Kolmanskop, a ghost town in Namibia


Kolmanskop is a long abandoned town in Namibia. Founded by German colonists during the diamond boom at the beginning of the last century, the place lasted less than half a century. Colmanskop is now a popular attraction among foreign tourists and a reminder of the fickleness of modern civilization. Travelers usually stop here as part of a tour of national parks and neighboring ghost towns, as an hour and a half tour with a photo session to explore the half-buried Colmanskop is enough.

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Video: Colmanskop from Above

The geographical location of Colmanskop

The city is located 10 km from the Atlantic coast, in the Namib Desert. It would seem that in the harsh natural conditions, mining can only be done on a rotational basis, so inhospitable is the local climate for humans. The lack of fresh water alone puts an end to the settlers’ everyday comfort. To this must be added a sharp diurnal temperature difference and a wild wind, intensifying with annoying consistency in the afternoon. Nevertheless, German entrepreneurs have managed to build here a real garden city, though with imported fresh water from Cape Town. A 1000-kilometer distance away, the liquid became literally invaluable, but the income from the diamonds extracted in Kolmanskop covered all the expenses.

The history of the ghost town

The town was named “Colmanskop” after a carter named Colman, who got stuck here during a sandstorm in his wagon. He was rescued, but many others were not so lucky – getting lost in the storm meant certain death from heat and thirst, so along with diamonds in the sand often found the mummified remains of unfortunate travelers. In 1908, the first diamond was found by an employee of the railroad that joined the mines. The dividends from the find were received by his chief, August Stauch, who invested in the development of the mines. The colony’s government also got involved: they invested money in the development of the site, declared the territory 360 km to the north of the Orange River and 100 km into the interior a no-go zone, and built a German dream town in no time.

The fairy tale did not last long: it turned out that diamond reserves were scarce, and soon Kolmanskop was deserted and the cottages became victims of the sand. Stauch, who had made giant sums of money, went bankrupt during World War II and died in poverty.

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Colmanskop in its heyday

Namibian diamonds were striking for their purity, but they were very small. To find them, miners had to crawl on all fours through the diamond fields. The laborers lived in barracks, villas with gardens were built for the management, and the administration settled in Colmanskop itself. There were several stores, a power station, an elementary school, a dance and gymnasium, a hospital with Africa’s first X-ray room for every 400 permanent residents. The latter was not so much for medical purposes as for police purposes: workers were scanned mercilessly to avoid theft. Each was given 20 liters of free drinking water daily, wine and milk. Unfortunately, the reserves of minerals ran out in 1931, at which time a new deposit was found at the mouth of the Orange. In 1956, Kolmanskop was abandoned by its last inhabitants, leaving only the remains of buildings.

Colmanskop nowadays

Popularity returned to the town in the early twenty-first century, when Namibia’s tourism industry began to boom. Authorities quickly made cosmetic repairs to Kolmanskop’s most preserved sites, restored the casino and gymnasium, and cleared away sandy debris where possible. The desolate landscape wonderfully echoes Danelia’s fantasy in the futuristic film “Kin Dza Dza. However, Russian guests, able to appreciate the irony of the filmmaker-nature, are still few: Namibian coast of Atlantic is fancied by ecotourism lovers from Western Europe, attracted by low prices and relative safety of the trip.

Information for tourists

Choosing the time for a trip, you should understand that in Colmanskop is extreme in any season. Because of weather conditions, visiting the “ghost” is only allowed until 1:30 p.m., later the wind picks up, according to locals. In fact, by European standards, just the wind blows in the first half of the day, and what happens later is a real storm. Photographic equipment and faces must be protected from the sand in order to get back in good health and not suffer material damage.

Excursions to Colmanskop.

Guests travel to Kolmanskop from Luderitz on a fairly decent asphalt road. Organized tours take place at 9:30 and 11:00 in English, German and Italian. Tourists are shown hastily restored buildings, a museum inside the director’s house. A café offers refreshments.

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Permission to travel.

The area of Kolmanskop is within the boundaries of the Spergebiet National Park, which translates from German as “forbidden area”. This is by no means a figure of speech – permission to travel must be obtained in advance, usually 6 days in advance, from Lüderitz Safaris & Tours or the Kolmanskop Tour Company in Lüderitz. Tourists are usually offered a comprehensive tour that includes visits to other desolate diamond deposits, such as the Merhental Valley, the ghost town of Bogenfels, and the village of Pomona.

Attractions in Lüderitz

Since it is impossible to pass through Lüderitz, otherwise you will not get a permit, tourists are recommended to get acquainted with its sights, fortunately there are not many of them. In the town there are neat buildings from the time of German colonization. From the rocky part of the coast, tourists observe the penguin habitat, walk along the sandy beach. Do not swim far from the shore because of the cold Bengal Current. The city’s restaurants are famous for their marine fish and seafood dishes.

How to get there and where to stay

The most comfortable hotels are in the capital Windhoek, and you can also stay in Luderitz, which lies 10 km from Colmanskop. Foreigners usually fly to Windhoek and from there take a twice-weekly Air Namibia flight to Lüderitz airport. Travel time is about an hour and the route is served by a compact Embraer ERJ-135 aircraft with a single 37-seat economy class cabin. Passengers find the conditions of the flight acceptable, although they note the standard chaos at check-in.

One can rent a car in the capital and drive to Luderitz in 7 hours without getting bogged down in the sand. It is necessary to fill up in Windhoek, be sure to take a full can of gasoline. The road to Colmanskop is not very crowded, but safe. English is spoken by one in ten local residents, many know Afrikaans – a dialect of Dutch.

