Eat Diamonds, Shine All Day at Kolmanskop Ghost Town

“Welcomm to Kolmunh-skopp,” our tour guide said. “Rrrremeberrrr,” her r’s rolled for miles. “Do not go past the fence, it is forrrrbidden.”

And so began our tour of Kolmanskop, the abandoned diamond town on the coast of Namibia. It didn’t look like there was much around – ten minutes to one direction was the Atlantic Ocean, and everything else was desert – but numerous signs warned not to stray off the road: here, you were in the Sperrgebiet: forbidden territory.

kolmanskop houses
Kolmanskop and nothing but desert all around

Kolmanskop in its Heydey

The first diamond was found here in 1908 by a worker named Zacharias Lewala, who recognized a rock he found to be similar to the diamonds he’d seen in the Kimberely mine in South Africa.  He took it to his supervisor who then took it to be appraised, but the appraiser, knowing its true value, refused to appraise it until he was promised a share of half of the proceeds.

Kolmanskop exploded. A railway was built, water was brought in from South Africa, and a town was settled. There was a school, a shop, a bowling alley, an ice-factory, as well as a hospital with the first x-ray machine in Southern Africa.

meeting hall
This was the everything hall: it served as a banquet hall, a chapel, a meeting hall, a gym…
bowling alley
But the bowling alley was separate
bedroom
A lot of the rooms had been refitted to look they way they had been…
kitchen
…the furniture wasn’t all necessarily from within that particular house…
stove
…but was all collected from within Kolmanskop to outfit it as an example.

Abandoned

The town was abandoned in 1954 due to the gradual decline of diamond prices and the more prosperous deposits found further south.
While some of the dwellings had been preserved for archival and touristic purposes, the rest of the town was left to the forces of nature, which eventually windswept the desert through the doors and into every nook and cranny.

bathtub
A few of these lying around in various states of disrepair
sand in blue room
The abandoned houses all had some level of sand occupying them…
sand in yellow room
…some had more sand than others…
moreno in doorway
…some you could barely walk through!

Kolmanskop Now

The town is the only place within the Sperrgebiet that is easily accessible by tourists (and makes for some great photos – none of these have been touched up). The rest if off limits to tourists, except for controlled tours which visit some other ‘ghost towns’ in the area, and some that visit the mine in Elizabeth Bay, which is only 30 kilometers south, and is actually still operational.

decrepit stairs
A decrepit set of stairs in one of the houses
decrepit staircase
…of course we climbed them…

The diamond shop in Kolmanskop still has three diamonds for sale (ranging from $2,000 – $7,000 CDN), but when these finally sell, the shop will close for good.

signboard
“Eat diamonds for breakfast, shine all day” :)

First Impressions: Lüderitz

A gaudy hollywood sign with the word “Lüderitz” welcomes us from a nearby hill. The rest of the scenery we pass is less inviting – a land of flat mud, sand, monotone gray.

Luderitz beckons. Namibia - Anywhere Bound
Luderitz beckons…

The town is almost charming, if kitschy. It spans eight blocks of roads wider than necessary for the lack of traffic, eight blocks of banks and houses and shops decked in yellow and pink providing the German architecture the guidebooks obsess over.

Luderitz is 'known' for its quaint German architecture
Luderitz is ‘known’ for its quaint German architecture

Healthy palms line the sidewalks, and somewhere in the distance there is the cry of seagulls, a hint of water.

Luderitz bay, between mainland and Shark Island peninsula. Namibia - Anywhere Bound
Luderitz bay, between mainland and Shark Island peninsula

It is almost enough to trick us into thinking we are in some deserted charming neighborhood in Miami, but the cold harbor wind quickly snaps us back to reality.

We head straight for the Shark Island campsite passing signs for various backpacker hostels on the way. The small peninsula looks like what I imagine Newfoundland to be: rocky, gray, with colourful fishing villages perched atop the scrags…but with palm trees.

View out to Luderitz from Shark Island. Namibia - Anywhere Bound
View out to Luderitz from Shark Island

We dig out the socks and tights and fleeces and wind breakers that we so adamantly packed away just the day before and huddle with our campsite neighbors by the braai until it is too cold to sit outside.

