Not a whole lot can be said about the abandoned ghost town in the south west of the Namib desert in Namibia. Established in the early 1900’s, it reached a peak population of just 1300, before it was eventually abandoned in 1956, to be slowly reclamed by the ever shifting desert sands. Kolmanskop, which is Afrikaans for Colemans Hill, was named after transport driver Johnny Coleman who abandoned his wagon on a hill during a sandstorm about 10km inland from the coastal town of Lüderitz.
Kolmanskop – From Diamonds to Dust
What makes the short 40 year history of Kolmanskop interesting was the chance discovery of diamonds by rail worker Zacherias Lewala in 1908. While shoveling the endless onslaught of sand off the railway line he found them just lying around on the ground. When rumours of the discovery in what was then known as German South-West Africa reached Cape Town, it was met with incredulity. This desolate, inhospitable piece of the planet was offered to the Cape Government in 1885, but politely refused.
Soon large tracts of land were claimed and pegged out while workers crawling on all fours simply picked diamonds off the sand filling jam jars with them. Kolmanskop became part of what was soon to be declared by the German govevernment the ‘Sperrgebiet’, or ‘Forbidden Territory’, an area of 26 000km square, which is roughly the size of Belgium.
In the first 6 years of mining, Kolmanskop had yielded 5 million carats of diamonds. This fact, together with the town having a very small population, gave Kolmanskop the highest per capita wealth in the world, for a relatively short period of time.
It was this extreme wealth that allowed the residents to enjoy all the creature comforts of their European home towns in one of the most inhospitable areas on this earth, and the Germans had their priorites. One of the first facilities to be built was the pub and 4 lane skittle alley. There was also a butchery, a baker, post office, ice factory and casino. Kolmanskop was also home to the first tram in Africa as well as the first X-ray machine in the Southern Hemisphere which was installed in the Kolmanskop hospital, but it wasn’t just for medical reasons. One of the 2 German doctors in the hospital became famous for his prescription of caviar sandwhiches and genuine French champagne.
There was also no lack of entertainment in the extravagant ballroom. Opera companies were shipped in from Europe and there was the local orchestra as well as a theatre group and gym troop. And it was all done with electric light as Kolmanskop had its own power station.
Even though they brought fresh water in by train which allowed them to grow lush gardens with manicured lawns, it was still challenging to keep conventional pets, apart from the pet osterich someone had which terrorised the town on a regular basis. It was one Christmas that the osterich was able to partly redeem itself by pulling Santa Claus into town on a sleigh.
The Decline of Kolmanskop
Kolmanskop reached its pinnacle in the 1920’s, but after World War 1 when diamond prices crashed and the diamonds started to run out, the town went into decline. Richer deposits were also found further south near Oranjemund on the border with South Africa and operations were moved there. Many of Kolmanskop’s residents abandoned their houses and possesions to join the rush south. Some residents remained for a few years to come as the town retained some importance as a supply depot for other mining operations in the area as well as those further south, but that role too passed as it became easier to bring supplies from South Africa.
The last families finally left Kolmanskop in 1956.
In just 40 years, the town was born, flourished and died. It is maybe hard to imagine what the town looked like in its heyday as you slowly pick your way over sand dunes piled high in doorways.
Where oompa bands once played and people danced, laughed and loved, the only sound you will hear now is the whistle of the desert wind.
Kolmanskop is now maintained as a tourist destination by joint mining firm NamDeb (Namibia De Beers) with a few of the buildings having been cleared of sand and restored to their former glory, one of those being the original mine managers house, minus the furniture. Photographers both professionals and amateurs alike should consider a trip out there, particularly at either sunrise or sunset. For this you will need to get a fairly reasonably priced permit in Lüderitz as Kolmanskop is still part of a highly restricted mining area.
Have you ever visited a true ghost town?