In the dry, barren stretches on the edge of the Namib Desert in south-western Africa lie the
bones of a grand town. Among the gentle curves of the sand drifts and bleached stone outcrops, ornate buildings
rise, defying their desolate surroundings and exuding an air of quiet dignity.
The vastness of the lonely landscape dwarfs the buildings and the sand seeks to hide the
structures within itself. It is not until you approach the houses that their characteristic German architecture,
featuring truncated roofs and generous windows, can be appreciated.
The air in the deserted streets carries no hint of moisture. Life exists solely in the form of
isolated stunted shrubs eking out a living; testing the limits of survival. The only sound is the wind patiently
working a pane of glass loose from its frame. The fine desert sands are blown through the town, working their way
into the abandoned houses. Welcome to Kolmanskop.
Kolmanskop lies 850km south-west of Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, and 10km east of the
isolated coastal town of Luderitz. Formerly, a train line ran eastwards from the coast at Luderitz to the larger
town of Keetmanshoop, where it connected with a northern line to the capital.
In 1908, Zacherias Lewala, a railway employee shoveling drift sand from the tracks, found some
interesting stones. He took them to August Stauch, the permanent-way inspector of the line, who was an avid
naturalist, and had asked his workers to bring in any unusual objects they found. Mr Stauch, a former employee of
De Beers in South Africa, took the stones to Luderitz for an expert opinion. The stones were diamonds.
When the rumors of the discovery, in what was then known as German South-West Africa, reached
Cape Town, they were received with incredulity. This inhospitable and desolate region had been offered to the Cape
government in 1885 but politely refused. The richest diamond deposits in the world were to be found in this
All the available ground in the vicinity of Luderitz was quickly pegged out and claimed.
Laborers, organised in search lines and muffled against the blowing sands, crawled along on all fours armed with
jam jars. The diamonds were picked off the ground and the jars filled rapidly. One of the first discoveries was
made just before nightfall, so prospecting continued long into the night, with the glimmer of stones identifiable
Kolmanskop grew out of the diamond boom. The region was administered by Germany at the beginning
of the century and the town reflected this in its character. It was said of the Germans that only after they had
finished building the pub and the skittle alley, their favorite form of relaxation, did they start looking for
suitable plots to build their houses. In 1912, the area produced one million carats or 11.7 per cent of the world's
total diamond production.
Such wealth meant that despite the harsh climate and isolation, the miners could afford every
possible European luxury. The town had a local butcher, baker and post office. An ice plant was established to make
blocks to use in food coolers as well as to manufacture the town's own delicious lemonade. Elaborate houses were
built to accommodate the town's architect, teacher, doctors and mining managers. A large hospital employed two
German doctors, one of whom was understandably popular for prescribing his patients an evening tonic of caviar
sandwiches and champagne.
The inhabitants did not lack for entertainment either. A German expert was brought in to design
and supervise the building of a magnificent hall, with acoustics so fine that today visitors are still encouraged
to put them to the test and burst into song. The mine even paid for opera companies to be shipped from Europe to
perform in this oasis. The hall was also used by the local orchestra, theatre group and gymnastics troop.
In its heyday, the town looked very different. Fresh water was bought in by rail from 120km away
and pumped into storage tanks. The water nurtured lush gardens with manicured lawns, rose beds and eucalyptus
trees. Pets were difficult to keep in the conditions, but one family had a pet ostrich that terrorised the
townspeople. It was only partly able to redeem itself at Christmas by pulling a sled containing Father Christmas
over the sand.
World War I interrupted mining operations. The resumption of mining after the war led to the
slow depletion of deposits. By the early-'30s, the area was in decline. Hastening the town's demise was the
discovery in 1928 of the richest diamond-bearing deposits ever known. These were on the beach terraces 270km south
of Kolmanskop, near the Orange River. Many of the town's inhabitants joined the rush to the south, leaving their
homes and possessions behind. Kolmanskop retained some importance as a supply depot for other mining operations,
including those on the Orange River. This role passed, too, as it became easier to bring supplies from South
Africa. The last three families finally deserted the town in 1956.
The sands that were once swept up every morning now gather unhindered. The desert encroaches
into the buildings, gradually filling the empty rooms with smooth rolling drifts. The houses still stand but it is
the elements that are in control. The roofs are gradually being laid bare and the glass worked from the ornate
Only fragments of the inhabitants' lives remain, a battered kettle in a beautifully tiled
kitchen, a warped wardrobe resting wearily on its side, some painstakingly hand-painted wall designs, a bathtub
breasting a growing dune like a boat at sea.
The desert is coming to relentlessly reclaim its territory under an ever thickening fold of
sand. Yet not even a century ago, people laughed, loved and dreamt in this town, creating an extraordinary place in
an unwelcoming land.