The morning’s sun pierces our eyes. Our sunglasses only slightly shield us from the sand, which also inevitably makes it into our ears, our noses, our mouths, our hair. The road signs warn “WIND” and “SAND” as the tar is layered with yet another thin carpet of yellow and the irony eats away at the metal.

Wind. Luderitz, Namibia - Anywhere Bound
Wind? No way…

Everywhere we turn, wind and sand, together, as one inseparable entity.

Week 4: New Frontiers, New Horizons

In week 4, we left the animal sightings of South Africa for the ever-changing extremes of Namibia.
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Our first border crossing!

On our last day in the Kgalagadi, we made our way north to the Mata Mata gate which is also a ‘tourist access’ point into Namibia. We had gotten stamped out of SA two days before at the entrance gate (you need to spend two days at the park in order to use the gate – ensuring there’s no commercial crossings), so they checked us out of the park, I lifted the gate, effectively letting us into Namibia, we filled in some papers and we were in. More like this please!

Lion on dune
A lion rests on top of a dune in the Kgalagadi.

New Horizons

Namibia was immediately a land of strange and different landscapes. The gravel roads dusted the dry grass and shrubs, giving them them a fluorescent yellow color. The green bushes dotting the red sand hills against a backdrop of blue sky….it was all so improbable and beautiful.

Yellow grass in Namibia
Namibia’s surreal landscape: almost fluorescent yellow grass and endless blue skies.

And lonely. Namibia has about 2 million people living in it, less than the number residing in Vancouver, so there’s almost no one filling up its great expanse. We past maybe five rental Hilux trucks (Toyota Tacomas) and one donkey cart en route to camp.

Another World in Mesosaurus

Not wanting to risk finding camp in the dark, we stopped at the Mesosaurus Fossil Camp. So bizarre! It was full of quiver trees (more on this later) and it felt completely otherworldly.

Our Land Rover at the Mesosaurus Camp
The bizarre quiver trees lined the perimeter and made for an other-worldly setting for our camp.

The only other people there were Hanas and Swenja, a German couple that had just started their holiday in Namibia, so we shared some beers, chatted and star gazed before going to sleep in the bush camp.

Fish River Canyon

Our next stop was Fish River Canyon, supposedly the second biggest canyon in the world, and we stayed for sunset. Just jaw-droppingly beautiful.

Fish River Canyon
(Possibly) the second largest canyon in the world. Breath taking.

And the next day, drove to the /Ai-/Ais hot springs (the ‘/’ is a ‘tsk’ sound) at the other end of the canyon. The signs were hilarious. They said: WARNING. EXTREMELY HOT…ABOUT 65°. About??? 65ish?

Luderitz

From /Ai-/Ais we took another crazy beautiful road to Luderitz, which is a tiny German town right on the coast, wedged between the sand dunes and the Atlantic. We stayed at Shark Island, which used to be a concentration camp, and it was wiiiiiiindy!!! We met a South African woman from Cape Town that had been travelling in the south for the past 10 months by herself (!) so the five of us (her, us, and the Germans, who we kept running into) huddled together by the braai (BBQ) pits and chatted until we were too cold to stay up.

Coast of Luderitz
View of Luderitz from Shark Island

The whole reason people go to Luderitz is to visit Kolmanskop, which is a ghost town – a deserted old diamond mining town. It’s the only place in the area which is  allowed easy access to tourists: everywhere else you are required to be part of a tour, or are simply restricted from entering. Everything to the south is the Sperrgebiet, literally translated to ‘forbidden territory,’ where there are still working diamond mines operating.

Houses in Kolmnaskop
Houses stand abandoned in dusty Kolmanskop

After a quick visit to Cape Diaz, a peninsula completely open to the Atlantic, where it was so windy that Moreno embraced being held by the wind (and I concentrated on not flying away), we went back to Shark Island to get away from the wind, really glad we didn’t leave right after the ghost town.

What a productive and amazing week! We’re still working out some kinks in the Landy, but Namibia is not disappointing one bit!

Fetching water from the Landy
Getting water in the Landy – there’s still some improvements to be done….

Next: Further northward, this time to Sesriem, the base town for the Sossusvlei dune park.