Luderitz and Kolmanskop - Namibia Weekend Adventures, Part 5
Our last weekend adventure out of Windhoek was really more like a week adventure - just too much to see in southern Namibia. From Quiver Tree and Fish River Canyon, we made the five-ish hour drive west to the coastal city of Luderitz and the nearby ghost town, Kolmanskop - surreal area where the desert meets the ocean.
Driving to Luderitz - Ocean Smells in a Desert
There’s no real easy way to drive to Luderitz. Tucked into a sheltered bay on the Atlantic coast of southern Namibia, the city has one road in and one road out. To the north, you immediately hit the Namib Desert. To the south, you have miles and miles of windswept moonscape. To the west, the Atlantic.
To reach Luderitz by land, you have to drive 125 kilometers across rugged, high-desert-type terrain from the nearest large town - Aus. As you approach the city, the highway leading to the coast crosses the southern tip of the Namib, surrounding you with massive dunes formed by gale-force winds traveling the length of this desert, driving sand across the road like snow in a blizzard.
As we reached one particularly gusty portion - still no sign of the ocean over the dunes - we had to get out and take some pictures. Judging by the map, we knew we were getting close to the city. But, in a car surrounded by desert, it was hard to imagine being anywhere near a coast. These surroundings made the smells even more surreal. As we stepped out of the car, we were hit with a blast of sea air - not what we were expecting.
Cresting a hill several kilometers later, Luderitz, its protected bay, and the Atlantic Ocean unfolded before us.
Life in Luderitz
Due to a booking SNAFU, we ended up at a beachside hotel - The Nest - instead of our planned B&B in Luderitz. This worked out perfectly, as the hotel’s beachside location would make for convenient hangover-recovery dips into the frigid South Atlantic!
After dropping off our bags - and having the obligatory cocktail on the balcony - we strolled into town. Luderitz’s German colonial history and coastal/desert location make it an odd mix of other places. Walking around, it feels part New England fishing village, part Arizona desert town, and part Bavaria.
And, you can’t escape Diaz. More on this below, but Bartolomeu Diaz - famous Portuguese explorer type - sailed into Luderitz Bay in 1488 while returning from his pioneering voyage around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean. Paying homage to this history, plenty of places in town take advantage of the Diaz name.
So, it was only fitting that we’d spend our first night at the Diaz Coffee Shop. In reality, “coffee shop” doesn’t do this place justice. It’s really more of an everything house - coffee, yes, but also a biergarten, delicious restaurant, and raw bar.
And, in a great small-world coincidence, we happened to meet a fellow American traveler - Keshav - during our stop at Naute Kristall distillery. A solo traveler on the road with a local guide, he was off to Luderitz, as well. Jenna had done some digging and heard good things about Diaz Coffee Shop, so the four of us made plans to meet there.
Turned into quite the wet night! South African wine, big German beers, 75-cent local oysters, and a fun game of sausage-ordering “Russian roulette.” For context, the Germans apparently have about a million different variations of sausage - not just the bratwurst we Americans know. And, Diaz seemed to have every type on the menu. Not knowing the difference - and after a drink or two - we ordered one of each. When a massive tray of meaty deliciousness showed up, we dug in, damned if we could tell one “wurst” from another!
Diaz Point and Cross
Back to Diaz…
On our second day in Luderitz (and after a teeth-chatteringly cold jump into the South Atlantic for Chipp), we drove around the bay to Diaz Point. In 1488, when Diaz and his crew sailed by the area on their way home, they built a padrao on this point.
Doing a little research, a padrao - typically a stone cross or pillar - was something used by 15th and 16th century Portuguese explorers to lay claim to an area. Instead of “plant your flag,” these guys used the “build your padrao” approach to calling dibs on an area. Don’t think this approach to land ownership works anymore, but the tradition has created a cool place to visit outside of Luderitz.
Unfortunately, the original padrao collapsed years ago, with remaining portions removed to a museum in Cape Town. But, a replica exists on the rocky outcropping used by Diaz and his crew. The views here are stunning - north to the Namib Desert coastline, south to the rocky moonscape of windswept lands, and west to the wide open Atlantic.
There’s a campsite here, too - just happens to be a particularly windy one. So, while we were glad to have opted for the more luxurious, roof-over-our-head approach in Luderitz, we did stop by the coffee shop next to this campsite. After hiking up to the Diaz Point peak and seeing the replica padrao, we passed the sign for Skip Skop Coffee Shop. With rhymes like that, how can you not pop in for a sip? Delicious coffee and a great outdoor patio to relax, enjoy the sun, and take in the surroundings.
