Wild horses, winds and weird old German towns

After three recommendations, we finally gave in and headed to Luderitz. From Seeheim to Aus for a fuel stop, then we left Aus to travel across the desert road to the coast. After abut 25kms, there was a water hole for the feral horses of the region just off the main road. We stopped for a look and it is heat haze central looking across this desolate plain, but some of the wavey blobs were moving. Eventually, some came into view clearly and then slowly they began to take it in turns at the hole in their walking groups of 3 or 4. All were unsurprisingly fairly thin considering the current drought, but most in reasonable shape. There are many stories about how they became to be here in the desert, most seem to link it to German Army horses that escaped before, during or after the First World War‘

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Not Red Rum, but reasonably athletic looking considering they are living in the desert

As we approached Luderitz, the wind picked up and whipped sand across the road. It was quite eerie crossing the desert in relative silence with this going on, straight out of the movies, but at least it’s cleaning some of the dirt (and paint) off the car!

There are two camping sites, one just north of the town and one on the peninsular which is supposed to be better if it’s windy. IF IT’S WINDY – oh yes it’s windy alright. We saw the first one and there was no shelter, the one on the peninsular was also subject to the same hoolie. Time for a proper house then. After a few abortive attempts, we found this great place called Zum Anker on the south side of town. I was going to say a great little place, but this place is massive with a washing machine and a bath – the ultimate luxury that we haven’t had since we left the UK.

We’d planned to stay one night but we really liked the town so stayed for two. A mix of old-style German with working fishing town, it was honest and real, not like some of the coastal towns you come across. If you want the bright lights, amusement arcades or up-market malls and white sandy beaches then this isn’t the place to go but that suited us. The town is sandwiched between the Sperrgebiet (or Forbidden Area) and the Namib-Naukluft desert and both are open to permit holders only, mainly due to the presence of diamonds. But there is a small part of the coast that you can explore, a mix of tumbling rocks and petrified dunes with the Atlantic crashing on the rocky coves and shell beaches. We went looking for the cave and pools that we’d been told about. We had the place almost to ourselves and the wind.

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Bad hair day?

We explored the town and had tea and cake in a shady cafe garden watching their pet tortoise munching on their beautifully tended strawberry plants. We wandered round the harbour, ate a huge sea-food platter and visited a beautiful but, to us, weirdly out of place Edwardian German town-house with original Art Nouveau furniture which had been imported from Germany, along with many of the building materials, when the house was built. We even got our hair cut! Gareth braved a very local barber to get what he learnt was a Panga style (short back and sides) whilst Angela was a little more cautious and asked the (white) cafe owner for a recommendation. They were the cheapest haircuts either of us have ever had but we were both pleasantly surprised with the results, despite the fact that Gareth’s hair took longer to cut than Angela’s!

On our way out of Luderitz we visited the ghost town of Kolmannskop. What a strange place. This town developed on the site of one of the original diamond fields discovered in the early 20th Century. The ‘alluvial’ diamonds, washed thousands of km along rivers and left in shallow surface deposits, sometimes just lying on the surface, were so plentiful that, in some valleys, on a moon-lit night, the ground sparkled like a the lights of a town and handfuls of diamonds could literally be scooped up from under your feet. They were also mainly of gem quality (rather than industrial). It made the people who found it very, very rich and Kolmannskop became a thriving town. Four hundred Europeans, mostly Germans, lived there in considerable luxury. They had daily supplies of ice, fresh milk and bread delivered free to their doorstep by a small train that ran the length of the town. The same train would take the ladies back into town to do their shopping. The bakery was fully automated and there was an ice production plant. The shop supplied all the basics – champagne, caviar, fine cloth, you name it you could get it. Famous opera singers would visit to entertain the inhabitants and there was a bowling alley as well as a gymnasium to keep the chaps occupied. Building materials were again imported from Europe, including marble fittings from Italy. You were in the desert but you wanted for little.

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The Kolmannskop express

By contrast, the 800 workers lived in large bunk-houses and worked 12 hour shifts. Where the diamonds were on the surface the men had to lie down and crawl forward collecting the diamonds as they went, their mouths covered with a rag to stop them trying to swallow them. Once the surface diamonds were collected they had to dig the ground with shovels to get to the deeper lode. They had to spend 2 years there and could not leave during that time. 10 days before the end of that period they were confined to the hospital (which could accommodate 250 people) and fed castor oil, to ensure that any diamonds they were trying to liberate didn’t accompany them out of the town. The hospital even had an X-ray machine (the first in Africa I believe), not so much for broken bones but to check for hidden gems, whether swallowed, hidden in personal equipment or stitched into pockets they’d cut into their own skin. The authorities were so worried about smuggling that, after a two-year stint, the workers could not return to the mine as they knew too many of the secrets and procedures. They even banned people keeping pigeons as they had been used to carry diamonds back to their owners’ homes.  

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German Ghost town in the Namib Desert

The Great Depression took its toll and the final death knell for the town was when a deposit of much larger diamonds were found down south near the Orange River. The town was abandoned. The residents literally got up and left. They were so rich they didn’t bother going to the expense of taking their furniture with them and just left it. Now, barring a couple that have been restored for tourists to see, the houses have largely fallen to the elements. Sand has taken over many of them and the only life there now are the Sidewinder snakes, lizards and beetles. It is a weird place. Because the climate is so dry the buildings are still in remarkable condition and you can explore all but one of them, that one being only supported by the desert itself! In places you can see the wallpaper and stencils decorating the rooms, there is even a marble bath in one of the houses, whilst the sand has been blown in through the windows and is adorned with the occasional rippling track left by a hunting Sidewinder. Surreal.

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Can you spot the Sidewinder track?

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Diamonds are still mined in the area in Elizabeth’s Bay mine and the town is surrounded by fences and notices encouraging you to stay out. The only way you can get into the Sperrgebiet as a visitor is to arrange a permit by providing a copy of your passport days in advance, so that you can be fully checked out. Too much forward planning for us so we headed out and headed north, leaving the wind and, sadly, the diamonds.

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