Being our second visit to Lüderitz we were far more on the ball, not just knowing the opening hours of Kolmanskop, we were also surprisingly organised enough to get there on time. And ‘on-time’ enough to not only see it but to even get on a tour. And more impressive still, it was the early tour! Although it must be admitted that we arrived just as the tour was starting and ate our breakfast while our guide kicked off his introductory spiel, which was rather memorable for one particular spectacle.
Kolmanskuppe – the original German spelling. It was later modified to the Afrikaans spelling of Kolmanskop. Translates to Coleman’s Hill.
While explaining the facilities available to the inhabitants of Kolmanskop, he described the various uses for the “Casino”, the building in which we were standing. It wasn’t a gambling house at all as per the English definition but more of a community hall used for everything from banquets to dancing to meetings. We were told that the Casino had been designed by some well qualified architects in Germany and the acoustics by all accounts were outstanding. “Fair enough” I thought, the trivial factoid ironically going in one ear and out the other. Old mate then goes on to announce that he would love to demonstrate just how fantastic the acoustics are and starts to walk to the end of the hall where there is a small handheld stereo centre stage, and a piano in the corner. I’m thinking “mate, we believe you, we really do, this… this isn’t actually necessary… at all… please… please stop”.
To my surprise he ignores the CD player and sits down at the piano. I must admit I’m a bit pessimistic but quickly back peddle as he beings to play. It becomes quite obvious that: (a) the piano was nicely tuned; (b) old mate can play it very well indeed; and (c) the acoustics of the building are exceptional. The next sound we heard was the bottom jaws of every participant on the tour, about 20 or so, creak open and smash into the floor in unison. Old mate burst into song and this bloke can sing! Seriously, like this fella must be Namibian Idol for sure.
Everyone is enraptured for the next 3 minutes or so while he plays out his song. Truth be told it wasn’t a demonstration of acoustics at all as it was obvious after about 5 seconds that they were very good. This exhibition was a blatant advertisement, for it turns out the CD perched on top of the piano is actually his album and not so surprisingly it is for sale. He receives a hearty applause from us thoroughly enthralled tourists but I don’t think anyone bought his CD – maybe because it was in Afrikaans. Anyway, this dude had serious talent. Fact.
I would like to introduce THE Namibian Idol to the world! It is this guy!
It was a highly unique way to start a tour and put everyone in quite a jovial mood. Our singing guide was a great source of information on the area and its history and presented it in an effervescent, camp as a row of tents, kind of way. Turns out that Kolmanskop, as with a lot of old mining towns, has a fascinating past laced with sordid stories of greed and depravity. Diamonds were discovered in 1908 after a worker dug one up while constructing a railway in the area. This fella just happened to have previously worked in the Kimberly diamond fields of South Africa so he knew exactly what he was looking at.
It is said that the first things the Germans made anywhere was a Skittle Alley, kind of like 10 pin bowling. Then NamDeb guys still use this alley today for boozy tournaments apparently.
Now all they needed was qualified certification of the diamond before they could list the company and raise some capital to get mining. In Keetmanshoop, the nearest town of any real consequence, there just happened to be geologist who would positively confirm the identification. Being the only one in Namibia, old mate knew he was in a pretty prime position to benefit from his isolated circumstance and demanded he be written into the company as a primary shareholder or he wouldn’t formally confirm what they already knew. With time of the essence and no real alternatives, they succumbed and he earned/extorted his fortune. A classic bit of scumbag brinksmanship.
The Mine Managers house. Me wishing I could make a quick and enormous fortune! This one had been partly renovated.
Wonderfully preserved 100yr old wall paper in the fancy houses near the top of the hill
When we first visited Namibia Tanya touched on a couple interesting Kolmanskop facts in her blog, some of which I’ll also include here. So if you get a sense of déjà vu reading this don’t stress, its not a glitch in the Matrix, although still feel free to practice your best Keanu Reeves “whoah”.
The town of Kolmanskop was built and mining kicked off in 1909. At its peak it was home to about 1500 people, and the diamond fields were so prolific that by the time World War One started 5 years later one tonne of diamonds, over 5 million carats, had been mined including a 246 carat monster the size of a golf ball. Realising the scale of the resource and wanting to secure it, the German Government declared a 26000km2 Prohibited Zone all the way from the South African border 320kms to the south and up to about 100km inland and denied access to all members of the public.
Snooping members of the public not allowed!
And stay out!
Mining at this early stage was tragic from a humanity perspective, a lot of it involved chaining black labourers around the ankles and having them crawl over the hot sand on hands and knees. Thankfully, as the diamonds laying on the surface were soon exploited the mining operation advanced to conventional mechanised open cut techniques. The mine closed in 1954 and the town was abandoned, leaving it to be slowly engulfed by the sands of the desert.