Not particularly relevant historically, but Diaz Point also has a universal barometer - like the one in Khortitsa Sich, but written in English. Always good for a laugh!
Kolmanskop Ghost Town and the German Diamond Boom
In the early 20th century, a railway worker on the line between Aus and Luderitz found a diamond on the ground. Cue the rush. At that time, Namibia was still a German colony - South West Africa. Naturally, when the German government heard about the find, they claimed a massive plot of land as a restricted area, essentially locking down the diamond trade for a German company.
Shortly thereafter, the German colony was responsible for roughly 20% of the world’s diamond extraction, with much of that initial take pulled directly off the surface (rumor has it some of the original prospectors hunted diamonds by crawling on their hands and knees under the full moon, gathering the precious stones glistening in the moonlight).
The desert town of Kolmanskop - 10 kilometers inland from Luderitz - served as the focal point of this industry and a true boom town. German ingenuity: ice-making facilities with daily deliveries of ice to every household, a saltwater swimming pool pumped all the way from the Atlantic, a bowling alley (and bar, naturally), German-style architecture - the amenities of “de Vaterland” - just in the middle of the desert.
And, in another early 20th century theme, the Germans in Kolmanskop used their technological prowess for, well, slightly less than noble purposes (understatement for effect). The company charged with running the diamond industry out of Kolmanskop owned the first x-ray machine in southern Africa. In the hospital? Nope. All workers were x-rayed at the end of a shift to ensure they weren’t smuggling out any diamonds…
By the early 1950s, new finds led to diamond production migrating south to the Orange River - the present day border between Namibia and South Africa. And, by 1956, with the area then under South African control, Kolmanskop was completely deserted.
Fortunately, the arid climate has done an incredible job of preserving the buildings, making Kolmanskop an awesome ghost town to tour. On our way out of Luderitz, we swung by for the morning tour (two/day - morning and afternoon). Led by a husband and wife team, the tours are fascinating. The organization that manages the town has rehabilitated the interiors and furnishings of the main buildings, giving visitors keen insight into daily life during boom times.
But, the most surreal buildings are the ones that haven’t been rehabilitated. The exteriors remain solid, but harsh desert winds have driven absolute mounds of sand inside. In some places, you can walk up piles of sand right out of a window. After the 45-ish minute guided tour portion, we were cut loose to explore on our own. Like Fish River Canyon, there apparently weren’t any liability concerns here - no roped off areas so free to climb anywhere we wanted!
Camping and Wild Horses in Klein Aus Vista
Driving from Luderitz to Windhoek takes around eight hours. Instead of doing this in one shot - and to see some more southern Namibia sites - we added two nights to the itinerary.
Stop 1: Klein Aus Vista. Namibia is home to the only herd of feral horses in Africa - the Namib Desert horse - something we certainly didn’t know before our trip. Mostly located on the Garub Plain an hour-ish inland from Luderitz, it’s a pretty unique site seeing dozens of wild horses grazing and galloping in this rugged environment.
The aptly named Klein Aus Vista Desert Horse Camp is the perfect pitstop in the area. After watching the horses from an observation point just off the road, we checked in at Klein Aus Vista. The place offers rooms in its lodge, individual cottages, and campsites. We opted for the latter and set up camp tucked among high desert peaks, a convenient location for a great local hike.
Just before sunset, we followed a footpath to the top of one of these peaks, giving us stunning views out west - and a top-down view of the “Stone Horse.” Quite literally named, this is a massive sculpture of a horse, made by placing hundreds of individual boulders in a pattern. At ground level, it’s just a bunch of stones. From 600 meters above, a galloping horse appears on the desert floor.
The next day, we made the long drive nearly back towards Windhoek. But, we had one more Kalahari stop. The ideal relaxing way to end this week on the road, we spent our final night doing the leisure thing, “camping” in a luxury tent perched atop the far western dune of the Kalahari Desert. Called Teufelsrkallen Lodge, German for Devil’s Claw, Chipp insisted on doing the obnoxious Marine thing, annoying the people around him (i.e. Jenna) about the Marines’ German moniker - Teufel Hunden!
Amazing month in Windhoek - felt like we did a pretty good job balancing a little work with a lot of exploring.