The Namib Desert and its coastline, known as the Skeleton Coast, hold many stories of human drama, of instant wealth and lost fortunes, ghost towns and shipwrecks. The effects of these stories are still visible in the sands and sea.
Ghost towns and shipwrecks
Sand piles up against the walls of the buildings and pours into the doorways and windows, mocking the celebration of wealth that once challenged the desert. This is Kolmanskop today – a far cry from the heady days of the early part of the 20th century when the diamond boom was in its infancy.
Diamonds in the moonlight
When diamonds were first discovered, sprinkled on the desert sands, in the early part of the 20th century it sparked a frenzy leading to the establishment of Kolmanskop. Kolmanskop soon became a thriving town in which dreams were made and lost.
To protect the rich diamond fields the German authorities proclaimed a large forbidden area, naming it the Sperrgebiet. Lying along the Atlantic coast, the huge Sperrgebiet area (located in the southern Namib desert in southwestern Namibia) was 97 kilometres wide and 322 kilometres long. Three more towns, Pomona, Bogenfels and Elizabeth Bay, were established during the diamond rush.
Death of the diamond towns
The industry thrived until the First World War, which brought with it a downswing in the Namibian enconomy. Soon after the war ended, diamond operations were taken over by the South African government.The good-time-boom-times continued until the late 1920s when large diamond deposits were discovered in the Orange River plains.
The towns died quickly after this, apart from Kolmanskop which was used as a transport depot until the 1950s. Today Kolmanskop is merely a tourist attraction. Elizabeth Bay has since reopened as a mine. It was the lights of this town that I could see flickering eerily on the desert sands from my position on Possession Island a couple of miles off the Namib coastline.
There are a number of islands off the coast of Namibia that stand barren, lonely and unknown, and yet achingly beautiful in their loneliness. They were once the scenes of great activity in the days of sealing and guano collection.
The remnants of those days can now be found in the houses and working sheds on the islands. A brief journey through the buildings tells of dramas beyond our imaginings. I lived on one of these barren islands for six months, much of this time alone.
Life on a desert island
Possession Island is the largest of the rocks lying off the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. The island is windswept and desolate and the cries of the kelp gulls, that carry across the barren expanse, echo absolute loneliness.
In the brief spells when the wind dies, the background din created by the colonies of gannets and penguins tears at the soul. Cormorants and other species also find solace on Possession’s shores.
The buildings from the sealing and guano days are all still standing. Also still standing, but in various stages of dilapidation, are the grave-markers of seamen who died in the course of their wonderings.
The wind howls constantly, adding to the loneliness of the long dead seamen now lying for eternity beneath the shingled earth of the island. The crosses strike a very potent statement and I would often sit up among the graves and ponder the stories and lives of these men and life in general.
The mainland is only visible from the island on days when the wind is not blowing. When this occurs it can be quite intimidating as the sight of the harsh desert landscape of the Skeleton Coast greets you.
At night, the lights of the ghost town of Elizabeth Bay stretch eerily across the water. A remnant of the diamond glory days, this ghost town is used by mining company officials. The lights are left burning, creating an unreal image.
Ghosts and shipwrecks
Possession island is haunted, so they say. One ghost story tells the spooky tale of the the Auckland. The ship sank off the West Coast and all hands on deck were lost including the master and his wife. Some of the bodies washed up on Possession and were buried in the graveyard.
It is said that the master’s wife had her legs eaten off by sharks. Her legless ghost can be seen staring out to sea accompanied by two of the ship’s hounds. A labourer once threw a rock at the hounds and his neck immediately began to swell.
It was only when he left the island that the swelling subsided. I never saw the woman or the hounds, but at night when the wind howled across the barren waste I could picture her staring out to sea.
A thirsty death
There is very little rain and no natural fresh water on Possesion. A holding tank is used to store drinking water which is brought to the island every three months by boat. Thirsty men often tell the story of the foolish rower.
At a time when water was running out, and the boat was not due for a while, a man decided the only way ahead was to seek help in Luderitz.
He rowed across to the uninviting shore of the Skeleton Coast and proceeded to walk. Thirst overcame him and he died on the outskirts of the town. Fortunately the people who found his body realized what his mission was and sent water to the island.
Yearning for meat
I have visited some of the other islands off the Namibian coast as part of an extensive bird survey. The island names depict what must have been the longings of the sailors of centuries ago. Names like Roast Beef and Plumpudding Island speak of a deep yearning. These islands are no longer inhabited although the houses are still standing, now taken over by penguins and fur seals.
Wild horses of the desert
Another echo from Namibia’s past of aristocracy and wealth are the wild horses of the desert. Many tests have been done on the horses but it is still not certain where they originated from. Now an integral part of the landscape and obviously from prime stock the horses add to the mystique of the Namib.