Once every few months or so, it seems some chain email makes it into my inbox featuring astounding pictures of a windswept desert town with otherwise normal-looking houses filled with sand from years of neglect and desert erosional processes. Chances are if you’re geographically inclined and spent any reasonable amount of time on the Internet, you’ve seen some of these pictures as well. If for some reason you haven’t, then allow me to introduce you to the abandoned diamond mining town of Kolmanskop in southern Namibia.
Entrance to Kolmanskop (German: Kolmannskuppe). Source: SqueakyMarmot, http://www.flickr.com/photos/squeakymarmot/134624906/. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.
Kolmanskop is a legacy of German colonial ambitions in turn-of-the-20th-century Africa. Between 1884 and 1915, Germany occupied what was then known as South-West Africa, now the country of Namibia. The name ‘Kolmanskop’ translates to ‘Coleman’s Hill’ (the Afrikaans spelling of ‘Coleman’ is ‘Kolman’; the German spelling ‘Kolmann’) and was first used to describe the place where a turn-of-the-century transporter named Johnny Coleman was forced to abandoned an ox wagon during a sandstorm. A short while later (14 April 1908, to be precise), a railway worker at the site helping build the line connecting the nearby coastal port of Lüderitz to the inland city of Aus named Zacharias Lewala found a glimmering stone in the sand he was digging in, and reported it to his supervisor, August Stauch.It was indeed a diamond, and this set off a mining boom in the area. Within a short period of time, the German government had declared the southwestern area of the colony to be a Sperrgebeit – a prohibited area exclusively for diamond mining, with full rights given to the German Diamond Company. World War I brought an end to German rule, transferring the region to South Africa, but the monopoly in the Sperrgebeit was simply transferred to DeBeers, who to this day still controls 50% of the mining interest in the region in a partnership with the Namibian government.Mining takes place today in about five percent of the region; the rest is now a national park, and entry is very restricted. The Sperrgebeit could be an entry in itself, so let’s get back to Kolmanskop (or as the Germans called it, Kolmannskuppe).
Restored dining room in a Kolmanskop house. Source: P. Giraud, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Namibie_Kolmanskop_Interieur_05.JPG.Used under GNU Free Documentation Licence, Version 1.2.
At first, diamonds were so plentiful one could dig them out of the ground with their hands. The town that arose was filled with miners who got very rich very quickly from the burgeoning diamond trade, and these residents sought to bring a piece of home with them to the Namib Desert. The initial group of prefabricated iron shacks were quickly replaced with modern housing. The architecture much resembles that of a small German town, and many of the buildings were rather ornate. The amenities were plentiful – casinos, ballrooms, theatres, bowling alleys, hospitals, a swimming pool, a full-size power station, a carbonated beverage bottling plant; Kolmanskop even had the first x-ray machine in Africa south of the Equator. Ice vendors delivered ice blocks and cold drinks to each household the way milkmen would in other climes; sand-cleaners were hired to plough the streets the way public works crew clear snow from roads in other places in winter. Metal fences were built around gardens to keep the sand away. The one amenity the town lacked was water; even nearby Lüderitz couldn’t survive on its own supply. Residents of Kolmanskop had to have water delivered in via an assortment of methods: a pump 100 miles away; a 28-mile long pipeline from the coast to a desalinisation plant; shipments of barrels of water up the Atlantic Coast from Cape Town to Lüderitz and then via mule to Kolmanskop.
Being first a German and then a South African mining town, the Oshiwambo workers of the town outnumbered white settlers more than 2-to-1 but were not permitted to share in the massive riches being extracted from the sands they called home. The boom ended around 1928, when larger diamond deposits were found elsewhere in the Sperrgebeit. The town faded away until the last mine closed in 1950; the last residents left in 1956. With no people left to maintain the village, the desert has slowly reclaimed Kolmanskop over the past half-century, with sand blown by the strong desert winds invading every crevice and cranny of the town’s buildings, or exposing previously covered artefacts as the dunes blow away and migrate with time. These buildings are the subjects of the famous photos that travel the Web.
An accountant’s house. Source: H. Süpfle, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Buchhalter_Kolmannskuppe.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic licence.
Today Kolmanskop isn’t really quiet anymore; tourism has hit the ghost town in a fairly major way to the point where a guided tour of the town is de rigueur for tourists in southern Namibia (although a permit is required). Formal operation since 1980 as a government-run tourist site funded by DeBeers has allowed restoration of some of the buildings and the opening of a museum; a restaurant on site is furnished with old installations and furniture from the ghost town. Kolmanskop has also been used for motion picture film backdrops, most notably the 2000 piece The King is Alive.
The restored mine manager’s house. Source: H. Süpfle, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Minenverwalter_Kolmannskuppe.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic licence.
There are a plethora of photosgalleries around the internet devoted to Kolmanskop; as a sample, visit Griot Photo, Atlas Obscura, Wilkinson’s World, Flickr users coda and Joachim Huber, Environmental Graffiti, and Wikimedia Commons.
Encounter South Africa (n.d.). Kolmanskop – Ghost Town in the Desert. Available at http://www.encounter.co.za/article/87.html. Accessed 14 January 2011.
Encyclopædia Britannica (2011). Sperrgebeit. Available at http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/559460/Sperrgebiet. Accessed 14 January 2011.
Littlebrumble (2010). Featured Place: Kolmanskop, Namibia. Atlas Obscura, 2 August 2010. Available at http://atlasobscura.com/blog/featured-place-kolmanskop-namibia. Accessed 14 January 2011.
New African Frontiers (2006). Kolmanskop. Available at http://www.newafricanfrontiers.com/countries/namibia/namibia-country-information-region-kolmanskop.htm. Accessed 14 January 2011.
Osler, C. (n.d.). Diamonds to dust: the ghost town of Kolmannskuppe. Griot Photo. Available at http://www.griotphoto.org/kolmannskuppe.htm. Accessed 14 January 2011.
Pienaar, Y. (2009). Kolmanskop – Ghost Town in the Namib: Diamond Mining Town Reclaimed by the African Desert. Suite101, 4 June 2009.Available at http://www.suite101.com/content/kolmanskop-ghost-mining-town-in-the-namib-a122674. Accessed 14 January 2011.
Wilkinson, R. (2010). The Ghost Town of Kolmanskop. Wilkinson’s World, 1 September 2010. Available at http://www.wilkinsonsworld.com/2010/09/the-ghost-town-of-kolmanskop/. Accessed 14 January 2011.