See, told you it got engulfed by the sands of the desert. Plenty sand. Many many sand everywhere!
Even more sand.
The Architects House absolutely chockers with the desert. This one was very unstable.
Kolmanskop was very well set up for such a small town of that era; including Africa’s first tram to deliver everyone’s daily ration of ice (from the ice factory) and fresh water (20l per person shipped from Cape Town), and a very well setup hospital which included the southern hemispheres first x-ray machine. I’m assuming the radiologist must have really hated his job as it was used primarily to search for smuggled diamonds – surely one can x-ray only so many colons in a lifetime. Another interesting smuggling fact; owning pigeons is illegal in the entire Prohibited Zone as stolen diamonds can be strapped to a pigeon and then released to fly home. This ploy can often come undone by greed as overloaded pigeons either die or stop due to exhaustion, where they can be trapped, have the diamonds retrieved and the pigeon released again. It’s then a simple operation to follow the pigeon home to find the thief.
Inside the hospital. This hole in the wall I think was the radiologist trying to escape his office after being asked to x-ray another hairy miner’s butt.
And this was the radiologist’s house. “Guess what they made me do again today!” and BAM! Another Door off the hinges!! Note – this actually wasn’t the radiologists house at all.
The hospital’s verandah. Lots of lonely afternoons looking out into the desert with tears in his eyes. Please lord, not another smuggler! Not one more!!
WW1 had huge ramifications for the area. South Africa, at the request of England, invaded German South West Africa (the colony that was the precursor to Namibia) and by 1915 they had defeated the German forces stationed there. The mining rights were stripped from the German Diamond Corporation and transferred to De Beers who operated with complete and unfettered control right up to independence in 1990, when the Namibian Government bought in 50/50 with De Beers. In the 70’s and 80’s as the UN and the worldwide community put increasing pressure on South Africa for illegally occupying Namibia, De Beers was accused by internal whistleblowers of unsustainably mining the cream of the deposits and not declaring the full value of diamonds mined. Essentially industrial scale theft from an occupied nation by a company unencumbered by pesky ethics or scruples. In Namibia alone De Beers has been accused of illegal mining, human rights abuses, and has been embroiled in corruption scandals with the Government. Classy.
Some interesting photo opportunities. It really was a photographer’s paradise.
The dry weather meant the buildings were very well preserved.
Lovely set of stairs
Wandering up to the top houses.
Today, it is estimated that at least 4 million carats are still unmined in the Kolmanskop region, and while rare, it is not unheard of to stumble upon a diamond on the ground. To ensure that these diamonds are declared, a finder’s fee of 70% of the value of the diamond is given as an incentive, and the disincentive of prison time if you don’t.
Wandering around looking for diamonds….. nope nothing. Plenty sand though.
Any diamonds in this room? Nope…
Interrupting her sand bath…
Views of Kolmanskop. Not very exciting.
After another day in town for bit of bike maintenance (new sparkplugs, checked air filters after so much sand and leaned off the idle mixture a bit), and general chill out by the seaside eating sea creatures and drinking, it was time to hit the road again. The wind had been horrific in Lüderitz with at least 40 knots for the previous 2 weeks or so, and talking with the owner of the backpackers he mentioned the following day would be even worse with +50 knot winds forecast. He advised us to leave early.
Wondering around Lüderitz. One downside of travelling with a geo is this – constantly stopping to look at rocks.
Redefining windy. These roads would have been cleared during the night by the maintenance crew. But here comes the desert across the road yet again. This is 8am and it already coming over the road.
We were out of town before 8 but even then it was touch and go as the wind was starting to get pretty serious. The first 30 or 40kms or so were especially horrid, with sand blowing across the road and massive gusts trying to blow us over. Thankfully by the time we were near Aus the wind had receded to a blustery but manageable level, however the vibration of a cattle grid was the last straw for my poor chain and that snapped.
The end of the broken chain removed and getting ready to attach the fresh bit
I had been watching them for a while and knew they were both pretty worn, however mine was the worse of the two. By now it had done about 29000kms and was stretched to one click off the end of adjustment. I already had new chains in Windhoek, however the accompanying new sprockets hadn’t arrived and I wasn’t keen on putting new chains on old sprockets. So I figured we could try push the envelope a little further and hopefully get to Lüderitz and back via Swakopmund, an additional 1500kms or so. Apparently the chain didn’t agree! I always carry spare master links and a length of spare chain, so it was a simple enough operation to repair the break and 30 minutes later we were off again.
New bit of chain added
And joining it.
