Beer and Skittles in Kolmanskop

Text and Photographs by Chris Marais

Kolmanskop was literally blowing away in the spring of 2004 when we arrived for a most extraordinary tour of the ghost town in the dunes.

We found ourselves in a small cluster of South Africans being led by Ute Manns, a doughty Buchter (long-time Luderitz local) who switched easily from German to English to Afrikaans.We ducked in from the wind to the shelter of the bowling alley, with its long wooden lanes and heavyweight skittles, which was still being used by NamDeb employees working the nearby Elizabeth Bay diamond mine.

“Kolmanskop was named after James Coleman, a transport rider who was caught here in a sandstorm in 1905”, said Ute. “His wagon was stuck in the sand and his oxen ran away.”

So Coleman didn’t really discover anything (people already knew about the winds, so you can’t count that), win a battle or save any souls. He just got stuck on a hill that eventually bore German-Afrikaans versions of his name: Colemanshuegel, Kolmanskuppe and then Kolmanskop.

The old entrance sign to Kolmanskop.

Magic of a Diamond Legend

Today, I was dead-curious to find out how people managed to live here in the desert, where everything had to be virtually nailed down, where water was non-existent and the catering dodgy, at best.

And yet this place was replete with famous parties, dance hall extravaganzas, hookers, dandy soldiers, champagne-swilling doctors and caviar-guzzling citizens. Desert cowboys used to drop in and shoot up the chandeliers, then wander out into the wind and disappear for months at a time.

It all began back in April of 1908, when a railway labourer called Zacharias Lewala found an interesting stone. He took the stone along to his boss, August Stauch, the Bahnmeister of Grasplatz Siding near the town of Aus.

August Stauch took the stone from Zacharias Lewala and made a deep scratch on the glass of his wristwatch. He had it professionally tested in Swakopmund and was suddenly a major player in the diamond business, buying up mining claims and paying no attention to sand on the tracks any longer.

The trolleybus that used to cart people and casks of water around the mine premises

 Full-Moon Mining

By June 20 of that year, the offices of the Deutsche Kolonial Gesellschaft in Luderitz came to hear of the discovery. Diamonds were now being found all over the place, literally at the feet of the townsfolk, and it was a doddle to mine them. You simply bent down and picked them up – preferably on a full-moon night when it was cool and the cheesy light reflected off the carbonised stones.

At one of his claims, later to be named Idatal (Valley of Ida) in honour of his wife, August Stauch instructed his servants to search the area for diamonds.

Ein marchen, ein marchen! (A fairy tale, a fairy tale!)”, exclaimed his partner, Professor R. Scheibe, as they came upon diamonds lying like dropped fruit on the sands. The servants eventually ran out of hands for all the diamonds, and began stuffing them into their mouths.

The German emperor’s secretary came out to see this desert miracle and was amazed at the serene sight of people hunting for diamonds by lying on their stomachs in the sand.

Of course, the Luderitz-Kolmanskop area turned a little crazy.

This Namibian ghost village has become a global favourite for photographers.

Party Time in the Desert

“Beer halls, hotels and shops sprang up in the feverish, reckless atmosphere of this new El Dorado”, writes Lawrence Green in Lords of the Last Frontier. “Flaxen barmaids arrived. Over all floated the German Eagle. Within a few years, the little group of huts had become the well-built town you see today.”

There was a factory that supplied free ice (half a block a day to each household), lemonade and soda water. More than a thousand tonnes of fresh water were freighted in from Cape Town each month.

“When the ship was delayed, they made their coffee from soda water”, said Ute. “They could buy more than their allotted 20 litres of water, but it was the same price as imported champagne.”

The factory used imported ammonia gas and electricity to cool seawater down and freeze into large ice moulds. The butcher built his cold room next to the ice factory, and thus had access to chilled pipes. Fans blew the cold air onto the carcasses. Next door was a bakery, which supplied each household with fresh hot rolls every morning.

