A Story of Namibia | Diamonds and Dust

Kolmanskop deserted mining town in Namibia.
Out of a lunar landscape of black volcanic rock and wind-whipped sand materialises the Namibian town of Luderitz.

By Laurianne Claase

The church steeple proclaims civilization, here where the icy Atlantic ocean and the Namib Desert meet. Adolph Luderitz was a merchant from Bremen who acquired the coastal strip from Hottentot Bay to the Orange River in the southern Namib Desert. Adolph never discovered what wealth lay under the sand. He died on a boat trip to the mouth of the Orange River in 1886.Diamonds built Luderitz and continue to keep the desert from its doorstep. Neighbouring Kolmanskop however, has surrendered to the sand. Kolmanskop was named for Johnny Kolman, an early transport driver who ferried goods from Aus to Luderitz by ox wagon. Kolman's successor in the march of progress was August Stauch, the railway supervisor. In 1906, the railway line was completed between inland Aus and Luderitz. Stauch and his small team were responsible for keeping the sand at bay. August obviously had an eye for all that glitters. He asked his workers to watch out for anything strange in the sand they swept off the tracks day after day.One day, in April 1908, Zacharias Lewala, who had previously worked on the Kimberley diamond fields, found a stone which he brought to Stauch. The piece of 'glass' was sent to Swakopmund and the prerequite acid test confirmed it was a diamond. In the diamond rush that followed it soon became clear that the discovery wasn't a localised deposit but a vast diamond field, extending from the Orange River northwards 300 km and inland from the Atlantic coast for 100 km. Desert winds had blown the sand off gravel so rich in diamonds that even at nightfall, men on their hands and knees were able to gather gems glinting in the moonlight.The German colonial government of South West Africa promptly proclaimed the area, 'Forbidden Territory.' Almost a hundred years later, this 26 000 sq km of sand remains a no-go zone hemmed in barbed wire and Restricted signs. The wind-scoured and sun-seared Sperregebiet is some of the most expensive real estate in Southern Africa.

Kolmanskop

Kolmanskop was the biggest of the diamond towns that sprang up in the Sperregebiet and at its height, was home to over 1 500 people. Drinking water was brought from Cape Town by ship so that the ladies of this arid mining town need not be deprived of their rose gardens and lawns. Kolmanskop had electricity at a time when Germany still had gas street lights. Its hospital serviced the whole Sperregebiet and boasted the first X-ray machine in Southern Africa. Kolmanskop became Company HQ after Ernest Oppenheimer formed the Consolidated Diamond Mines of South West Africa Ltd. in 1926.All the diamond towns boasted recreation clubs. Kolmanskop's Kasino was built in Germany 1927 and was transported by ship to Luderitz and thence to Kolmanskop to be erected here in the middle of the desert. Today, an echoing hall with wooden stage and dusty paintwork, the hall's acoustics once resonated to the harmonies of opera singers,choirs and dancers imported from Europe and Germany. The caviar and champagne parties would go on for days. When the wind was blowing, as it was on the day we visited, the inhabitants would take shelter in the music hall upstairs or the'bowling alley' downstairs.In the diamond towns, as a former resident recalls: 'Germans always built a skittle alley before anything else.' Kegelbal, played with a solid bowling ball sans finger holes, is a staple of German culture and even today, the locals of Luderitz play once a week. Apparently Ernest Oppenheimer's grandson, Nicky, current CEO of Consolidated Diamond Mines, likes to bring his execs to play a little kegelbal at Kolmankop's deserted skittle alley.

The end of Kolmanskop

By 1938 it was all over. Larger diamonds were found at the mouth of the Orange River. The rush went south and with it Kolmanskop. The town held on as a transport depot ferrying goods into the prospecting areas of the Sperregebiet by donkey cart and mule. However, by 1965, the last inhabitants had packed up their suitcases but left their furniture behind them, lest any diamonds came too.Today, sand fills the corrugated iron houses, drifting through doorways and burying the ice factory, the champagne bar and the school in its dusty folds. Empty baths stand outside, forlorn under the withering sun and whirling stars. The desert is reclaiming it all. And yet, in those heady years from 1906-1938, a tonne of diamonds was plucked from the shiftless sands of the world's oldest desert. As for August Stauch, the railway-supervisor-turned-diamond-magnate, died of stomach cancer in his late 60's, destitute but for the 2 pounds 96 shillings he had in his pocket. He'd lost most of what he had made in the Great Depression.

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