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Namibia: it’s ludicrous not to visit Luderitz

by Jonathan van Bilsen – reprinted with permission from Focus Magazine – 

Most of the abandoned buildings are disappearing into the desert

Most of the abandoned buildings are disappearing into the desert

It seems no matter where I travel I am always amazed by the constant surprises I encounter, and a recent trip I took to Namibia did not disappoint me. First of all, for those not familiar with this south-west African country, it is home to the highest sand dunes in the world as well as the second largest canyon (next, only to Arizona’s Grand Canyon). I love Africa and have been numerous times, but always dread the journey and Namibia was no different; with three flights, the longest of which was 16 hours non-stop.

I can talk forever about the wonders of this African country, deep in the Kalahari Desert, but the one place that stands out from the rest is the German descendant town of Luderitz, located on the ocean, halfway up the country. If you draw a straight line across the globe, intersecting Luderitz, you touch Rio de Janeiro, and Ayers Rock, Australia.

So what it is it that makes this seemingly sleepy town so interesting? In one word: diamonds. Luderitz was nothing more than a desert town where suddenly, about a hundred years ago, diamonds were discovered on the beach. They were washed out to the sea from South Africa’s Orange River and brought up the coast by ocean currents.

Prior to the gem discovery the area was a desert wasteland. One day a German immigrant named Koopman travelled the area delivering supplies. A giant rock sat in his path and it was difficult for him to maneuver around it. He decided to blow it out of the way and found the precious jewels lying beneath. That was the start of one of the largest diamond rushes on the planet, probably equivalent to our Klondike gold rush. Thousands of people, mostly Germans, made their way by ships to this unique place, where the white sands of the Kalahari meet the frigid waters of the South Atlantic.

When I first saw the town I stood in awe at the vast white expanse of the desert. I have seen the Sahara and the

One of the original buildings in Luderitz, still occupied by descendants of the settlers

One of the original buildings in Luderitz, still occupied by descendants of the settlers

Mohave, but nothing prepared me for the constant sand blowing everywhere by the fierce winds. Koopmanskop, as the settlement was known is now nothing more than a ghost town, but less than ten km. away is the picturesque seaside resort town of Luderitz, which now is the only reason to visit this part of Namibia.

The people who live in Luderitz have come from all over the world, the majority being German, or of German decent. I met a woman, well into her seventies, who arrived as a teen on her way to South Africa. She found work as a barmaid and never left. I wasn’t sure what attracted the people, for the winds howled constantly and the 30 degree temperatures were a bit unbearable, but a visit to the abandoned ghost town and of course, the ocean, certainly have an appeal for tourists.

I set out from my hotel to visit the ghost town of Koopmanskop. The drive, although only ten km. takes a good half hour, as the howling winds blow sand so thick that it is like driving in a heavy fog. The wind nearly took my car door off when I stepped out and I was grateful to have had the foresight to carry a plastic weatherproof cover on my camera. Without it the sensitive mechanisms would not have lasted more than a few minutes.

There are about 30 buildings, most of them ruins, but each with a uniqueness and story centered around the inhabitants who lived there in search of their fortune. Walking through sand filled houses, a school and a hospital I could imagine how difficult life must have been for these prospectors as they crawled on their hands and knees over the sand looking for diamonds.

Abandoned buildings in the ghost town of Kolmanskop

Abandoned buildings in the ghost town of Kolmanskop

I’m sure many people wonder why anyone, leave alone me, would visit such a faraway locale, and believe me when I tell you I wondered that myself. There is something magical about standing on a place where most people in my world have never been (and probably never will be). A few months ago I couldn’t even pronounce Namibia and now I have stood among the deserted buildings, sand blowing harshly everywhere carrying the anguish sounds of the diamond prospectors, now long forgotten.

Although Namibia is mostly desert landscape it is also home to some of Africa’s wildest animals. A leopard jumped from the bushes a meter from my Land Rover and at one point I counted a herd of 32 elephants drinking from a water hole, but that is another article. Perhaps next month I will share my experiences with the wild animals of Africa’s Etosha Region, an area the size of Lake Ontario and home to countless species of elephants, rhinos and the predatory cats.

© Jonathan van Bilsen, 2015

 

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