This portfolio of captivating images explores the mystical ghost town of Kolmanskop, displaying it from every angle. This haunting place, half-buried in the Namib Desert, offers a singular glimpse into colonial times and demonstrates the supreme power that nature holds over such a volatile landscape. Photographs and words by Michael Poliza.
Kolmanskop (previously called Kolmanskuppe) resembled a wealthy German town in its heyday but was abandoned in 1956 when diamond prices crashed. The sands of time have blown through the decaying settlement, which is now a popular tourist attraction. Founded in 1908 when a rail worker in the area discovered a diamond there, the town enjoyed nearly 50 years of history. Diamond wealth assured a comfortable lifestyle. Just imagine: German-style houses rising out of the desert, along with a school, a hospital, a casino, a gymnasium, a power station, a ballroom, a pool, a bowling alley and the first X-ray station in the southern hemisphere. It was also home to the first tram in Africa, and a small railway linked it to the neighbouring coastal town of Lüderitz. At its peak, Kolmanskop had nearly 1200 residents from some 700 families and held the title of the highest per capita wealth in the world. Today, the town is a photographer’s dream, if you get up early enough before the tourist buses come rolling in.
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From the sky “On my helicopter trip from Hamburg to Cape Town in 2006, which took eight weeks, Kolmanskop was one of our final destinations. The vastness of the lonely landscape dwarfs the buildings and the sand seeks to drown the structures. It is not until you approach the houses that their characteristic German architecture, featuring truncated roofs and generous windows, can be appreciated. And being German myself, many things did indeed seem very familiar to me.” Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, 24.0-70.0mm, 400 ISO, 1/1250s at f/16
Sandcastle “On this particular building only the facade remains, which reminded us of a Potemkin village. However, in this case its appearance is unintentional. When the residents left Kolmanskop and there was no one left to clear away the sand, nature moved in for the kill. Every day, houses and objects are exposed and then reburied by the hot desert wind. The air in the empty streets carries no hint of moisture. Life exists solely in the form of isolated, stunted shrubs continually tested to the limits of survival.” Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, -70.0-200.0mm, 400 ISO, 1/100s at f/10
Abandoned bathtub “Only fragments of the inhabitants’ lives remain: a battered kettle in a lovingly tiled kitchen, a warped wardrobe resting wearily on its side, a bathtub perched on a rising dune like a boat at sea. The unique look and eerie remains of Kolmanskop have drawn in ghost hunters from around the world and have provided the perfect setting for many directors, who have recorded films and TV shows here.” Kodak DC5560C, 24mm, 125 ISO, 1/400s at f/10
Doorway to another time “Nature reclaims what was always hers with the might of the desert wind, which contorts the sand. Tourists tend to visit Kolmanskop during the day. A resident in the nearby port town of Lüderitz warned me during my first visit in 2001 that no one should visit after dark, when the ghosts stir through the dust-filled ruins.” Kodak DC5560C, 35mm, ISO 125, 1/80s at f/5.6
The burning heart “The centre of Kolmanskop is the casino. Built in 1927, it was the last building to be constructed. The food served in the big restaurant here was cooked in this beautiful wood-fired iron stove. This building remains in good shape and a visit to the town starts here.” Kodak DC5560C, 17mm, ISO 125, 1/40s at f/3.2
An empty stage “The well-preserved main hall in Kolmanskop’s casino was used as a sports room by the very active gymnastic club and as a theatre, which hosted visits of shows and operettas from overseas. An orchestra played here for all the formal balls, as well as tea dances on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.” Kodak DC5560C, 17mm, ISO 125, 1/40s at f/3.2
The mine engineer’s house “The empty buildings have been reclaimed by sand that lies several feet deep in places, like snow drifts. The wind is constantly covering and uncovering parts of the town as it carries huge amounts of sand in and out of the buildings. The exposed roof beams of this abandoned house produced some enchanting yet spooky shadows, which capture the juxtaposition of intrigue and fear that this remarkable place embodies.” Canon EOS-1D X, EF24-70mm f/2.8L, II USM, 1/640s at f/13
Photographer and travel designer Michael Poliza has released several volumes of his images of Africa, including Classic Africa, Kenya, South Africa and Africa. His latest book, The World’s Most Magical Wilderness Escapes, reveals practical tips on photographing animals as well as wild and breathtaking landscapes. Friends started to approach him to ask if they could take part in his expeditions, leading to the foundation of Michael Poliza Private Travel in 2011 and Michael Poliza Experiences in 2012. If you would like Michael to create a personalised itinerary for you, or to find out more about his books and photography, contact him at email@example.com
or visit michaelpoliza.com