Kolmanskop – a jewel of a ghost town in the desert sands

Pictures by Karl Terblanche

A few kilometres inland from the Namibian port town of Lüderitz, rising out of the barren desert in the diamond-bearing Sperrgebiet (restricted area), are the skeletal remains of a jewel of another kind: a grand and typically German town named Kolmanskop, or Kolmannskuppe in German.

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Perched on the southern edge of the Namib Desert, the town was abandoned by its diamond-mining citizens in the years after World War I for richer diamond pickings further south. It is now Namibia’s most famous ghost town – and probably one of the most famous in the world. Today, as the wind and the sand eat away at the crumbling ruins and the desert dunes slowly reclaim the area and the buildings, there are still many remaining traces of the town’s erstwhile glamour and its grand architecture that created a lively little Bavarian town in the middle of one of the most barren, desolate stretches of Africa.

In 1908 the railway worker Zacharias Lewala found a diamond here, showed it to his supervisor and soon a diamond rush to the area ensued, with the German government declaring it a Sperrgebiet as it sought to control the diamond mining. The town owes its name to one Johnny Coleman, a transport driver who, during a fierce sandstorm abandoned his ox wagon on a small incline. The wagon stood there for a time, and the incline became known as Colemanshuegel, later as Kolmannskuppe and eventually became Kolmanskop.

In its heyday in the 1920s, Kolmanskop was home to some 1,100 souls. They built large, elegant houses, offices and public buildings in typically German style complete with wide windows, grand verandas, ornate staircases and truncated roofs. All that was missing was the snow…but there was a large ice factory.

Soon the town also had a lively pub, casino, ballroom, hospital, power station, school, a skittle alley, theatre, gymnasium, doctor’s rooms and an x-ray station, a public swimming pool, and the first tram in Africa working the railway line to nearby Lüderitz. On the Ladenstrasse, or shopping street, elegantly dressed women visited the grocery store, the butcher, the baker, and the soda and lemonade shop, while just around the corner the architect, engineer and bookkeeper toiled away in their cool offices, taking phone calls from distant places.

Over weekends sporting events took place and in the evenings the townsfolk were entertained with ballroom dancing and by opera companies shipped all the way from Germany. Today these buildings are empty shells filled with sand, and the only sounds you will hear is the wind shifting the sands and rattling loose roof sheeting or wooden planks.

After World War I, declining diamond deposits and the discovery of new and bigger diamond finds to the south around the Orange River, caused the “diamond kings” and their families to start leaving. These days Kolmanskop serves mainly as a tourist attraction and an inspirational location for filmmakers, photographers and artists. The late, renowned South African artist Keith Alexander captured many of the ghostlike settings of this little town in his paintings.

Kolmanskop is the best-known of several abandoned diamond settlements in the Sperrgebiet – Elizabeth Bay, Pomona, Bogenfels and Charlottental – while another ghost mining town, Kahn Mine, can be found along the dry Swakop River further north. The mining company NamDeb, which administers the area, has created an interesting museum at Kolmanskop where much of the erstwhile everyday life has been replicated, while some buildings have been restored.  Kolmanskop can easily be reached by road from the South African border post at Vioolsdrif, or from Swakopmund and Windhoek. Visitors can pre-book a guided tour which requires a permit from NamDeb.

All pictures are by Karl Terblanche, a leading Namibian photographer based in Swakopmund – Cell: +264 81 679 8850 or email: karlterblanche@gmail.com