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Our little home by the sea

We both slept well despite it being a little windy. I woke to see the sunrise behind us and the sky light up with that same old fantastic array of colours. If ever there was an appropriate use for the Asia “same same but different” phrase it has to be for sunrises and sunsets. We have seen some pretty amazing ones on our trip and on other holidays and I never tire of looking at them. I suppose that is the romantic strain in me. The sounds of a tug tat work in the harbour made me look out the side of the tent to see a large container ship being towed out to sea. What it carried and where it was off to I have no idea but I hope it was something exciting on both fronts.

Having had the benefit of an electric hook up, I think the first that has worked in Namibia we left the fridge plugged in overnight to make sure things got well and truly chilled. Unfortunately one of had knocked the dial from chill to freeze so when we started to get bits out for breakfast we had frozen milk, juice, butter, everything apart from the alcohol and the chilli sauce had frozen up. I wasn’t really sure what had happened to the eggs we had in there but knew we would soon find out when we cracked them to eat.

Today we wanted to get out to see the Kolmanskop Diamond Mine. A quick look in our Lonely Planet confirmed that we wouldn’t make the first tour of the day but that we could make the second one as long as we didn’t hang around too much. I left Stef munching away on his breakfast and hit the showers so that I could pack up while he showered. We made it down into town and saw a very different place to the one we had arrived at last night. Being Saturday the shops all shut at about 1:00am and it was as if everyone from the surrounding area had come into town to do their shopping. There were long queues at all the ATM’s with people getting their weekend cash and then heading for the Spar to do their shopping.

I jumped out of the truck and went to get our Kolmanskop passes while Stef cruised around looking for somewhere to park. We had time to make a quick stop at the supermarket to get supplied in for tonight, not the Spar or the other chain shop in town but a small “corner shop” type supermarket at the top end of the street. It was called the Portuguese Supermarket but there was absolutely nothing Portuguese about it. I’d hoped to pick up a few little delicacies but came out with the staples of sausages, water and wood for a fire.

Kolmanskop was well worth the visit and I would recommend it to anyone who happened to find themselves in the Luderitz area. I think you can probably wander around the site on your own but it is worth booking onto their tour just to get some background insight into the mine. Kolmanskop was named after a trader who plied the route between Luderitz and Keetmanshoop using his oxen drawn cart. One day he got stuck in a sand drift and had to abandon his cart. The sand dunes soon claimed most of it for their own so that only part of it was still visible. This is why the area and the village got the name of Kolmanskop which means Kolman’s Head.

Germany, which pretty much owned much of Namibia at the end of the nineteenth century had sent some geologists to this part of the country to conduct a major geological survey. Their work revealed nothing of interest or of value so whether they actually came to Kolmanskop is unclear. In the early 1900’s a railway was being laid between Luderitz and Aus, overseen by a German August Stauch. Stauch had asked his employees to tell him if they found any stones that were unusual and to bring them to him. One day Zacharias Lewala found a shiny stone and as requested took it to Stauch who recognised it as a diamond. As the German geological team had turn up nothing of interest in this area belief in the find was initially low. A different team of geologists came to Luderitz and they confirmed that it was a diamond.

Stauch applied for, and got, a prospecting licence and in turn this set off a mini diamond rush with many people coming to this area hoping to make their fortune. In time the German Government decide to curtail the rush and set up what it still known today as the Sperrgebiet, a vast tract of land that is a no-go area unless you are there on business from the mining company that now owns the land.

The diamond prospecting area of Kolmanskop soon grew into a small town in its own right, with initially fairly basic wooden huts being replaced in time by brick buildings. Ironically, considering the village was built on the edge of a sand dune, they had to import the sand for the bricks from Germany because the local sand had a too high salt content for it to be effectively used for house building. Today the village is a semi ghost town. It was finally abandoned in 1956 and the dunes have taken over. Many of the buildings are now totally lost to the sand but a fair few still remain.

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Kolmanskop, a mining ghost town, once a wealthy diamond mining settlement

Our tour started in the recreation hall which people still hire out for weddings and other big celebrations. This was a relatively late addition to the village and served as the central place to gather for church services or for entertainment. The latest films were flown in from Germany once a month and the hall apparently had great acoustics. Turn of the century gym equipment is still housed here – vaults, spring boards and the like – which seemed to have been a popular way to pass the time. Down at ground level is a two lane skittle alley, also a very popular pastime with the German managerial and technical staff who came out here to supervise the mine. This too can be hired for about £300 per night, a high price by local standards but people do it.

