Luderitz

Luderitz

Trapped between the desiccating sands of the Namib and the freezing waters of the South Atlantic’s Benguela current, Lüderitz is a fascinating old German town, full of character. There is only one road to Luderitz, and bulldozers battle to keep it open through the shifting sands of the Namib. Meanwhile, on the coast, the beautiful buildings of this historic German town sit unchanged. Lüderitz has an atmosphere all of its own: gentle, relaxed, some say sleepy.

Around Lüderitz town

Around the centre of town, houses are painted in improbable pastel shades, which makes Lüderitz feel like a delightful toy town at times. The air here is tangibly clean, even on the foggiest of mornings. Local Namibians say that Lüderitz can have all four seasons in a day, as the weather can change in hours from bright, hot and sunny, to strong winds, to dark, cold and foggy – and then back to sunshine again. This variation, together with a cold sea and the prevailing southwest wind, rule out Lüderitz as a beach destination, though brave souls still take brief dips from the beach near the Nest Hotel or round on the peninsula.

In the evenings, there are a few lively bars, and a handful of quiet restaurants, notable for their seafood. But the entertainment here pales in comparison with Swakopmund. Because of its location, Lüderitz is not somewhere to ‘drop in on’ as you need to make a special journey to come here – but it’s worth visiting for its architecture, its peninsula, and to see a part of Namibia which seems almost unaware of the outside world..
If you choose to visit the area, allow a minimum of two nights to appreciate it, and to see its surrounds properly. Try to avoid Sundays and public holidays, though, when almost everything closes down, and the town is empty.

Tourism is having an impact here, but only gradually. Although several new hotels and guesthouses opened their doors in the years following independence, there’s a marked downturn in the town’s economy, offset only partly by visiting cruise ships. Even the trendy new waterfront development near the harbour is looking a little tired. On the plus side, use of the harbour as the export base for the Skorpion zinc mine near Rosh Pinah has brought considerable new business into the town. Investment in the town’s infrastructure is also ongoing, with plans to develop the old power station near the Nest Hotel – including a maritime museum, craft market and sports facilities – finally coming to fruition with hopes for completion in 2014.

Excursions from Lüderitz

If you visit, then stay for at least two nights – and so enjoy some of the excursions mentioned here.

Kolmanskop

This ghost town, once the principal town of the local diamond industry, was abandoned over 45 years ago and now gives a fascinating insight into the area’s great diamond boom. A few of the buildings, including the imposing concert hall, have been restored, but many are left exactly as they were deserted, and now the surrounding dunes are gradually burying them. What a spectacular place this would be for a large party.
In a room adjacent to the concert hall, there is a simple café-style. Do make time to look at the photographs that adorn the walls, from early mining pictures to some chilling reminders of the far-reaching effects of Nazi Germany.

A century since diamonds were first discovered here, it’s now possible to buy diamonds in the ‘Diamond Room’, with prices upwards from N$500. There’s also a display here charting the history of the diamond boom and the people with whom it is inextricably linked.

Boat trips

Weather permitting, boat trips leave the harbour at around 08.00 (departure times vary depending on the season) for a 2½-hour trip – under sail if you’re lucky – past the whaling station at Sturmvogel Bucht, around Diaz Point and on to Halifax Island in search of African penguins, seals and the endemic heavyside dolphin. While visitors are almost guaranteed to see these creatures, keep your eyes open and you’ll spot plenty of birds as well, from scoters and various species of cormorant to oystercatchers and flamingos. Choose from a traditional small schooner, the Sedina which, if you’re lucky, will do part of the trip under sail, or the more comfortable Zeepaard, a motorised catamaran. The Zeepard also offers a sunset cruise, oyster trips, and fishing trips.

Oyster Tours

Oysters are an important part of the fishing industry in Lüderitz, and now visitors can find out about what happens before they reach the table. Tours are at Lüderitz Boatyard, starting in the oyster-processing factory and ending at the Oyster Bar – where there’s the option of oyster tasting with a glass of wine.

Agate Beach

This windswept beach is a 5km drive north of Lüderitz, alongside fenced-off areas of the Sperrgebiet National Park that add to the air of desolation, particularly in winter. En route, a pond to the side of the road attracts small numbers of flamingos and other waterbirds, while nearby the odd springbok or oryx takes advantage of a patch of green around the water-treatment plant. The beach stretches a long way and is fun for beachcombers. The almost-black sand is sprinkled with fragments of shining mica – and the occasional agate. The occurrence of agates depends on the winds and the swell: sometimes you will find nothing, at others – especially at low tide – you can pick up a handful in a few hours. The beach’s braai spots make it a popular place at weekends, and swimming, too is an (albeit chilly) option.

