There are few places in Namibia that captivate the imagination more than the crumbling scattering of buildings that can be seen from the road 10 kilometres inland from Lüderitz, all the more so because the former diamond-mining settlement is gradually becoming engulfed by the ever-shifting sands of the Namib Desert. At one time the focal point of the diamond industry in Namibia, it was deserted in 1956 following the discovery of richer diamond fields further south, and the establishment of Oranjemund as the central hub of the diamond-mining industry.
Kolmanskop is the best-known of several former diamond settlements – Elizabeth Bay, Pomona, Bogenfels and Charlottental – that today lie abandoned and disintegrating in the restless sands of the Sperrgebiet, the remote area set aside for mining and prospecting in German colonial times.
The name Kolmanskop can be traced back to a transport driver named Johnny Coleman. At the turn of the century Coleman was a citizen of Aus, a tiny settlement situated 125 kilometres inland from Lüderitz. Before the railway was built, he transported goods from Keetmanshoop to Lüderitz by ox wagon. During a fierce sandstorm he was forced to abandon his ox wagon on the small incline on the main road from where Kolmanskop can be seen. It stood there for a while, giving rise to the name Colemanshuegel, which subsequently became Kolmanskop.
The origin of Kolmanskop lies in the momentous discovery of the first diamond in April 1908 by the railway worker Zacharias Lewala amongst the sand he was shovelling away from the railway line near Kolmanskop. His employer, railway supervisor August Stauch, had instructed him to look for sparkling stones, and when Lewala showed him the ‘pretty stone’, Stauch was convinced that it was a diamond. Once this was confirmed, the news of the discovery spread like wildfire, causing a frenetic diamond rush that caused adventurers and fortune hunters to converge en masse on the newly discovered diamond fields. Lüderitz emptied virtually overnight and hopeful diamond hunters descended in droves on Kolmanskop, some on horseback and camels, others in horse carts and ox wagons, some even on foot. In some areas diamonds lay scattered in the open on the desert surface. Historical photographs show miners crawling across the sand on their hands and knees collecting diamonds.
Kolmanskop soon became a bustling little centre, featuring a bakery, butchery, a soda and lemonade plant, a furniture factory, a public playground and swimming pool, a fully equipped gymnasium with skittle alley and a well-equipped hospital that featured the first X-ray museum in Southern Africa. It also developed into a lively hub of German culture, offering entertainment and recreation for the affluent mining officials, who lived in large, elegantly designed houses. Sunday afternoon strolls through the town were described as follows: “Fashionably attired in well-cut outfits, the better halves of the diamond kings walked through the deep sand, their left hands, mostly in cotton gloves, holding their longs trains very stiffly, while their right hands held their feathered and flowered hats in place against the pressure of the wind.”
The town reached the pinnacle of its development in the twenties, when it accommodated about 350 German colonialists and 800 Owambo contract workers. But when richer diamond fields were found further south and operations moved to Oranjemund, the decline of Kolmanskop was rapid. Soon the wind was whispering through the deserted streets, broken windows and open doors, as crumbling structures and disintegrating mining machinery gradually succumbed to the encroaching desert sands, to become one of Namibia’s most intriguing relics from the past.
In 1980 the crumbling town was opened for tourist viewing when the mining company CDM (today’s Namdeb) restored several of the buildings and established a museum.