Castles in the sand
Kolmanskop, the once opulent heart of Namibia’s diamond rush, now stands eerily silent. It is slowly being lost under an encroaching sea of sand, but photographic opportunities abound. Photographers Steve and Ann Toon explain how to capture your own gem of a picture.


Never-mind X-Factor, Pop-Idol, or any other reality TV talent show you care to mention, I just want to know how on earth I ended up alone on stage with this large auditorium before me and my heart thumping loudly in my ears. What am I going to sing?  All I can see is Steve’s face grinning encouragingly. At least I think that’s what his expression is trying to communicate – he seems so far away. I rack my brains for song titles, but nerves have numbed my memory. The silence is totally embarrassing and endless.

Oh well, here goes. I belt out my best impression of an operatic diva together with flamboyant hand gestures for dramatic effect. What does it matter if I’m not pitch perfect? We’re in the desert, surrounded by sand dunes, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. You couldn’t find a more weird or remote setting for a grand music hall if you tried.  Thankfully there’s hardly anyone here, apart from our guide, and he’s the one who got me this ‘gig’ in the first place. “Thanks Ann. That will do. As we have just demonstrated the acoustics of the place are quite remarkable. In a moment or two we’ll be moving on to the skittle-alley…”

We’re visiting Kolmanskop, the windswept, eerie, diamond mining ghost-town about 10km inland from Luderitz. It was home to 400 or so Germans at its peak in the mid 1920s and together they lived a remarkable champagne lifestyle. They had an ice-factory, ballroom, gambling salon, bakery, butchery, general store, school, hospital, and southern Africa’s very first X-ray machine. Now all that’s left is what sounds like their own ghostly singing echoing in the winds that batter the skeletal walls of their once beautiful, now long-abandoned, castles in the sand.

Despite the sad story, or perhaps because of it, the place is a real sweet-shop for anyone with an interest in photography. The play of light and shadows as the sun moves round the remains of the buildings is loaded with atmosphere. You can find potential images wherever you look as the encroaching dunes slowly swallow up the derelict homes and broken dreams of this once cultured and thriving society. A cast-iron roll-top bath sits half buried in sand, pale scraps of hand-stencilled wallpaper blow feverishly in the wind, once-elegant drawing rooms fill with sand like giant egg-timers.

There’s plenty of potential for good pictures if you simply book onto one of the twice-daily guided tours of the former mining town, but for the best results, and perhaps more importantly the best light, it’s a good idea to get a photographer’s permit which allows you access to the site from sunrise to sunset. It’s a bit more expensive but worth it, if only to experience the place when nobody else is around. The permit allows you to join one of the guided tours too – hence the ‘singing audition’ in the auditorium earlier.

We find it’s best to get photographs here at first light. The golden glow is very warming and really punches up colour. As the sun gets higher colours tend to bleach out and shadows become very harsh. You can get round this by using a circular polarising filter. It works best when used at right angles to the sun so you might need to shift your position a bit until you get the effect you want. You can also adjust the amount of filtration you need by rotating the front ring. Be careful, it can look overdone, and you sometimes get ugly vignetting at the corners.

Kolmanskop has a particular eeriness at dawn, but the other advantage of an early start is that the wind has erased the tracks of yesterday’s visitors. The only footprints you’re likely to find at this hour are those of a lone brown hyena that came in the night and is now long gone. It’s a good idea to walk around a bit first, looking through your viewfinder and doing a bit of a ‘recce’, before you start photographing properly.  A place like this can be overwhelming. If you’re stumped as to where to get started, try composing a few pictures through the empty windows or doors of the buildings, using them to ‘frame’ different views of the town or the advancing dunes. This adds real depth and perspective to your images.

Don’t forget to have fun experimenting with abstract pictures that focus on the little details, including the patterns and textures that abound here. Look for subjects that highlight the contrasts between natural patterns, like ripples or animal tracks in the sand, and the patterns made by the man-made objects lying around such as rusting metal and corrugated iron. It’s these little details that seem to add so much poignancy in a long-forgotten landscape like this.


Diamonds are forever?

In 1908 a railwayman named Zacharias Lewala found a glittering diamond in the sand near Kolmanskop. His discovery sparked a frenetic diamond rush in the area. Lines of men were said to have been seen crawling through the desert by the light of the full moon, sifting the sand for diamonds.

It wasn’t long before Kolmanskop had all the amenities of a European town slap bang in the sand dunes. Fresh water was imported from Cape Town and cheeses from France. At the height of the town’s wealth in the mid-1920s it’s claimed that a special squad of people was employed just to clear the town’s streets of sand every day.

Over 1000 kg of diamonds were extracted before World War I, but within a span of 40 years Kolmanskop flourished, foundered and died.  By 1928 more valuable diamond deposits had been discovered further south and production shifted to Oranjemund. The last residents of Kolmanskop left in 1956 when the hospital finally closed.  In 1980 a number of buildings were restored. Following the opening of the ‘Diamond Room’ it’s now possible to purchase single-cut, under-one-carat diamonds during a visit to the town.


Ann and Steve's Top Photographic Tips

• Keep your camera in a bag when not in use. The wind comes up with the sun and you don’t want your gear sandblasted.

• If you haven’t got a tripod, remember to use a high ISO rating when photographing inside the buildings. We find flash tends to kill the atmosphere.

• Keep an eye out for interesting details and patterns like the play of shadows on the shells of the old structures as the sun moves round during the day.

• If you’re going for a wide-angle shot showing an overall ghost town street scene try to find some interesting foreground detail to help lead the viewer’s eye into your picture. A bit of vegetation struggling up through the desert sand or rusting old machinery should do the job. 


Factfile: Making a Visit

• Tours run at 9.30am and 11am Monday to Saturday and at 1pm on Sundays (apart from Good Friday, Christmas Day and New Years Day). The restaurant is open for light lunches from Monday to Saturday and the museum is open until noon. Tickets cost N$45 (N$25 for children aged six to 14). Photographic permits cost N$145.
• Website In Lüderitz, Lüderitz Safaris & Tours act as ticket agents. If you’re arriving from Aus, you can get tickets on the gate.
• Accommodation is available in nearby Lüderitz or Aus.

< Previous   Next >


Safari Planner

Search The Site

Please enter your email address to sign up
What do you think?
What is your favourite desert animal?