From the main hall we made our way to the ice factory, one of many advanced technological features of the mine village. Being in the middle of a sand dune, water was hard to come by and a precious commodity but ice was also needed to keep life cool. Water was pumped to Kolmanskop from Elizabeth Bay, another mining village further down and along the coast. This salt water was placed in huge tanks into which long rectangular moulds holding fresh water were suspended. CO2 was then piped into the vat to cool the sea water and create ice in the fresh water.

Next to the ice factory was the butchers shop. The cold sea water from the ice factory was also used to chill the butchers store room and a vent from here led into the butchers shop so that the cold air from the store room could in effect be used as air conditioning in the shop. The walls to the butchers store were very thick to ensure that the meat lasted as long as possible. The butcher himself had come out from Germany hoping to make his fortune in diamonds but he knew little about precious stones so he reverted back to what he knew well – meat. He still made his fortune here and moved back to Germany and carried on as a successful man in the butchery trade. The museum knows this because his son came and visited the mine and told them that extra snippet of history.

The store keeper’s house has been restored not with the original furniture and furnishings but with other period pieces from the time. The store was run by a woman, also unusual for this period in time, and she too made her fortune at Kolmanskop. She had a standing weekly order of goods and supplies that would be shipped in from Germany. The people at Kolmanskop, or rather the European settlers, had the best of everything – furniture, clothes, food etc – the best that money could buy. Their houses were well furnished and in the period after the village was deserted the local people pillaged everything of value from their houses. We later wandered around some of them and floorboards, doors, electricals switches, light fittings - everything had been taken.

We were able to walk around the refurbished store keepers house. The main room was laid out as a dining area and off to the side was the desk she used to send and process all her orders with the original ledger recording them still on display. At the back was the kitchen with the obligatory diamond weighing scales. A small fridge stood to one side. Each family was given a block of ice per day and most of this was used to keep the fridge cool. The ice was placed into the top with the perishable items on a shelf below. The next layer down was a bowl to catch the molten ice water. As water was such a precious commodity not a drop was wasted. The house also had two bedrooms, both pretty spartan but in a lot of ways reminiscent of Green Gables in PEI, Canada.

Today the shopkeepers store acts as a small museum about the mine. The original counter is still there running around three sides of the shop and in one corner is a small office which the store keeper must have used during the day. Around the walls are photos and information panels explaining about the mines history with some pretty interesting photos. One of the most incredible was a photo of people mining by night. The area was so rich with diamonds that they were literally just lying on the surface of the sand waiting to be picked up. Moonlight was the best light to see them by and one photo shows a string of miners all crawling along the sand on hands and feet just picking up the diamonds that were highlighted by the moon. Inevitably theft was a problem so people generally were only allowed to work a two year contract so that they didn’t learn too much about the mine and its practices. Each worker was isolated before their employment ended to ensure that any diamonds they had chosen to smuggle had worked their way through their system before they left the mine. Knowing that these checks happened later generations would cut the skin on their heads and bury diamonds below their scalp to try and smuggle them out. Another photo showed two women sifting what you initially think is a bowl of flour but it is in fact a bowl full of diamonds.

The shop counter houses different bits and pieces of machinery and equipment used by the miners and their families. It also has a standard contract of employment. The miners had to work a 54 hour week, long by current standards. There was also a whole complex tariff of wages and benefits. Each family living here was entitled to a daily quote of ice, bread, meat and a few other basic essentials. Anything more had to be bought at the store. Most people got electricity thrown in and a rationed supply of water. Extra water could be bought but it was so expensive most just opted for beer instead. It was delivered to each family in the morning using a small electric train that ran round the village. The village had its own power station and this, the train and the ice factory were just some of the leading edge technological innovations that this diamond village benefited from. Men who came here to work brining their families with them soon sent their families home because life in the bachelor’s blocks was such good fun.

After the tour we were free to wander around the village on our own. It was a shame we hadn’t got here earlier because it was one of those places that we could have both spent hours in. We started at the hospital, again leading edge and able to accommodate more than 250 patients at any one time. This was a high percentage of the mine population but people from the nearby villages would also come to the mine hospital if they were ill. The hospital was very eerie but you could picture it in its heyday. It was a long building with rooms leading off to right, generally small rooms, and left, larger rooms which probably housed around 6 patients each. Some rooms had tiled floors (operating theatres perhaps?) but most had wooden floors. Of those on the right of the building quite a high proportion were now full of sand as the dunes have crept every closer to the village. One room had a solitary loo still plumbed in to the wall but totally surrounded by sand. People had pilfered so much that even the electrics for the “help” button board at the nurses station was all long gone.

