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Kolmanskop

Ghost town in the Namib desert

Kolmanskop (Afrikaans for Coleman’s head, German: Kolmannskuppe) is a ghost town in the Namib in southern Namibia. It was named after a transport driver named Johnny Coleman, who left his ox cart on a small slope opposite the settlement during a sandstorm. Once a small but very rich mining village, it is now a tourist destination of the joint company Namibia-De Beers.

Kolmanskop is 850 km southwest of Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, and 10 km east of the remote coastal town of Luderitz. In the past, a railway line ran east from the coast in Lüderitz to the larger town of Keetmanshoop, where it was connected to the capital by a north line.

In 1908, Zacherias Lewala, a railroad worker who shoveled quicksand off the tracks, found some interesting stones. He took her to August Stauch, the line’s permanent inspector, who was an enthusiastic naturalist and asked his workers to take unusual items they found. Mr. Stauch, a former employee of De Beers in South Africa, brought the stones to Lüderitz for an expert opinion. The stones were diamonds.

When the rumors of the discovery in what was then German southwest Africa reached Cape Town, they were received in disbelief. This inhospitable and desolate region was offered to the Cape government in 1885, but politely refused. The area was home to the richest diamond deposits in the world.

All available properties near Lüderitz were quickly demolished and claimed. Workers organized in search lines and steamed against the quicksand crawled on all fours with jam jars. The diamonds were picked from the floor and the glasses filled quickly. One of the first discoveries was made shortly before dark, so that the digging continued well into the night and the stones shimmered in the moonlight.

Kolmanskop emerged from the diamond boom. The region was administered by Germany at the beginning of the century and the city reflected this in its character. The Germans said that only after they had finished building the pub and bowling alley, their favorite form of relaxation, did they look for suitable land for building their houses. In 1912, the area produced one million carats, or 11.7 percent of the world’s total diamond production.

This wealth meant that despite the harsh climate and isolation, the miners could afford every possible European luxury. There was a local butcher, baker and post office in the city. An ice cream factory was built to produce blocks for food coolers and to make the city’s delicious lemonade itself. Elaborate houses were built to house the city’s architects, teachers, doctors and mining managers. A large hospital employed two German doctors, one of whom was understandably popular because he had prescribed a caviar sandwich and champagne tonic to his patients in the evenings.

The residents also had no lack of entertainment. A German expert was brought in to plan and monitor the construction of a magnificent hall with such good acoustics that visitors are still encouraged to test and sing it today. The mine even paid for the delivery of opera companies from Europe to perform in this oasis. The hall was also used by the local orchestra, the theater group and the gymnastics group.

In its heyday, the city looked very different. Fresh water was purchased by rail from a distance of 120 km and pumped into storage tanks. The water looked after lush gardens with manicured lawns, rose beds and eucalyptus trees. Keeping pets in the conditions was difficult, but a family had a pet bouquet that terrorized the city’s citizens. At Christmas it could only partially redeem itself by pulling a sleigh with Santa over the sand.

The First World War interrupted mining. The resumption of mining after the war led to a slow mining of the deposits. The area declined in the early 1930s. The discovery of the richest diamond-bearing deposits ever known accelerated the city’s decline in 1928. These were located on the beach terraces 270 km south of Kolmanskop near the Orange River. Many residents of the city joined the rush south, leaving their homes and possessions behind. Kolmanskop retained some importance as a supply warehouse for other mining operations, including those on the Orange River. This role also passed as it became easier to bring deliveries from South Africa. The last three families finally left the city in 1956.

The sand that used to be wiped up every morning is now collecting freely. The desert penetrates the buildings and gradually fills the empty spaces with gently rolling drifts. The houses are still standing, but it is the elements that are in control. The roofs are gradually exposed and the glass is worked out of the richly decorated frame.

The vastness of the lonely landscape puts the buildings in the shade and the sand tries to hide the structures. Only when you approach the houses can you see the characteristic German architecture with its cropped roofs and generous windows.

The air in the deserted streets shows no trace of moisture. Life only exists in the form of isolated shriveled shrubs that make a living. Test the limits of survival. The only sound is the wind, which patiently releases a glass pane from the frame. The fine desert sand is blown through the city and penetrates the abandoned houses. Welcome to Kolmanskop.