A biting wind greeted us on our arrival at Kolmanskop. No more than 45 degrees outside, the swirling fog couldn’t temper the chill even as the barely visible shape of the sun began brightening the gray morning sky. You would think I was describing a typical summer day in San Francisco, but no, this was late July, a winter morning in southeast Namibia.
The weather’s initial cool, dark welcome added to the sense of abandonment and eeriness that seemed to be wandering like a ghost through the collapsing buildings of this once-luxurious town. The sands of immense dunes now make their way through the open doors and broken windows, recapturing their original footholds and burying the evidence of the short-lived glory days.
Kolmanskop was built when diamonds were discovered there in 1908. It became home to hundreds of German miners desperately seeking their fortune in the Namibian desert. The shells of the once-active town businesses, hospital, school, gymnasium, and theater, as well as huge individual houses for engineers, doctors, and architects have all fallen silent. The family flats, each room painted a different pastel color with decorative borders, are now swathed in sand.
By the 1950s the diamond mine began to show signs that the gems hidden in its soil had all been removed, and the town’s people departed, leaving their stories and even many of their possessions behind.
Toward the end of the 20th century some buildings such as the casino, skittle alley and retail shop were restored. One can only enter the town with a permit — our permit was good from sunrise to sunset and, except for a few small groups in the morning, this ghost town was all ours.
You might think a full day among abandoned buildings would be over-kill. But, with the changing of light from overcast to sun to fog again, there were many creative possibilities. I even had time to take a series of self-portraits in an old bath tub – fully clothed, of course. Once there was money in the pockets of everyone in Kolmanskop and laughter on each stairway; now, desolate and forlorn, only the footprints of beetles and a few humans provide pathways to buildings stripped of their grandeur.
“Surrender to the desert” is the chant of the winds and the echo of the drifting sands. I wonder if this will be the same song in 20 years at Oranjemund, the still-active diamond mine located in the southern part of the country near the South African border. Namdeb Diamond Corporation operates the huge alluvial workings; it is so successful, it has made Namibia the world’s fifth-largest diamond supplier.
Much to my dismay, I did not find a single diamond in the desert; in fact, people are not permitted in the areas where a diamond or two might be found, areas called the “forbidden lands.” So I think I will remain satisfied with these images and the other kinds of memory gems which, for me, far outshine the diamonds.
My next blog will include some of my favorite Namibian treasures: photos of the wild animals. Oryx, Springbok, Giraffe and others will probably make the lineup.