Phil Clisby journeys into the Namib Desert to discover what is left of Kolmanskop. Photographs by Christoph Hilger.
As we neared the derelict diamond-mining town of Kolmanskop, the road became more of a dust bowl – the wind whipping the sand off of the dunes that lined our route, covering the tarmac. Bulldozers, conjuring up images of King Canute, were fighting a losing battle against the sand tide, as they tried to keep the road clear.
As we drove over a rise, a vast, lonely landscape opened up before us. The roofs of ornate buildings, long-since abandoned, peaked out of the sand, struggling for survival against the encroaching desert. There was an eerie silence.
Kolmanskop came into being in 1908, when a railway employee discovered diamonds in the area. As a result, the German-administered region boomed, prospectors flocked to the area and the town grew rapidly, housing 1300 people at its peak.
The German influence is clear to see in the architecture of the elaborate houses and buildings, which include a ballroom, a pub and skittle alley, a butcher’s, a bakery and even an ice plant, as the miners sought some comfort in the harshest of climates.
By the early 1930s the town was in decline, as many of its inhabitants rushed south following the discovery of diamonds near the Orange River. The last three families deserted in 1956. In less than 40 years a town had been born, lived and died.
The sands that the miners’ wives used to sweep away every morning now gathered unabated, moving into the buildings and reclaiming the land.
Fragments of life are still evident: rusted cutlery, warped furniture, hand-painted wall designs, a bath filled with sand. One house had all but sunk into the dunes. In another the sand had reclaimed much of the interior, and as I struggled to crawl through the doorframes, the sand reaching nearly up to the ceiling, my son revelled in the fact that he was the perfect size to fit through, laughing hysterically at my efforts as I struggled to keep pace with him. In the ballroom, the acoustics were as fine now as they were then, and we were actively encouraged to put this to the test.
Pictures, for me, never seem to do Kolmanskop justice. You need to be there to experience its surreal atmosphere… it’s truly a place of a thousand unknown tales.
1 Stay at Klein-Aus Vista, 90km from Kolmanskop, and take a day trip to the old mining town, with a detour to see the wild horses of Garub en route.
2 Take the early morning, hour-long tour (avoiding the heat of the day), and allow enough time to wander on your own afterwards to get a real feel for the place.
3 Continue onto Lüderitz (a further 10km) and spend the afternoon on the desolate but beautiful Agate Beach.
The photographs accompanying Phil’s article are by Christoph Hilger, a passionate photographer from Austria. Having primarily travelled in Alpine regions for many years, he fell in love with Africa on his first journey to Namibia in 2013. Since then, he has done most of his travels on the African continent. Kolmanskop was an outstanding photographic experience for him. Visit www.christophhilger.com to see more of his work.