The colonialist dream of Adolf Lüderitz and the ghost town of Kolmanskop

Bartolomeu Dias in 1487 stopped here to shelter from the strong winds that sweep the coast of Namibia. He called this place ‘Angra Pequena’, meaning small bay. Four centuries later the small town that had formed at the bottom of this cove was named Lüderitz, named after Adolf Lüderitz, a German tobacco merchant who had bought the land as a starting point for exploring the interior, where he was sure to find metals and precious stones. He died during the search, his boat sank in the rapids of the Orange River and he never returned to the coast. But his idea was not wrong.

Milanto sailing towards Namibia with a reef and goose-winged
Milanto sailing towards Namibia with a reef and goose-winged

We landed here driven by a nice wind, more than thirty knots, after three days of sailing from Cape Town. On the last night the wind dropped and a thick fog rose. We had to start the engine, cautiously advancing and monitoring the radar for possible small vessels on a collision course. At some point, before dawn, the cooling pump belt broke. We were now close to the coast and in these situations the first thing to do is to hoist the sails and try to put out to sea to get at a safe distance in order to have time and free water to solve the problem. So we did that, and in the morning we were again en route to enter Lüderitz bay. We sailed with almost the absence of wind in the middle of a fog so thick that we could not see a palm’s width from the bow of Milanto. As we approached, the fog cleared and suddenly the bay appeared under the sun, surrounded by a desert coast. We picked up a buoy with help from Andy, who lives moored on an old boat and tries to make ends meet by assisting those who come in to moor. After carrying out the immigration procedures on land, we visited the city. There was no one on the streets on a Saturday afternoon. Only a few guys I had a few jokes with, all very friendly and smiling. A young guard from the commercial port posed for a photograph with the girls who came to play on the waterfront. Life is simple here. You work and in your free time you meet with friends at the bar or stay with the family. On Sundays you go fishing on the beach.

Our arrival in Lüderitz
Our arrival in Lüderitz
A port guard posing
A port guard posing
Girls playing in the natural pool of the bay
Girls playing in the natural pool in the bay

But where does a city like this come from? München in der wüste, the Munich of the desert as it is still called today due to the Bavarian-style buildings built all within a year, in 1909, as evidenced by the inscriptions on the facades. A city built for the colonial ambitions of the German Empire which saw the construction of the first concentration camp in history, in 1905, set up on the adjacent Shark Island in order to imprison the indigenous Herero population that were in revolt.

To understand the development of this city we need to go back in time, a few decades after the death of Adolf Lüderitz, when what today is a place inhabited by sand and ghosts, arose from nothing.

One of the buildings built in 1909
One of the buildings built in 1909

In 1908 Zacharias Lewala, while cleaning the rails of the railway line of sand a few kilometers from the city of Lüderitz, saw a stone sparkle. He took it to his superior, the German August Stauch. It was a diamond. Poor Zacharias received no reward; but within a few months the place was populated by prospectors from Germany, who in a short time made their fortune and built a city according to the style and architecture of their mother country in the early twentieth century. It was called Kolmanskop (Coleman’s head), named after a transporter, a certain Coleman, who abandoned his ox cart here due to a sandstorm. The city was built according to the most advanced standards of the time. It was equipped with a power plant, a hospital, a school, a theatre, a ballroom, a large swimming pool, a casino, as well as housing for the workers, employees and managers of the mine. There was even an ice production plant and a line for the first tram built in Africa was installed. All of this in the middle of the desert.

The interior of one of the houses in Kolmanskop
The interior of one of the houses in Kolmanskop
The interior of one of the houses in Kolmanskop
Another interior
An ice-powered refrigerator
An ice-powered refrigerator
Some houses of the mine managers
Some houses of the mine managers
Some houses of the mine managers

Kolmanskop’s fortune lasted only a few years, already after the First World War it began to depopulate. The number of diamonds found gradually decreased and mining stopped. The city was abandoned in 1954 and from that moment on the desert began to recover its spaces by invading the buildings, now almost buried by the frequent sandstorms.

A hospital room
A hospital room

But what happened to Adolf Lüderitz’s vision? How has the diamond industry been transformed in this part of the world? The great mines of Namibia, managed by the giant De Beers, are all nearing exhaustion. Today, diamonds are extracted from the sea by means of gigantic ships 170 meters long, equipped with huge tractor arms that dig about 150 metres deep. Walking through the interior of the houses in Kolmanskop, where the sand invades the rooms, opens the doors and reaches the ceiling, it feels like living in a dream. In the silence of the desert I only hear my footsteps wandering around the walls of this ghost town. It seems to me that I am living in a great Still Life, the Vanitas of the ancient world, the representation of the passing of time. But in this case there is also the charm of abandonment and of a world that was inhabited by so many people who lived their lives, their loves, their passions and their hopes here. I seem to see them as ghosts that still populate these ruined buildings. ‘O Nerina! and perhaps I do not hear these places speak of you? Did you fall from my thoughts? Where are you gone,…’ Our best poet of transience comes to mind. That voice so desperately alive, also now buried by the sands.

The entrance to the ghost town
The entrance to the ghost town