Around Lüderitz in Namibia

Kolmanskop Ghost Town

The former diamond boom town of Kolmanskop, finally deserted in 1956, is now a ghost town and lies crumbling in the desert 15 km inland from Lüderitz (drive 10 km inland on the B4, turn right and then follow signs; it is clearly visible from the road), gradually being weathered by the wind and buried by the sand. It is a fascinating place to visit, offering as it does a glimpse into an exciting part of Namibia's history.

In April 1908, Zacharias Lewala, a worker on the Lüderitz-Aus railway line, presented a shiny stone to his supervisor August Stauch, who was clever enough to obtain a prospecting licence before having it officially verified and thereby starting the diamond rush around the site of Kolmanskop. In the early days, in the nearby Itadel Valley, stones were so accessible that prospectors with no mining equipment would crawl on their hands and knees in full moonlight collecting the glittering stones.

In September 1908, the colonial government declared a Sperrgebiet or 'forbidden zone' extending 360 km northwards from the Orange River and 100 km inland from the coast in order to control the mining of the diamonds, and in February 1909, a central diamond market was established.

The First World War effectively stopped diamond production, by which time more than 5.4 million carats of very high-quality stones had been extracted from the region. The recession that followed the war hit the diamond industry badly. However, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, the chairman of the Anglo-American Company, saw this as an opportunity to buy up all the small diamond companies operating in the Sperrgebiet, and combine them to form Consolidated Diamond Mines. CDM, as it became known, was to control all diamond mining in the area until entering into partnership with the Namibian government in 1995 under the new name of NAMDEB.

Kolmanskop enjoyed its heyday in the 1920s when it grew rapidly to service the diamond miners and eventually the families which followed. A hospital, gymnasium and concert hall, school, butchery, bakery and a number of fine houses were built in the middle of the desert, and at its peak there were as many as 300 German and 800 Oshiwambo adults living in the town. The hospital was ultra-modern and was equipped with the first X-ray machine in southern Africa (used principally for detecting secreted gemstones, rather than broken bones!).

The sheer wealth generated at Kolmanskop (peak production was over 30,000 carats per day) is demonstrated by the way in which water was supplied to the town. Every month a ship left Cape Town carrying 1000 tonnes of water, and each resident was supplied with 20 litres per day for free. Those requiring additional water paid for it, at half the price of beer. The lack of fresh water to power steam engines also forced the building of a power station which supplied electricity, very advanced technology at the time, to power the mining machinery.

However, the boom years in Kolmanskop ended in 1928 when diamond reserves six times the size of those at Kolmanskop (although of lesser quality) were discovered at the mouth of the Orange River. The town of Oranjemund was built in 1936 to exploit these reserves and in 1938 most of the workers and equipment relocated from Kolmanskop to this new headquarters. Following this, the town went into steady decline, although the last people (including the 100 full-time labourers employed to remove the encroaching sand) only left Kolmanskop in 1956, abandoning this once-flourishing town to time and the forces of nature.

Kolmanskop was rescued from the desert in 1979 following a CDM-commissioned report to assess the tourist potential of this ghost town. In 1980, simple restoration began and the town was opened to tourism. At present the most carefully preserved/restored buildings are the Recreation Hall and those adjacent to the museum, and the lavish Manager's House, complete with marble bath, grand piano and sun room. Sadly, following an expensive restoration of the Skittle Alley in the basement of the Recreation Hall, visitors are no longer permitted to play.

Although it is not obligatory to join a tour, it is worth following one to hear some of the historic detail and stories about Kolmanskop. After about 45 minutes you are left to your own devices to explore all buildings at your leisure. There is a pleasant curio shop and café open during tour hours, and a new diamond room, which sells small single cut diamonds. All stones are cut and polished locally by the NamGem Diamond Manufacturing Company at their cutting factory in Okahanja, and each diamond is issued with a grading report so that the buyer knows exactly what the characteristics of the diamond is. 

National Diamond Area

Drive 10 km inland on the B4, turn right and follow the signs. Following the discovery of diamonds at Kolmanskop in 1908 and the ensuing diamond rush the German colonial authorities declared a Sperrgebiet, or 'forbidden zone', along the coast. This area extended from the Orange River in the south for 360 km northward to latitude 26S and inland for 100 km, and covers 26,000 sq km and is known today as Diamond Area No 1.

Exclusive mining rights for this area are held by NAMDEB, owned jointly by the Namibian Government and De Beers, and it is forbidden to enter the area without permission. Even where the Sperrgebiet becomes part of the Namib-Naukluft Park, access is strictly controlled and visitors are required to remain on the road at all times.

