies, can be gleaned at the wonderful Tsumeb Museum.
Renowned for a wealth of rare and unusual minerals, it is estimated that of the 52 mineral specimens first discovered in the Tsumeb environs during the copper-mining years, 40 are known to occur only in the green hill. In total, 242 different minerals have been mined in and around Tsumeb, of which 40 have not yet been identified.
The minerals here are known to be so perfectly and purely crystallised that many mineral enthusiasts praise this town as being home to some of the finest crystals ever formed and discovered.
The name Tsumeb, derived from the Bushman word tsombtsou, means ‘to dig a hole that collapsed again’.
The Bushmen are thought to have lived close to the Green Hill, and took pains to conceal its existence from competing tribes. They recognised the immense wealth of the knoll – coloured green by the rich copper and mineral deposits, and kept it a secret from others for centuries. Sadly, their attempts to settle close to the hill failed, because they struggled in vain to dig a well to supply water.
It is claimed that despite numerous attempts, the brittle dolomite earth of the green hill caused the well to collapse – again and again. Tsombtsou!
The Bushmen used the natural environment around the hill to shield it from competitors – mainly Owambo tribes. A natural line of trees had sprung up in the area, effectively shielding it from view. With a little extra care and attention provided by the Bushmen, the green hill remained tucked away from everyone for centuries. In a final attempt to keep the green hill a secret, the Bushmen opted to settle in the vicinity of Otjikoto Lake.
For centuries, Lake Otjikoto, situated about 20 km north of Tsumeb, served as the biggest copper supermarket in the country.
It is here that the local Hai || Bushman clan came to sell the green metal to their biggest buyers, mostly an Owambo tribe, the Aandonga.The lake acted as a central meeting point for the two tribes, with the Owambo bartering a variety of objects, such as glass beads, salt, knives, spears and more.
In return, the Bushmen, who were able to mine the copper but not smelt it, offered up the precious metal, which the Owambo used to create ornaments and jewellery, among other things.
It is estimated that the lake measures around 102 metres in diameter. Its depth is uncertain. While many years ago the explorer Galton plumbed it as 55 metres, some say it is around 70 metres deep, while others think it might extend down 100 metres or more.
Following a silent trade – the language barriers forced the two tribes to a non-verbal negotiation of goods – the Owambo sprang into action. A heap of charcoal was produced and then a termite mound was hollowed out, into which the ore was placed. Channels were then dug around the base of the termite mound and spreading in different directions. The copper inside the termite hill was melted by the fierce heat produced by a coal-and-wood fire built around the ore mound. The fire was kept at maximum temperatures with the use of bellows.
The melted copper eventually ran down the drainage channels and filled deep holes dug with special sticks at the end of the tunnels. Different casts were created at the end of the funnels for fashioning thick ankle bracelets, arrowheads and spears.
After the copper moulds had cooled down, they were transported manually by the Owambo back to their homes in the north – hundreds of kilometres away.
The ‘discovery’ of the rich copper and mineral deposits at Tsumeb by Europeans at the end of the 19th century, unsurprisingly, caused a surge in European settlers streaming to the then South West Africa to find their riches.
The first European explorers who found out about the hill, immediately recognised its value. “In the whole of my experience, I have never seen such a sight as was presented before my view at Tsumeb, and I very much doubt that I shall ever see another one like this in any other locality,” wrote Mathew Rogers on 12 January 1893 after his first sight of the green hill.
Setting up a full-blown, albeit primitive, mining operation, took a few years, but by 1900 the first shipment of ore was transported by ox cart to Swakopmund.
Copper mining brought its ups and downs to the town of Tsumeb, at some stage described as ‘little Joburg’ – a not too positive comparison, since it wasn’t exactly a subtly veiled comparison to the settlers’ mentality of booze, crime and general debauchery.
Today, the mining history of the town is amplified by the De Wet Shaft – the so-called Grand Old Lady of Namibian copper mining over the past century. The shaft is not used, but its towering presence, which can be seen from wherever you are in town, is a constant reminder of a bustling past.
Text Jana-Mari Smith / Photographs Christie Keulder & Jana-Mari Smith