We headed north on the C13 which is locally known as a bit of an acid test for riders new to sand. Tony from Windhoek had regaled us with tales from a BMW club ride he had done where 3 people were hospitalised (and seriously at that, a couple badly broken legs and a punctured lung in amongst the usual broken ribs and collar bones) within about 10kms of each other, due mainly to inexperience riding big loaded bikes in soft conditions. We then continued north on the D707, which threads between the sand dunes of the Namib Desert on the left and the mountains of the southern Namib Rand on the right. It had a reputation for being even more sandy and not a good route option for the average guy on a big adv bike, and I can see why it was that. It was definitely sandier but on the DR’s it was relatively easy going and we found only one quite soft of rutted section of about 10km that required some extra care and attention. We made it to Solitaire and decided to camp; bought some wood and pork chops and had a nice bbq with a couple brewskis.
The D707, sand dunes to the left
And mountains to the right.
Back on the main road – there is plenty granite outcrops to look at. Most Namibian dirt roads are mostly all like this, well built and well maintained.
We rode through to Swakopmund the following afternoon after some nice gravel road riding, including a detour up and down Namibia’s steepest pass. Walking through town looking for a restaurant we were aware of just how much German influence there still is in Namibia. While it was noticeable in Windhoek, it was everywhere in Swakop (as the locals call it). German signs to German shops full of German food, German beers in German pubs full of people speaking German. There are about 30000 people of German descent still in Namibia and its seems they are all here and very proud.
Spreethoogte Pass, Namibia’s Steepest Pass.
Looking down from the top. The steepest bits were paved.
The last bit of Kuiseb Pass on the main road towards the coast – was very picturesque
Just before getting to the coast, we had to stop and put jackets on. The temperature dropped dramatically, probably from mid thirties to mid twenties. It was a real shock!
We had a good walk around the next day, checked out the waterfront and a crystal museum and met some of our neighbours in the backpackers who had a very nicely set up Landcruiser Troopcarrier. Roy and Nicole where travelling with their 16 month old son Kevin who was born on the road. They were 3 years into their RTW overland journey and were on the final leg, driving from South Africa back home to Switzerland. They were heading north and invited us to join them for Christmas at Etosha National Park. We were heading in that direction too and the idea of being just the 2 of us for Chrissy seemed a bit lame, so we gladly accepted their offer.
moah hahahah! Crystals!
It was impressive, but I’ve seen bigger floaters.
View of the waterfront from the pier
We hit the road with the plan of going to Spitzkoppe, a large granite formation a couple hundred kms away, but we had a lunch engagement first. Way back in Keetmanshoop about 6 or 7 weeks previous, Tanya approached a tour group that seemed quite well equipped in the hope of borrowing a power adaptor so we could charge our laptop. The tour leader, Ernst, was a really nice guy and invited us around to his house in Swakop, which we were now off to.
We found the house and got ushered into a really lovely garden with set table on the lawn. We sat down to a fantastic lunch and shared some good stories. By the time lunch came to an end it was getting so late that reaching Spitzkoppe would now be quite difficult. We thankfully accepted Ernst’s offer to stay for the night and stayed up well into the morning chatting.
We cooked breaky the next day – one of our favourites. French toast, bacon, fried banana, yogurt and berries and maple syrup. Nom noms.
The following day we still planned to only go through to Spitzkoppe, so we had a couple hours to spare which could be filled with some little maintenance jobs. I’d bought a new compressor to replace my one that died in Botswana and that needed as much weight cut off it as possible, plus some dash bolts had come loose and needed loctiting. There are always a few little things to do. I found a little play in Tanya’s sprocket carrier when lubing the chain. Pulling the wheel off, the cush drive bearing was worn as were the rear wheel bearings so they all got changed from spares I carry. They had nearly 19000kms on them by now so they were due. With all that done, it was once again too late to hit the road so we settled in to another night of very welcome hospitality with Ernst and his sons.
Saying goodbye to Ernst and his son Daniel
After 2 previous failed attempts we managed to successfully leave the next morning. We made a quick stop at the local bike shop, Duneworx Yamaha, and ended up buying some neck braces and the owner of the shop, Jan, looked after us well. It was now lunchtime so we ducked around the corner to the “Brauhaus” for a proper German schnitty. Sitting with a bunch of lubricated Germans, we felt the urge to share a beer before hitting the road. It doesn’t take much pressure to get me to imbibe, so order a beer we did.
2 litres of beer in a giant glass boot. What could go wrong?
Tan got in the mood.
Such a beer, even split between 2, required a pretty significant sober up period so it was nearly 4 by the time we got back on the bikes. And we hadn’t even got out of town when I got that awful feeling that there is nothing connecting your front sprocket to your rear sprocket. Bugger. Seems I hadn’t riveted one of the master links so well back on the roadside near Aus and one had failed. Having used all our spares fixing it the first time, we resorted to the phone and called Jan. He turned up not long later and supplied us with a handful of 525 rivet links and I got to fixing it, being sure to do it properly this time.
