Brightly colored wallpaper peeling off the walls, dilapidated houses now inundated in rolling banks of sand … this is Kolmanskop, a ghost town in southern Africa’s Namib Desert, in the middle of a region known as “the forbidden zone.” And the story of how it got here is about as strange as the sight of the town today. (See nine of the world’s best ghost towns.)
A strange, painful history
One evening in 1908, a Namibian railway worker named Zacherias Lewala was shovelling railroad tracks clear of creeping sand dunes when he saw some stones shining in the low light. Lewala’s German employer identified them for what they were: diamonds. Lewala was not paid or rewarded for his find.
Soon, hordes of prospectors descended on the area. By 1912, a town had sprung up, producing a million carats a year, or 11.7 percent of the world’s total diamond production.
Wealthy Kolmanskop became a well of luxury in the barren desert. There was a butcher, a baker, a post office, and an ice factory; fresh water was brought by rail. European opera groups even came to perform. A sort of mad eccentricity reigned. One family kept a pet ostrich that terrorized other townspeople and was made to pull a sleigh at Christmas.
But Kolmanskop—part of the struggling colony of German South West Africa—was also built on a legacy of colonial violence. Only four years before the discovery of diamonds at Kolmanskop, the Namibian Herero people rebelled against the German colonizers, who retaliated with genocidal ferocity by killing over 60,000 Herero.
Boom and bust
Kolmanskop’s prospectors were becoming rich overnight simply picking diamonds off the desert floor, but German authorities wanted greater control over the incredible riches. They cracked down, declaring a vast area of Namibia a Sperrgebiet, or restricted zone, forbidding entry to ordinary people and reserving prospecting rights for a single, Berlin-based company. Tribespeople displaced from their land by the zone’s construction were often employed as laborers in diamond mines, forced to live on cramped, barracks-like compounds for months at a time.
But it wasn’t to last. Intensive mining depleted the area by the 1930s, and in 1928, the town’s fate was sealed when the richest diamond fields ever known were found on the beach terraces to the south. The townspeople left in droves, abandoning homes and possessions.
By 1956, Kolmanskop was completely abandoned. The dunes that once rolled over Lewala’s railway tracks now burst through the ghost town’s doors and porches, filling its rooms with smooth banks of sand.
A second life (and death)
In 2002, a local private company called Ghost Town Tours was awarded the concession to manage Kolmanskop as a tourist attraction, bussing visitors into the forbidden zone to explore and photograph the sand-covered ruins. Today, as many as 35,000 tourists visit the site every year, bringing money to the nearby coastal town of Lüderitz. (See haunting pictures of abandoned villages in Italy.)
“Ruin gazing” is nothing new—for millennia, people have been drawn to broken cities and toppled monuments, places of quiet contemplation that remind us of our own hubris and of the power of time.
Thóra Pétursdóttir and Bjørnar Olsen, editors of the book Ruin Memories: Materialities, Aesthetics and the Archaeology of the Recent Past, describe our fascination with ruins.
“Masked objects are unveiled, inside is turned out,” they write. “Collapsed walls, broken windows and open drawers expose intimacy and privacy, recalling to light the previously hidden, forgotten or unknown.”
Pétursdóttir and Olsen argue that the crumbling walls and sand-filled rooms of young ruins—their age measured in decades, not millennia—challenge our assumptions about the order and progress of the modern world.
But even these reminders that nothing lasts forever won’t last forever. Despite ongoing conservation efforts and a yearly limit on the number of tourists, studies undertaken around 2010 showed “a marked deterioration” of several structures in Kolmanskop.
Before long, the town might vanish into the desert.
Until then, the surreal ruins remind us of our societies’ power to build—but also of the material waste and human suffering we’re capable of wreaking. Today’s tourists visit a testament to the evils of the colonial system, a melancholy monument to a world disappearing once and for all beneath history’s shifting sands.
- Nat Geo Expeditions