Rest in Peace

Issue 2 (May 2008)

Hamilton Wende has spent months driving through Namibia. He recalls his trip in this regular column.


The wind sweeps across the dunes, stirring up tiny horsetails of sand into the shimmering skyline. A loose piece of corrugated iron bangs in the distance, echoing across the stillness of the desert.  A row of once-gaily painted houses sinks into the sand in various states of disrepair.  Doors are jammed open by rivers of white sand that flow through the shadows of what were once elegant parlours, dining rooms and lounges.

I am in Kolmanskop, an old mining settlement that is now a ghost town.  It is on the coastal road only a few kilometres from the town of Lüderitz and, to me, is one of the most fascinating and eerie places on the continent.  The town was founded in 1908 when diamonds were discovered here.  A massive influx of men and women made their way to this remote patch of desert in the hope of finding that elusive fortune that would save them from a lifetime of toil and from the disappointments of an ordinary life.  Very few were that lucky.  Houses sprung up alongside a butcher, a railway station and, of course, the mining company offices.   The new town even boasted the first X-ray machine in southern Africa.

If you look on a map, you’ll see that Kolmanskop still lies in what is forbiddingly marked ‘DIAMOND AREA.  ACCESS PROHIBITED.’  To get to it you’ll have to apply for a permit at the quirky old Goerke house in Lüderitz – in itself well worth a visit.

A melancholic beauty pervades Kolmanskop.  A bathtub lying in the sand, the rattle of old panes of cracked glass looking out over a wide plain of sand and desert scrub, a wooden stairway leading to what was perhaps a child’s bedroom, now hanging over an empty patch of sand – brief glimpses into what were once human lives.

The old bowling alley has been partially restored, and you can toss a ball and hear it bounce over the wooden-planked floor as it rumbles towards the skittles.  The old theatre with its high ceilings echoes with memories.  Not far away the abandoned railway station hints at so many forgotten arrivals and departures.

In its heyday around World War I and in the early 1920s, some 300 German adults, 40 children and 800 Ovambo workers lived here.  All of their lives were centred around diamonds, diamonds and more diamonds.  Well over a ton of diamonds was extracted from the dry sands before the outbreak of war.  The discovery of larger, better-quality stones at Oranjemund further south meant that the focus of mining shifted away from Kolmanskop.  By the late 1920s it was already a ghost town, with just a handful of inhabitants hanging on as the desert slowly invaded the once bustling streets and crowded homes.  The town was finally abandoned in 1956.

In the 1980s some of the houses were partially restored, and a museum created.  However many of the buildings are still half buried in the creeping dunes.  To wander through them is to enter a surreal world that exists partly in half-exposed memories, and partly in the unique beauty of the Namibian landscape. One can almost hear the miners, the prostitutes who followed in their wake, the frustrated wives who brought their families to a town where at one point champagne was cheaper than water.  All of them overwhelmed and yet compelled by the continent that had drawn them to this faraway outpost.

Between the extremes of the mist flowing off the icy Atlantic and the hard, metallic beauty of the sun, sky and sand that burns the mist away, the town constantly reveals something new but - strangely enough – I have  never heard of any human ghosts that haunt the old, half-buried town.  Perhaps the beauty of the landscape is enough to help them to lie at rest.

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