November 14, 2013

Kolmanskop, Namibia: Diamonds in the Dust

Diamond fever swept through South-West Africa at the turn of last century, transforming the sleepy desert town of Lüderitz briefly into the richest in all of Africa. Roderick Eime, kicks a few pebbles down Bismarck Street in the old German colony.

“It is almost as if Nature, conscious of her injustice to this portion of the African continent had added the diamonds as an afterthought by way of making amends.” - P.A. Wagner, geologist, 1914

On a very ordinary day in April 1908, a black African labourer, Zacharias Lewala, was toiling on the railway line not far from the port town of Lüderitz when something caught his eye. A pebble flashed in the sun just as he had seen in the Kimberley when he’d worked there in his youth. Zacharias knew straight away what he’d found and showed it to his foreman, setting off a frenzied diamond rush that changed forever the fortunes of this desolate part of Africa.

To the casual observer, the sand-blown desert wastes of South West Africa are a worthless, forlorn expanse of land sandwiched between the Namib and the Kalahari deserts and useless for most anything. Even the ancient San bushmen who’ve lived there for thousands for years, call it “the land God made in anger”.

Portuguese sailors like Bartolomeu Dias, on his way to the Cape of Good Hope in the late-15th century, put ashore on scouting missions and, suitably unimpressed, erected crosses to the glory of God along the forsaken so-called Skeleton Coast and left, dubbing it bleakly “The Gates of Hell”. It wasn’t until the 19th century that Europeans really started to take notice of the region and it was the deepwater harbour at today’s Walvis Bay that was the prize.

With missionaries as colonial pathfinders, the Germans won the race to claim these barren shores for their own and in 1883, a tobacco entrepreneur from Bremen, Adolf Lüderitz and his shady agent Vogelsang, bought the area around the anchorage along with all land within a radius of eight kilomentres for £100 in gold coin and 200 rifles. He immodestly named the port, Lüderitz, and the following year encouraged German chancellor Otto von Bismarck to claim it for Germany before the British could, thus creating the colony of Deutsch-Südwestafrika (German South-West Africa).

Despite his great enthusiasm, Lüderitz seemed doomed to fail. After purchasing what amounted to an entire country with guns and gold, all his enterprises failed and in 1886 he disappeared at sea in a flimsy boat not far from the Orange River. Two decades later, a mineral find beyond even his wildest dreams would make these dusty plains one of the richest tracts of land on the planet.

From that moment in 1908 diamonds became the mainstay of the country’s economy which only became known as Namibia after independence in 1990. Like all minerals, their demand waxes and wanes with the world’s economy and specifically with diamonds, that economy is controlled by the world’s largest diamond company, De Beers, founded by Cecil Rhodes in 1888.

In an unlikely twist, Tourism is another economic staple of Namibia contributing around 15% of GDP and employing many thousands of people. Cruise ships of all sizes visit Walvis Bay and passengers set out on excursions into the nearby desert, ferried by everything from 4WDs and station wagons to robust off-road coaches.

My guide in Walvis Bay is Estelle Pretorius, and with a name like that, it’s no surprise to learn that her family hails from next door, South Africa. Many South Africans moved into then South-West Africa after the Germans were ‘asked’ to relinquish control during and after WW1. When she’s not driving tourists out to see the world’s highest sand dune or world’s ugliest plant, the welwitchsia, she raises karakul sheep on the family farm. The pelts of the young Persian-origin breed make an expensive fur called Swakara which is becoming an industry in its own right.

But it’s further south near the original German settlement of Lüderitz where the two economies of diamonds and tourism collide in macabre fashion. Not far from where Zacharias found his fateful pebble, the town of Kolmanskop sprung up to support the local mining community which his find spawned.

At first the diamond rush was a chaotic frenzy with hopefuls often seen scouring the desert on their bellies on a moonlight night when the pretty stones were easier to spot under the milky light. They would return to the bars of Lüderitz, their pockets bulging, and indulge in Bacchanalian frivolities until their newfound riches were extinguished.

But this disorder could not be tolerated by the strict German colonialists and with trademark Teutonic efficiency, licensing was tightened and the little village established itself with a hospital, ballroom, power station, school, Kugel (bowling) alley, theatre and sports hall, casino, ice factory and the first x-ray station in the southern hemisphere. Fresh meat was available from the butcher, bread at the bakery, furniture from a local workshop, kids played in the public playground and swum in the pool. A short railway line even ran to the port.

Despite these familiar niceties, life in the remote, scorching desert would have been very uncomfortable before air-conditioning. Sand storms frequently raged through the village and water, which needed to be shipped in, was often so scarce that people bathed in soda water from the soft drink plant.

With wars and other interruptions, diamond production had peaked by the early ‘20s was in decline until finally halted at Kolmanskop in 1954 when the operation was moved to more profitable fields near Oranjemund in the far southern corner of the country. Since that day, it was “last one out, turn off the lights” and the tiny German enclave was left to the hungry desert.

Today Kolmanskop is a popular tourist attraction adjacent the Sperrgebiet (forbidden area) which has existed for one hundred years to keep casual fossickers out of the diamond fields. Voyeuristic travellers wander among the derelict houses and buildings, some being slowly restored, while others house museum exhibits and interpretive displays. Photographers have made the location famous and several movies and documentaries have been filmed on the site.

As for old Zacharias, his fate is not recorded, but one can be sure his fortune did not match that of his railway manager, August Stauch, who quietly resigned his mundane job and became one the kaiserlichen (imperial) colony’s richest men almost overnight.


GETTING THERE: Luderitz is very occasionally visited by smaller cruise ships, but most tourists will arrive by air [Airport: LUD] aboard an Air Namibia 37-seat Embraer regional jet. Other tourists will arrive by coach or self-drive.

STAYING THERE: Nest Hotel, (TripAdvisor 4/5) approx. $140/night

PLAYING THERE: Tours to Kolmanskop can be arranged at Luderitz.

Guided tours take place:

Monday – Saturday 09h30 and 11h00

Sunday and public holidays – 10h00.

Namibia Tourism Official site:

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