While packing up my tools, a bloke on a CBR600 rode by, did a u-turn and then invited us around to his house in Walvis Bay, about 30kms south of Swakop. “I’ve got a place you can sleep, we can have a braai and few beers, but I’ve got to get up pretty early in the morning as I’m getting married tomorrow.”
Um. Wat? Even though he should have had much more serious things on his mind than accommodating two bikers, Matt was insistent. This seemed like much too cool a story to miss out on so we gladly accepted. We had a great evening and Matt did indeed get up and get married.
We finally did leave the next morning, riding past Dune 7 and out to the Moon Landscape – both local tourist attractions. We then rode up the salt road to Henties bay, stopping at one of the Skeleton Coast’s many shipwrecks on the way. Heading inland, the scenery was pretty harsh with no vegetation of any significance, just the odd tuft of dying/dead grass. Everything else was rocks and sand. Yet even with that, we still saw Springbok out here.
Dune 7 – big sand dune
Looking out over the moon landscape
Riding around the moon landscape
The Zeila Shipwreck near Henties Bay. The sand was pretty soft but the big piggy handled it just fine.
Spitzkoppe can be seen for miles as the huge granite outcrop pokes from the rather bleak desert surface. For the local community, the tourists that come to see it present the main/only form of income. So along the roadside there are stalls selling mineral specimens mined from the nearby hills, mainly tourmaline, aquamarine, quartz, amethyst and the odd bit of topaz. The campground is run by the local community so that money should also filter in somehow or another.
Riding from Henties Bay to Spitzkoppe
Geologist drooling over the roadside crystal stalls
Tan bought a couple things… It was a nice way to invest some money into the local community and made sure it got to the people
From left to right: Tourmaline in Quartz, Tourmaline on Feldspar, and Tourmaline in Aquamarine.
Coming from the Henties Bay side, we came in through the back gate past the signs telling us we were being very naughty and to only go in through the front gate. We weren’t too worried though as Ernst had told us to just present at the front gate and pay your fees on the way out and everything will be fine.
The back road into Spitzkoppe. There was a sign at the gate to go in through the front but the guy just let us straight through….
Riding around Grosse Spitzkoppe
And so it was. We decided to stay in a room so that we could get away early and ride the last couple hundred kms into Windhoek and still arrive in the morning. We still had things to pick up, and being Monday the 22nd of December most businesses were closing at midday for their Christmas break. Sadly the room was pretty overpriced but the bar was functional and we met an interesting South African guy there.
There was some wild meerkats there but had been around people so much they were pretty tame.
Digging for din dins
He had ridden from Cairo to Cape Town in 36 days as part of a BMW group. He enjoyed himself immensely, however lamented the very fast pace of the trip and one particular nasty experience in Ethiopia. While riding through a small village, he watched a guy push another guy out onto the road and into his path who he then hit and injured, thankfully not seriously. He was quickly arrested in the kerfuffle that followed and forced to pay for medical expenses, a traffic fine and some other fees, and hire a lawyer and a translator to negotiate a settlement with the village chief for injuring this guy.
Tan having a cuddle before leaving
They agreed to a figure, however the chief backed out of the deal not long after as they wanted more money. By now the South African biker was pretty fed up so decided to just wait for the local magistrate to rule on the case in a couple days time. Technically he spent that time “in prison”, however the policeman was pretty relaxed and let him camp inside the police grounds and wonder around, he just wasn’t allowed to leave. The magistrate gave him a small fine and let him go, however the whole ordeal cost about US$1000 all up. The really sad part is that this was all a money making scam, the villagers just take turns getting injured. He loved the scenery of Ethiopia, but didn’t enjoy the incessant and aggressive begging, rock throwing and the general anti-foreigner attitude.
Leaving Spitzkoppe on the way to Windhoek to pick up tyres and other spare parts
We made Windhoek on time down a very boring but quite busy tar road, certainly very busy compared to the places we had been recently. At our first stop we got some tyres that will hopefully last us to Europe (Heidenau K60 rears and Conti TKC80 fronts) and replacement intercom batteries as both of ours had failed. Needing come cash, I hopped on the bike to go to an ATM and thought I could hear a faint rattle coming from the motor. Surely not…
We got our stuff and made our way to the next rendezvous, the local Suzuki Dealer for knobby tyres for Damaraland and Kaokoland (Pirelli MT21’s), sprockets and a few other things. This time I was sure – a very faint but definite knock knock knock.