In 1994 a British-Canadian company NAMCO obtained offshore diamond mining concessions at Lüderitz, potentially breaking the current NAMDEB monopoly. Diamond divers, many from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, suck up the seabed with powerful vacuum pumps, after which the gravel is sorted for diamonds. It is difficult, unpleasant work, which the divers can only carry out when sea conditions permit. The rewards, however, are potentially huge and consequently a small diver community lives in Lüderitz hoping to strike it rich. Their boats are visible in the harbour.

Lüderitz Peninsula

Assuming you have your own vehicle and that the winds are not too strong, an interesting excursion can be made around the peninsula south of town. Follow the Keetmanshoop road out of town and look out for a signpost for Diaz Point just after the buildings end. From here a twisting gravel road heads south round the coast through a moonscape of rocky bays, mud flats, beaches and small islands. Shortly after passing the water tower, the Second Lagoon comes in to view. When the tide is out it is possible to cut the corner and cross the mud flats here, but you are better sticking to the road in a saloon car.

A few kilometres beyond the lagoon you have the choice of heading straight to the southernmost point of the peninsula, Grosse Bucht (6 km) via the D733, or continuing on the D701 to Griffith Bay, Sturmvogel Bucht and Diaz Point. Either way, the road loops round.

Most visitors head straight for Diaz Point and the viewpoint for Halifax Island, however, if it is late in the afternoon it is worth following the D734 as far as Griffith Bay where you can enjoy a distant view of Lüderitz bathed in the evening sunlight. Continuing along the D701, and after a further 5 km or so, look out for a turning to the right. This road leads to Sturmvogel Bucht, one of the best bathing beaches in the area. Also of interest are the rusty remains of a whaling station. It doesn't take much imagination to picture what used to occur here.

Just past the turning for Shearwater Bay, the road goes over a small ridge and presents a good view of Diaz Point. Take the next right to visit Diaz Point, 22 km from town. A large cross stands here, a replica of the original erected by Portuguese explorer Bartholomeu Diaz in 1487 on his way back to Portugal after sailing around the Cape of Good Hope. Access to the cross is via a wooden bridge and some steps up to an exposed position on a rocky headland. When the wind blows make sure everything is securely attached, it is easy to lose a hat or a pair of sunglasses. There is a simple toilet block in the car park. The nearby lighthouse was built in 1910 and the modern foghorn tower was added later.

All along this section of coast there is a profusion of wildlife; just offshore from the cross itself is a seal colony and further down the coast on Halifax Island there are large numbers of jackass penguins and cormorants. Pink flamingos flock in the bays and also in small on-shore lakes. The presence of so much wildlife is due to the cold, clean and abundantly fertile Benguela Current, which provides ideal conditions for catching their prey of fish, rock lobster and oyster. It's also not unusual to see brown hyena or jackal trotting along the shore, which in turn prey on seal pups. The drawback for the tourist is the accompanying persistently strong, cold, southwest wind which makes warm clothes essential.

As you follow the D702 towards Grosse Bucht there are plenty of tracks off to the right which lead up to a variety of vantage points along the coast. Not all are clearly marked and it is easy to find yourself further down the road than your map might have you believe. At Knochen Bay and Essy Bay there are braai sites and basic toilets. If you can find the right road and then the right path there is a small cave cut into the rock face at Eberlanz Höhle. A little further on there is a sign for Kleiner Fjord, which is nice for a walk, but offers little at the destination.

Finally the broad south-facing Grosse Bucht comes into view. This is the furthest south you can travel along this part of the coast. When you reach a junction, take a right and this will lead you to the western end of the bay and a braai site. Just on the tideline are the rusty remains of a small boat which has an interesting local history. The boat was called the Irmgard and was used for cray fishing. When launched it was the first flat-bottomed steel boat to be built in Lüderitz. The builder and first owner was the father of the current manager of the Nest Hotel. The shortest route back to town is via the D733, about 40 minutes' drive.

Agate Beach

A similarly rocky drive north out of Lüderitz leads to Agate Beach (follow the signs from Hafen Street), a fine, sandy stretch of coast suitable for surfing and swimming, for those willing to brave the cold sea. Small piles of stones and mini-trenches dot the beach, remnants from past diamond and agate diggings. In the late afternoon there is a good chance of seeing wild gemsbok and springbok.
Note Most of the land on the inland side of the road is part of the NAMDEB concession area and thus closed to the public. It is not advisable to venture into these areas at any time.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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