Colmanskop, a ghost town that’s almost drowned in sand

What did the richest ghost town of diamonds in Southern Africa, which was completely swallowed up by the desert, look like?

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

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 engulfed by the sand dunes.

That’s how I first saw Kolmanskop . A real ghost town in southern Africa in the Namib Desert – one of the oldest deserts on our planet and situated in the very center of the region known as Sperrgebiet , which in German sounds like a “no-go zone”.

Colmanskop is about 900 km south-west of the Namibian capital Windhoek and about ten kilometers from another small port town, Luderitz, next to its airport. And the entire area around Lüderitz 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.

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. Then Stauch carefully researched the territory and found several more similar stones.

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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.

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 rich 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 picking diamonds from the dunes of Namib. This story did not suit the German authorities and they decided to take full control of the situation.

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

To work in the mines, they began to use the labor of local people by 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, gym, butcher’s 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.

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

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 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 corporate 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.

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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 buildings of the city – a store, a sports hall and a concert hall and created a real open-air museum.

And in 2002, a local company, Ghost Town Tours, obtained a concession to operate 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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