A ghost town in southern Africa: The symbol of the diamond rush that was completely swallowed up by the Namib Desert

The hot desert wind carried myriads of grains of hot sand across the endless expanses of the desert, and the red-hot African sun mercilessly scorched out all life in these places.

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It’s been like this for tens, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years.

And this natural harmony was only disturbed by the brightly colored wallpaper peeling off the walls in the dilapidated, dilapidated German colonial-style houses, already partially swallowed up by the sand dunes.

That’s how I first saw Kolmanskop. The most real ghost town in southern Africa in the Namib Desert – one of the oldest deserts on our planet and located in the very center of the region known as Sperrgebiet, which in German sounds like a “forbidden zone”.

Colmanskop is about 900 km south-west of the Namibian capital, Windhoek, and a dozen kilometers from another small town – the port of Luderitz, next to its airport. And the entire area around Luderitz to the south and north, except for the road linking the city to the rest of the country, is still a “restricted area” or Diamond Area 1 & 2.

But a bit of history.

In the late 19th century this area in the south of present-day Namibia became an overseas colony of Germany. In 1908, a dark-skinned laborer from the Keetmanshoop-Luderitz railroad named Zacheryas Levala was clearing the railroad tracks of sand. At one point, he saw several stones shining in the dim light and showed his strange find to foreman August Stauch.

The foreman turned out to be a clever fellow. He quickly realized what was going on and asked where the stones had been found. The stones turned out to be nothing but diamonds. He then cautiously examined the territory and found some more similar stones.

The emergence of diamonds in these places turned out to be quite non-trivial. The tributaries of the Orange washed out the diamonds together with the sand and threw them into the ocean. The currents in these places in the Atlantic Ocean were very strong, and during the surf, the waves washed the stones onto the shore. The wind and sand carried them around for hundreds of kilometers.

August Stauch, together with the engineer Sönke Nissen, quickly acquired the rights to prospect for minerals in the area and the two of them became multimillionaires, while Levala got nothing. This was Western capitalism.

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Soon whole hordes of miners descended on the area and by 1912, the town of Colmanskop was established there, which produced a million carats of diamonds a year, almost 12% of the diamond output in the world at that time.

The famous African diamond rush began.

Colmanskop quickly became a wealthy town – an oasis in the middle of a barren desert and became Africa’s richest town despite a very small population of less than 500.

The local miners were also quick to become rich simply by collecting diamonds from the dunes of Namib. The German authorities were not happy with this story, and they decided to take matters completely under their control.

In order to sharply limit access to the diamond territory for ordinary citizens, the whole area south and north of Kolmanskop and Luderitz was declared a “no-go zone” Sperrgebiet, which still exists today.

To work in the mines they began to use the labor of the local population, building them ascetic temporary barracks.

Just imagine that more than a hundred years ago, despite the incredibly harsh desert conditions, the town had electricity, a hospital, school, gymnasium, butcher shop, bakery, post office, ice factory, furniture factory, lemonade and sausage factory and even its own theater.

Fresh water was brought into town by rail and placed in tanks, and the local theater hosted European opera groups. The locals were so well-to-do that they could afford to bring any European luxury to their town.

Buildings in the city were erected in the classic German colonial architecture of the era.

Solid stone buildings of European architecture began to be built and with each passing year Kolmanskop resembled a good European town.

There was even its own city boulevard with lighting, flower-beds, benches for rest – incredible luxury for such places.

The houses had toilets with bathrooms, central water supply and hot water.

It is an interesting fact that it was in Colmanskop that the first X-ray machine in Africa appeared. What do you think its purpose was?

Definitely not for diagnosing diseases, but rather to monitor diamond mine workers who were leaving the town.

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As they write in the Namibian guidebooks, the diamonds in these places were taken almost in ordinary jars.

But the “golden” age for the town did not last long. After World War I, Germany lost its colony and diamond prices collapsed. The German colonizers sold their business to CDM (Consolidated Diamond Mines) of South Africa, which settled in Colmanskop and later became a part of the famous De Beers.

By the way, De Beers was in complete control of Sperrgebiet until 1994, almost until Namibia gained independence from South Africa.

The intensive diamond mining quickly depleted the district by the early 1930s. The fate of the town was sealed in the late 1920s, when the richest diamond deposits ever known were discovered south of Kolmpanskoe near the Orange River.

CDM moved its headquarters there as well, completely relocating all of its equipment to a new mine near the mouth of the Orange River.

Residents of the city also rushed to the new field, abandoning their homes and possessions.

By 1956, Colmanskop was completely abandoned, becoming a veritable ghost town in the desert. Now the sands are slowly reclaiming their territory from the once thriving town, entering through the doors and entrances of the ghost town into the rooms of the houses and gradually filling all available space.

But inside the houses you can still find remnants of former luxury interiors, German electrical appliances from the beginning of the last century, communications and plumbing.

In the early 1980s, De Beers restored some of the town’s buildings – a store, a sports hall and a concert hall – and created a real open-air museum.

And in 2002, the local company Ghost Town Tours received a concession to manage the Colmanskop tourist site and the town opened to free access for tourists. True, tours of the town are only five hours a day from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and cost 100 Namibian dollars (about 500 rubles).

But this is not the only ghost town in Namibia. I will tell you about other such ghost towns from the diamond rush era in one of my future reports. They are much more difficult to reach, they are also located in the “no-go zone,” but that makes them even more interesting.

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