Text and Photos Ron Swilling
Text and Photos Ron Swilling
A feast for the creative eye, Kolmanskop is a deserted century-old mining town in the sprawling sands of the Namib 10 kilometres inland from the coastal harbour town of Lüderitz. In the middle of the day there is no respite from the implacable sun that patterns small dunes of sand and old floorboards in the deserted houses with mischievous shadows.
There is more than a hint of a post-apocalyptic landscape here, and only a few tufts of brittle, brave grass poke their heads out of the parched earth. Yet, nestled in the sand, are the remains of elaborate houses, a skittle alley, theatre, butchery, bakery, general dealer, ice factory and hospital, all built in the German architectural style of the early 20th century.
Opulence arrived soon after the fated day in April 1908 when railway worker Zacharias Lewala spotted a shining gem in the sands near the Grasplatz railway siding and handed it to his supervisor, August Stauch, who had asked him to look out for ‘pretty stones’. Once confirmed to be a diamond, the word spread like wildfire. In a frenzy of excitement, the inhabitants of the sleepy German colonial town of Lüderitz, imagining diamonds lying in the barren desert ‘like plums beneath a plum tree’, joined fortune hunters in the frantic diamond rush.
In Lüderitz champagne was served for breakfast, the town becoming the haven for diamond kings and a new elite that sparkled with diamond sheen. Prospectors flocked to the area and diamond towns such as Bogenfels and Pomona sprung up in the desert. In a relatively short period, Kolmanskop became the centre of this thriving diamond-mining industry, bringing a flurry of wealth to the area. The absence of water didn’t hinder development. Records indicate that Kolmanskop initially received a monthly supply of a thousand tons of fresh water shipped all the way from the Cape in South Africa. In the dusty town where the price of champagne was not much higher than that of water, it seemed impractical not to indulge in the bubbly. The ladies frequented a champagne bar, while the men enjoyed their own cigar bar, and the town’s grocery shop is said to have stocked fresh caviar and strawberries. To avoid the inconvenience of walking through the sand, a small railway line was constructed to transport residents around the town.
Not all Kolmanskop residents enjoyed this high living, however. Hundreds of contract workers from the northern part of the country were also employed in the diamond fields, residing on the other side of the town in very basic facilities.
While more than one thousand kilograms of diamonds, about five million carats, were processed before World War I, the ensuing depression disrupted production towards the end of 1914. German South West Africa was annexed to the Union of South Africa and in 1920 Sir Ernest Oppenheimer bought the major German diamond companies, incorporating them into Consolidated Diamond Mines. Soon, new diamond fields were discovered further south, the diamonds being substantially larger, and by 1936 the processing plant at Kolmanskop ceased operations, moving southwards to Oranjemund. In 1944, the offices followed suit and in the following years the hospital and transport division were shut down. Soon after, the inhabitants departed for richer pastures. In 1957 the last five families moved out, and a year later the last two buildings were closed down, leaving Kolmanskop a ghost town.
The golden sands blew through the deserted houses and the ghosts danced unhindered in the empty streets until the 1980s when renovations and restoration of some of the houses began. In 1990 the town reopened officially to the public, rapidly becoming a major tourist attraction in the area.
Guided morning tours begin in the old hall—reminiscent of a school hall with a stage and piano in one corner—with the distinctive Kolmanskop decorative borders on its walls. A German- or English-speaking guide leads guests through the sandy streets, pointing out the more prominent houses that once belonged to the mine manager, accountant, architect and schoolmaster, and showing visitors the skittle alley, general dealer, butchery and ice factory which supplied each household with half a block of ice per day, an absolute luxury in one of the oldest deserts in the world.
After the tour, visitors have time to explore the former general dealer premises, now a museum replete with century-old paraphernalia, the art gallery, the diamond shop and the diamond-smuggling room, where some of the innovative ways used to smuggle diamonds out of the area are described. They also have the opportunity to wander around the houses with their cameras, no doubt with a certain amount of awe when they see how the natural world is reclaiming her domain. It’s time to catch the dappled sunrays falling onto the sandy floors, the pastel blue-and-green-hued walls, the mounds of sand collecting softly and sensuously in corners of rooms, and to see that riches of a different kind hover unexpectedly in the recesses of a deserted mining town.
This article was first published in the Flamingo December 2010 issue.