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Published: January 26th 2018
Kolmanskop is one of the most striking, unusual places I’ve visited on my travels. Beautiful, desolate and haunting, I have never seen anything else quite like it.
In 1908, a German railway labourer uncovered some interesting stones while shovelling sand. Thus began the history of diamond mining in Namibia. To begin with, diamonds were so plentiful you could simply walk through the desert and scoop them up with your bare hands. On a clear night with a full moon, you could see them glinting in the sand. Or so the story goes.
Kolmanskop was the town that sprung from nowhere to mine this treasure. Fuelled by the explosion of diamond wealth, it rapidly sprouted luxuries unimaginable for Namibia at the time. There was a ballroom, bowling alley, swimming pool, ice factory, hospital, sports hall, it even claims the first tram and first x-ray machine in Africa. Opera companies were shipped in from Europe to perform at the theatre. Wealthy families built elaborate mansions, in the German architectural style. Shopkeepers kept residents happy with imported delicacies from home.
It’s difficult to overstate how bizarre and incongruous such extravagances were, in this arid desert, so isolated that fresh water had
to be shipped from Cape Town. Having just taken 3 whole days to drive from Cape Town, we had a real sense of what a monumental task this must have been, more than a century ago. Kolmanskop began its decline in the 1930s. Output from the mine tailed off, and even richer diamond deposits were discovered at Orange River. It was finally abandoned to the desert in 1953.
Today the town is being slowly consumed by sand. A few buildings have been preserved in the style of a museum, and guides give interesting tours full of fantastical tales of lives that were lived here. The real attraction, however, is exploring the abandoned buildings.
You need a permit to enter Kolmanskop. Sam and I arrived before the gates even opened, hoping to catch the early morning light. When they let us in, we amazed to find we were alone aside from one other couple. Any tracks left by the previous days tourists had been quietly erased by the wind overnight. It felt like walking on fresh snow. I hadn’t realised we’d be free to run around unhindered. Just one structure, clearly on the point of collapse, was marked as
off limits. Everything else was fair game, showing a glorious disregard for health and safety.
We literally ran from building to building, eager to see all we could before the crowds arrived for guided tours in a few hours time. Dunes reached the tops of door frames in places, so we crawled on hands and knees to get through. You could climb curved stairways to the upper stories of grand mansion houses, balance on the few remaining wooden beams and look down through the ceiling at rooms below. The workers’ bunkhouses offered endless, repetitive corridors and doorframes lined up like mirror images. Slanting dunes and warped wooden floors were disorientating, like walking through a carnival funhouse, but with the added excitement of genuine danger. We examined the hospital with particular interest, eerie and sinister, with sinks full of sand. In some buildings the wind still worked at the few remaining panes of glass in elaborate windows. Others had succumbed and lay shattered, shards glinting in the sand, echoing the diamonds that started it all.
After chasing each other around for a while and gleefully filling our camera memory cards, we signed up for the guided tour. Dozens of
other tourists had now arrived, but the tour groups were split by language. Almost everyone spoke German or Afrikaans, leaving just 5 of us who opted for English. On the tour I learned that the first x-ray machine in Africa, far from being an admirable display of concern for worker wellbeing, was to screen for smuggled diamonds.
The local workers’ sleeping quarters were separate from this magical town, just visible over the dunes. No bowling alley or daily ice deliveries for them. I asked if we could see, but apparently it's disallowed on safety grounds. The tour guide was not particularly forthcoming in response to my questions on what conditions had been like for them. I did learn that locals signed up for contracts of two years duration, and were forbidden to leave the compound for any reason during that time. Two weeks before their contract was up, they were quarantined in a holding area with mesh over the toilets and fed laxatives, to flush out any diamonds they may have swallowed.
After the tour we wandered over to the houses at the far end of town, some distance away, purely because nobody else was going there. The
guide had mentioned that the buildings here were in very bad condition, but we hadn’t been specifically told it was off limits. Here there were small, ordinary houses for the families of German workers. Nicer than the single men’s bunkhouses, but nothing as grand as the mansions in the centre.
These buildings had fared much worse, perhaps due to their less sheltered position. Some were clearly held up only by the dunes that had formed inside them. Others had obviously very recently deposited large chunks of ceiling. The wind was picking up now, and sand swirled around as if trying to demonstrate the process to us.
On entering one house we saw the dunes were densely crisscrossed with snake tracks, so fresh the sand was still moving. We backed out immediately without stopping to take a photo. A sandstorm was starting and I wanted to leave, but Sam was determined to see every house.
He’d spent the whole morning picking up anything vaguely shiny, convinced he would find the last remaining diamond in Kolmanskop. So far he had brought me some coins, a bottle cap, a polished fragment of purple glass. Just as we were leaving, he
dug at a little glinting object with the toe of his boot and finally uncovered something interesting. The metal skeleton of a toy car. Tiny, like a matchbox car, 50s style. All the colour had gone and the roof was missing, but its little wheels still turned.
I wanted to show it to the guides at the museum, but by the time we got back I couldn’t walk through the wind without covering my face. I ran for the shelter of the car, and we both forgot. Sam only discovered it again in Johannesburg, just before our flight home. The ghost of a toy, our souvenir from the ghost town.
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