There is a long straight road in Southern Namibia leading across the Huib Highlands and then down into the desert; it runs from Keetmanshoop through uninteresting and apparently endless savannahs to Aus, a distance of 228 kilometers, and then plunges into the very heart of the Namib for the last 129 Kilometers to Luderitz.
The guide books warn you not to attempt the last section of this road, the section through the desert, in the afternoon, because of the tremendous heat and the high winds which blow the sand so hard that you can arrive at the coast driving what was once a respectable vehicle and is now just a sand-blasted wreck, it’s inhabitants looking and feeling like old fried eggs leaking sweat onto the leather upholstery.
It is not a trip to be recommended to anyone unless you have a love for emptiness, for towns which are barely noticeable as you pass them, and a keen desire to test both your own endurance and that of your vehicle. All the way the wind seems to be against you, every hill seems to lead upwards, and at the end of the road is a rather dreary little town built around several rocky promontories with a harbor filled with the emptiness of diamond-boats waiting for better weather, and the odd small tanker.
However, some 10 kilometers before you crest the last rocky outcrop, just before you pass Luderitz airport (and you could be forgiven for not noticing it because it is just another flat piece of desert with a hut at one end), lies Kolmanskop. These days the town is just a collection of deserted buildings through which the wind and sand whistle endlessly through the long hot afternoon; no-one has lived there since 1956 (let’s face it: only the most intrepid would have considered it home even before then), yet it is one of the most memorable and fascinating places in Namibia. It is a spot which will always live on in my memory – a reminder of days long past, of people who went on with their lives in other, more hospitable, places.
In days of yore, when people still traveled by rail, there was a regular service from Keetmanshoop, on the main line between Upington and Windhoek, which wandered at its own speed through Seeheim to Aus, and then chugged through the unspeakable heat of the desert down to Grasplatz, Kolmanskop, and eventually Luderitz. The train runs no more.
In 1908 there was no such place as Kolmanskop (or Kolmanskuppe as it was first known); there was a stop on the railway at Grasplatz and it was here, as Zacharias Lewala bent himself to his task of removing the ever-encroaching sand from the line, that he saw glinting up at him a shiny stone. His supervisor, August Stauch, suspecting that this was no ordinary stone, immediately got himself a prospecting license and then sent the stone for analysis. He was right: it was a diamond, and that chance discovery marked the beginning of the Kolmanskop diamond rush. In those days, before the whole area became the Sperrgebiet, multitudes of fortune-hunters descended on this inhospitable spot; at night, once the endless wind had dropped, they could be seen crawling through the desert in the light of the moon, sifting the sand for diamonds. There was no need to mine or to dig because the stones were so plentiful that they lay around on the surface for all to see.
The German government lost no time in declaring a forbidden zone (Sperrgebiet) from the mouth of the Orange River northwards for 360 Kilometres and inland for 100 kilometres. To this day, several governments later, the area is still forbidden and those who hope to stop at the roadside and do a bit of quick prospecting face harsh penalties.
By 1920 a booming centre had sprung up on the dunes at Kolmanskop; it was far more advanced than the port town of Luderitz, just over the hill, and boasted luxuries like a hospital, a concert-hall whose acoustics were renowned, a casino (this was long before Namibia was ruled by the Nationalists, you understand), a bowling alley, a school, a gym, and a power station. The town had its own furniture factory, its own butchery, bakery, its own soda-water and lemonade plant, and it even had its own swimming pool. The homes were lavish, their occupants having every luxury (including ice), the hospital possessed the first X-ray machine in Southern Africa, and the town became known for its culture, its tea-parties, and its lavish entertaining. What it did not have, however, was water, and this eventually contributed to its downfall. Almost everything had to be imported from Cape Town, including fresh water, at considerable cost. But who cared when the surrounding desert yielded over 1000 kilos of diamonds between 1911 and 1914 alone?
Kolmanskop was one of the richest communities in Africa – riches which were certainly not shared with the local 800 odd Ovambos who helped wrest the riches from the desert. However, brief candles burn brightest, and the boom was not to last long. By 1928 richer deposits had been found nearby at Elizabeth Bay and the town began gradually to die. In the diamond-slump of the mid 50s Kolmanskop uttered its death-rattle and the last inhabitants packed up and left, probably not even looking over their shoulders, in 1956.
Today the town (or the ruins of it) is well worth a visit. The once grand colonial houses have been taken over by the encroaching desert, their plaster wind and sand-blasted, great cracks appearing in their walls. Permits can be obtained to visit the place from Luderitz and those who care to stagger through the soft sand, their hair blow-dried by the scouring wind, their cameras lagged in protective bags or clothing, can pause a while to look through ruined windows at the endless desert, can listen to the sound of sand shifting inside the empty rooms, and with a great deal of imagination can conjure up a vision of this once prosperous and extremely rich community which has now been totally reclaimed by the forces of nature. Only the silence and the soughing of the endless wind in the empty timbers remains.