Ghost towns and wild horses in the world’s oldest desert
Highlights of history
- Now ghost town, Kolmanskop in Namibia was once a thriving diamond village
- At its peak in the 1920s, it was home to around 340 Europeans and 800 inhabitants
- Access to sections of the Namib, the world’s oldest desert, has been restricted for mining
- A population of wild horses has bred there for generations, becoming an icon of the Namib
Vast and inhospitable, the Namib Desert in southwest Africa is a land of ghosts. Along a notorious strip of shoreline known as the Skeleton Coast, lie the wrecks of ships washed up in the morning mists.
Venture inland and you’ll encounter even more spectral scenes: one of Africa’s most famous ghost towns – and even ‘ghost horses’.
Considered the oldest desert in the world, the Namib has been dry for around 55 million years. Stretching for hundreds of kilometers along Namibia’s Atlantic coast, its sadly hostile terrain has made Namibia one of the least populated countries in the world.
Yet in the midst of this unforgiving landscape, there is evidence of a once thriving human settlement. Kolmanskop – Afrikaans for “Coleman’s Hill” – was once a booming diamond mining town, with a grand ballroom, casino and bowling alley. Today, it is a strange ghost colony, its buildings covered with sand are slowly recovered by the dunes.
Named after Johnny Coleman, a man who abandoned his oxcart there during a sandstorm, the area was the center of a diamond boom a century ago.
In 1908, an African railwayman named Zacharias Lewala was shoveling sand on the tracks when he struck a sparkling diamond. The ensuing stampede brought a wave of European fortune hunters to the area, which was then part of a colony known as German Southwest Africa.
With their newfound wealth, the settlers began to build a German-style village in the middle of the dunes, with amenities such as a hospital with a rare x-ray machine and a streetcar.
“Life was tough,” said Christo Biewenga, Kolmanskop tourist guide, but made tolerable by the fact “that they were organized in this city”.
At its peak in the 1920s, Kolmanskop’s population consisted of around 300 European adults and 40 of their children, supported by 800 local workers.
But when new diamond deposits were discovered under less extreme conditions further south, the fortune-seekers moved away. When the hospital closed in 1956, the last settlers left soon after.
Today, as a monument to the settlement’s distinctive history, Kolmanskop is a popular tourist destination, although a permit is required to enter.
James Alexander is a geologist for Namdeb, a joint venture between the Namibian government and diamond mining company De Beers.
He said the first miners “took the easier, the higher”. âThey would sparkle in the dunes in the light of the moon,â he said. âNow we have to get them out of the ground because the ground has cement in it. So it’s more difficult and expensive, but there’s still a lot out thereâ¦ There’s 400 million (carats) somewhere. “
But Kolmanskop is not the only ghost of the Namib. An equally iconic symbol of the region is the robust population of around 150 wild horses, which have adapted to be able to go without water longer than domestic horses, surviving for generations on the edge of the desert.
Horses are not originally from southern Africa and their origins have long been shrouded in mystery. According to Piet Swiegers, manager of the neighboring Klein-Aus Vista Lodge, the most likely theory is that they were German and South African military horses abandoned in the chaos of World War I.
âThere was a water point nearby,â he said. “That’s why the horses have survived all these years.” It is also believed that the restricted access of humans to the area has contributed to their survival, preventing wild animals from being captured or hunted.
For generations, horses have existed largely out of sight of the locals. âThey were known as the ghost horses,â Swiegers said. “We barely saw them.”
But in recent decades, their habitat has been reclassified in Namib-Naukluft National Park, Africa’s largest game reserve, putting them in closer contact with humans.
This raised the question of whether and how humans should support horses to keep their numbers at a sustainable level. The experts opted for a policy of limiting interventions, but providing some support, especially in times of difficulty, which made it possible to bring people a little closer to these ghosts of the desert.
âThe behavior of the horses changed because they got used to people,â Swiegers said. “They are not afraid of man because man feeds them during dry periods.”