From the hospital we went to the doctors house. Two doctors were based at Kolmanskop and they shared a large single storied building. Here evidence of the “house robbers” was all too evident as floor boards, doors and skirting boards were missing. No fixtures and fittings were left in situ at all. As with the hospital, and the other houses we visited, the dunes were gradually creeping in. It was quite a sad sight to see because you could picture the life and vitality that would have once occupied these barren walls.

Time wasn’t on our side so we picked just a couple of the other buildings to visit. The first was the Quartermasters house which, although long abandoned, very much had the feel that it had been a family home. We have nothing to base this feeling on except the proportions and layout of the rooms. Our final visit was to the mine manager’s house. This was, as you would expect, the largest house in the village and it has been partially restored. The rooms are laid out around a central hallway and they are large and spacious. It is a house that I could quite happily pick up and put in another part of the world but Stef wasn’t quite so sold on it.

As we made our way back to the main communal room we both looked at the skies above that were darkening and threatening heavy rain. It created quite an eerie backdrop for our last view back at Kolmanskop as we headed back to Luderitz. With the afternoon still to play with we decided to head out and around the Luderitz peninsula. The roads here were mostly gravel again and with the rain it was uncertain what conditions we would find them in. Our first stop was at the old whaling station in Shearwater bay. Here there is a small beach and a few rusty buildings that were once the station. It was pretty wild and windy and we didn’t stay long. AS we left, a small convoy of 4x4’s was heading to the beach each filled with people in their twenties obviously off for an afternoon of fun at the beach, despite the weather.

Our next stop was the lighthouse at Diaz point. From here you are meant to be able to see penguins at the nearby Halifax Island but we saw none. The only sign of life was a local family who had come here for an afternoon picnic and they definitely did not want to be disturbed. We headed on to Halifax Point where we came across not penguins but some South Africans who were well and truly pickled although it was only early afternoon.

Heading further south we took a turn which led us off to a picnic spot. It was not where we wanted to go and there were a couple of pretty hairy rocks hills to manoeuvre across as well. One was so bad that it was hard to see on the way back which was it was that we had come. Thankfully we had the 4x4 just in case, although we didn’t need it. We headed down to Grosse Bucht (Big Bay) where there is a relatively long sandy beach. Normally you can see flamingos here but today all there was to see was another couple in their car. Lonely Planet talks about a picturesque shipwreck on the beach. I’m not sure if we saw the same one but what we saw I wouldn’t really call it picturesque.

We finally made our way back into town, leaving the barren and soulless peninsula behind us. We drove down to have a look at the Nest Hotel, which I think was the best place in town. It looked pretty decent and I kept it in mind as a possible bolt hole if the storm that had been threatening all day finally hit home. Heading back into town we passed a small church which looked like a service was going on. The road then led into a small street of very colourful old Germanic buildings. With our petrol running low we went on the hunt for a refill, successfully finding a Caltex service station but not finding an open shop to top up our beer supplies (also low). Instead we made our way to the waterfront complex, a small collection of shops with a nice café overlooking a bit of a boardwalk.

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Knocking off for the day

Hunger had set in so we ended up sharing a pizza rather than having just a drink. It was very tasty, full of garlic, but much bigger than either of us had expected. The wedding we had guessed at earlier soon turned up at the café. The bride must work here because she got a very warm welcome and lots of hugs from the staff but she and her husband, both equally on the cuddly side soon disappeared.

Full of pizza we headed back to the campsite and got ready for the night. We lit a fire but both decided that more food was not on our agenda for today. Instead we just sat and watched the sun set and the storm start to roll in. The camp guard came round doing his rounds, angling for a bit of a freebie handout of anything that was going. He seemed quite friendly but it was unnerving that he was carrying a rifle around with him and that his finger was on the trigger. He finally got bored with our company, or realise that we weren’t about to give him a freebie and moved on to other people.

As we sat the lightning lit up the sky in front of us. Last night we had seen what looked like either an oil rig or a big tanker out at sea. Our trip to Kolmanskop today confirmed that it was actually an off shore diamond mine. The lights were bright against the ever darkening night sky, only surpassed by the odd flashed of lightning. As the storm came closer and closer we made a judgement call about what to do for the rest of the night. On the one hand it was way too early to go to bed but neither of us wanted to get caught in a storm. One of the downsides of this type of camping is that if the weather is bad you have nowhere to pass the time. If we had a tent on the ground we could at least have some awning to take shelter in but that option was not open to us. So, by 7:30 we had both chickened out and headed for bed, knowing that we probably had a long and wet night ahead of us.