Alive and well in the NamibAugust 22, 2014
Eco Awards Namibia | Pack Safari scoops a firstSeptember 1, 2014
Text and photographs Konny von Schmettau
For more than 80 years the secret of a small town built on diamonds was guarded carefully from the rest of the world. Its origin was driven by true pioneers hungry for riches buried beneath the sand and sea, and ready to face tough conditions to realise their dreams.
In 2011, Oranjemund was officially proclaimed a town, subject to several restrictions remaining in place as regards visitor access to the urban enclave situated in the Sperrgebiet, which still falls under strict mining rights.
Despite this, the first elected mayor of the town, Henry E Coetzee, is ready and dedicated to welcoming tourists and investors. He is eager to develop tourist accommodation in the town and along the banks of the Orange River within the near future.
According to Coetzee, the Municipality of Oranjemund is working hand in hand with Namdeb to further the cause of putting the town on the map, and to open its doors to the future.
Human diamonds in the rough
These days a gemsbok standing on a street corner or munching away on its favourite grazing hotspot – the greens of the 18-hole golf course – is an iconic image of Oranjemund.
In today’s world, in which most children play behind closed doors or tall walls, this quiet town emanates an image of bygone times. Here children ride by on their bicycles, while cars, their drivers smiling and waving, wait patiently for them to pass. Townspeople – human diamonds in the rough – chat jovially when they meet for coffee at the Museum Café.
This is a community where people still stick together closely, quietly, peacefully and warmly – united by the remote setting of their hometown, brought together by friendship, work and diamonds. And then, of course, there is the mining – the reason why the town came into being in the first place.
Charming as it now is, its façade hides a history of a typical mining town in days of yore – one of rough-and-tough beginnings in a harsh, unsettling and unforgiving landscape.
More diamonds than before
The original foundations of Oranjemund were laid in 1928, to create a modest camp for diamond staff. This was after the initial glitter of Lüderitz and Kolmanskop had worn off, causing the heyday of wealth rising from the discovery of diamonds to shift further south. The even richer deposits found at the Orange River Mouth promised more profit, more diamonds than before.
The landscape was not a place for the faint of heart and body. Hot summer winds marked the long days at the edge of the rough Atlantic Ocean. The treeless landscape offered no shade from the unrelenting rays of the hot, African desert sun. At the opposite extreme were the ice-cold nights and open landscape exposing the body to a barrage of freezing winds.
The area was considered too rough for the delicate sense of women, who were not allowed to enter at the time. The lone shop offered no release from the relentless hardship of work and daily life, just the basics, such as soap, shoes and one temporary escape, tobacco. Days off were rare, and had to be worked in. For one year of work, without a single day off, an employee was given five days’ leave. After five years, an employee was eligible for nine days’ leave.
The feminine touch
Slowly conditions at the base camp improved and the first house sprung up in the mid-1930s, which speedily led to women being invited to enter the hereto forbidden area.
Responding to the presence of women, the butchery was opened, and the small queues of women at the shops brought life to the town. Gossip and stories were shared, and tips were handed down on how to fight an ever-present menace: the desert sands that proved almost undefeatable when invading the modest homes.
The dreary, lifeless surroundings forced the townspeople to focus on forging a close communal life, and soon balls, receptions and other festivities formed the hub of everyone’s social life. To smooth the contours of the harsh outer tones of life in the middle of the Sperrgebiet, a sparkling social life was especially important.
Unspoiled nature and clean beaches
Today Oranjemund is a pristine town, providing a pleasant surprise to those visiting the remote settlement with its unspoiled nature, clean beaches dotted with small huts ideal for weekend braais and family outings, undisturbed birdlife in the wetlands, historic places, and, of course, the diamond mine – the major employer and master of all who reside here.
In these modern times, the day-to-day meet-and-greets among the townspeople still take place during shopping trips for grocery at the Spar Supermarket. There is also a popular hangout, Muckie’s Motores, where locals wait for their cats to be cleaned while catching up on the latest town news.
All roads lead to Oranjemund!
You can travel from Windhoek to Oranjemund by car on the tar road (800 km). Drive along the B1, pass Keetmanshoop, continue on the B4 to Aus, continue further south on the C13 to Rosh Pinah. A few kilometres from there, a road sign indicates: Oranjemund 83 km.
The scenery is beautiful, especially the stunning views across the Orange River. After entering the Sendelingsdrift Gate leading to the Sperrgebiet, you’re not allowed to step out of your car until you reach the Swartkops Gate.
A permit has to be applied for at least two weeks in advance. While day visits will be possible soon, for the time being they still require a permit.
- Another route to take is from the Fish River Canyon through Ai-Ais, turning right shortly before reaching Aussenkehr (C13).
- From Swakopmund it is approximately 900 km. Follow the C14 via Maltahöhe (for the ‘the coolest beer in the desert’) and Helmeringhausen to Aus, and from there further south.
- Alternatively, take the C19 through Sesriem (to visit Sossusvlei) from Solitaire, proceeding to Aus along the colourful D707.
- From South Africa, you can enter from Alexander Bay, crossing the Oppenheimer Bridge.
- Air Namibia provides flights from Windhoek and Lüderitz.
- There is no public transport to Oranjemund.
Cold misty nights and hot desert days
In 1908, a railway worker stumbled on a shiny treasure not far from Lüderitz, the founding town of German South-West Africa. Originated by August Stauch, a diamond rush exploded shortly after, luring fortune seekers from all over the world to the desert.
The diamond town of Kolmanskop (Kolmannskuppe) emerged as the central hub of the diamond rush. It was built within a few years and permeated with unimaginable luxury. The mode of payment was diamonds, a commodity that was precious and plentiful at the same time.
After WWI, South West Africa was given to South Africa as a protectorate, during which time diamonds were discovered at the Orange River Mouth. Oranjemund, a simple workers camp, was erected in 1928. In the 1950s, the last residents left Kolmanskop, and the once-rich settlement degenerated into a ghost town.
Rare beauties in the desert
Situated between the town and Swartkop Gate, the Swartkop Nature Reserve rises just 70 metres above sea level, presenting rare plants, some of them occurring in the northern Richtersveld. The hill forms a link with northern Namibia, and features some typical Namib flora. Close to the Oppenheimer Bridge, lithops – popularly referred to as ‘living’ or ‘flowering’ stones – and even Tylecodon schaeferianus, can be found among the rocks overlooking the Orange River.
(I took a photo of Tylecodon schaeferianus while blooming which is very rare to be seen. Could be shown and described in part 2 or 3, with a focus on a few rare plants in the area maybe?)
HOW TO BOOK
Oranjemund offers only a few accommodation options, so it is essential to plan your visit accordingly (prior to your departure).
Booking requests and permits can be followed up under firstname.lastname@example.org, www.namibia-aktiv.com
TNN Winter 2014