Good Brothel Business

Ute Manns owned a hat stand that once stood at the entrance of the town’s first cathouse.

“In those days, any transport rider who escaped being killed or kidnapped by Namas between Keetmanshoop and Luderitz was received like a hero in the brothel. His tired feet were washed in imported champagne, and he was offered the pick of the girls.”

The Luderitz brothel madame was also very wealthy, it is said. She was paid in diamonds as well. She hoarded her diamonds under false floorboards in her dog’s kennel. One day the Schutztruppe arrived, randy and remorseless. There was an argument about payment. The soldiers were never as good value as the miners, so the madame threw them out. In revenge, they shook her bungalow until it rattled, and were going to roll it down the Diamantberg when she relented and let them in.

The gently rotting interiors of the other houses left to sink back into the desert.

Champagne and Caviar

Kolmanskop had a very large hospital that could handle more than two hundred patients. It had the first X-ray plant in southern Africa, and two eccentric doctors. A Dr Kraenzle used to give every patient French champagne and caviar sandwiches in the belief that this was the ultimate distraction against pain. The other medico, Dr V Lossow, used to eat a freshly chopped-up onion every morning, whistling a strange tune as he chewed it. It gave him such an immense feeling of well-being that he prescribed the same (along with the Pythonesque whistling ritual) to all his patients.

In Discovering Southern Africa, travel writer TV Bulpin also tells of the wonderful gardens of Kolmanskop, and the social whimsies like training a tame ostrich to haul a children’s sleigh through the sand. He notes that the cultural standard of life in the town was so high that when the recreation hall (Der Kasino) was built, an expert was brought out from Germany to advise them about the acoustics, said to be so perfect that choirs still loved singing in the building.

They staged fancy dances, masked balls, operettas and plays in the Kasino, and the Buchters of Luderitz, perhaps a little jaded by the bawdy goings-on up on the Diamantberg, used to flock to the desert for a night out in Kolmanskop. Life here was tough, colourful, interesting and, on a medical diet of champagne and caviar, more than a little toxic.

The Felsenkirche looms over the Luderitz skyline.

End of the Party

But the general rush was short-lived. Not long after the initial finds in 1908, the German government decreed the diamond-bearing deserts a Sperrgebiet and if you were caught rooting about in there you could end up in jail for a very long spell. In 1917, Ernest Oppenheimer’s De Beers acquired the Sperrgebiet mining areas which became Consolidated Diamond Mines of South West Africa, and later morphed into the modern-day NamDeb.

After 1939, mining operations at Kolmanskop started winding down until 1956, when the inhabitants were transferred. The structures were looted by anyone looking for building materials. The fact that some buildings still stand is miraculous, especially in the light of all biblical construction advice concerning building on sand. The Namib came in by the front door of all the houses formerly belonging to senior staff, blew open the windows and set up home for the rest of time. The mine manager’s house was renovated and tours (special permits required) to the ghost town had been operating since 1980.

We spoke with Ute about diamond smuggling.

“One of the most successful smugglers in recent years was a woman with a glass eye and a patch, working out of Oranjemund”, she said. “For some reason, no one thought to search behind her patch. She must have taken out many eyefuls of diamonds in her time.

“That’s why anyone leaving Kolmanskop has to be given a strong dose of castor oil to make sure all diamonds stay behind”, she added, with a twinkle in her eye. We laughed a little nervously.

Jules and I took a walk through the old mansions, leaving deep footprints in the sand. However, we were followed by a slightly angry Namib wind that wiped clean our tracks, turning Kolmanskop back into an untouched ghost town for the next day’s shift of pioneer-tourists…

This is an extract from Karoo Roads III – The Adventures Continue. For an insider’s view on life in the Karoo, get the Three-Book Special of Karoo Roads I, Karoo Roads II and Karoo Roads III (illustrated in black and white) by Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais for only R800, including courier costs in South Africa. For more details, contact Julie at

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