Luderitz Peninsula

To the southwest of the town lies the Lüderitz peninsula, surrounded by sea on three sides yet a rocky desert within. Here, the lower slopes are dotted with a surprising variety of salt-tolerant succulent plants. In winter, if there’s been some good rain, many of these are in flower, affording scope for hours of plant spotting. Around the coast there are some rocky beaches and some sandy ones; all are worth exploring.
The most interesting parts of the peninsula are:
  • Radford Bay This is reached shortly after leaving the town, and is often home to a flock of flamingos.

  • Second Lagoon Also a popular spot with visiting flamingos, and sometimes the odd stranded motorist.

  • Griffith Bay Excellent views of the town across the cold, misty sea, plus a few crystal-clear rocks pools to dabble in. It is named after an American officer who sheltered here and was then killed during the American Civil War.

  • Angra Point Believe it or not, there is a golf course here, the Angra Club, its nine holes played exclusively on sand. Although it’s open to the public, locals advise visitors to go with someone who knows the course.

  • Sturmvogel Bucht The whaling station here can no longer be visited by boat, but is visible from the sea as part of a boat trip.

  • Diaz Point Reached by a short wooden bridge is a granite cross, a replica of the one erected by Bartholomeu Dias, the first European explorer to enter the bay. He sheltered here in the late 14th century, referring to the bay as Angra Pequena, or ‘Little Bay’. There are often seals sunning themselves on the rocks here. Just south of Diaz Point is a grave bearing a stark reminder: ‘George Pond of London, died here of hunger and thirst 1906’. Today a small café saves visitors from the same fate.

The Sperrgebiet

From Lüderitz to the South African border, a huge area of the Namib Desert has been off-limits for decades. The Sperrgebiet, which literally translates as ‘the forbidden zone’, covers an enormous 26,000km² (20% larger than Wales!). It protects endless desert plains, treacherous shifting sands and the secrets of ghost towns, abandoned relics of communities that sprang up at the turn of the century, fuelled by a diamond-rush.

It was first declared in 1908 when mining was confined to within a few kilometres of the coast. A coastal belt 100km wide was declared ‘out of bounds’ as a precaution to prevent unauthorised people from reaching the diamond fields.

At the height of restrictions there were two diamond areas:
  • No 1 from the Orange River to 26°S, and
  • No 2 from 26°S northwards to the Kuiseb, incorporating most of the Namibia’s great dune-sea.
Over the years these areas have shrunk, leaving – until recently – only parts of No 1 as forbidden. Then, in 2009, the whole area, as far south as the Orange River and north to Lüderitz and beyond, was designated a national park. Covering 26,000km2, the new park is in its infancy and it will take some time before NAMDEB has restored much of the damage caused by mining. In the meantime, security remains tight. Signs by the roadside threatening fines or imprisonment for entering these areas unaccompanied remain serious.

The Diamond Boom

Kolmanskop, or ‘Kolman’s hill’, was originally a small hill named after a delivery rider, Kolman, who used to rest his horses there.

In April 1908, Zacharias Lewala was working nearby when he picked a rough diamond from the ground. He took this to his German foreman, August Stauch, who posted a claim to the area, and then got the backing of several of the railway’s directors to start prospecting. Stauch exhibited some of his finds in June 1908, prompting an immediate response: virtually everybody who could rushed into the desert to look for diamonds. Famously, in some places they could be picked up by the handful in the moonlight.

This first large deposit at Kolmanskop lay in the gravel of a dry riverbed, so soon a mine and a boomtown developed there. Deposits were found all over the coastal region, all around Lüderitz. Quickly, in September 1908, the German colonial government proclaimed a Sperrgebiet – a forbidden zone – to restrict further prospecting, and to license what was already happening.

Between 1908 and the start of World War I over 5 million carats of diamonds were found, but the war disrupted production badly. At the end of it Sir Ernest Oppenheimer obtained options on many of the German mining companies for South Africa’s huge Anglo American Corporation, joining ten of them into Consolidated Diamond Mines (CDM) of South West Africa. In 1922–23 CDM obtained exclusive diamond rights for 50 years over a coastal belt 95km wide, stretching 350km north of the Orange River, from the new South African administrators of South West Africa. These were later extended to the year 2010, allowing NAMDEB to control the country’s diamond production for 20 years following independence. Although these rights have now theoretically lapsed, the government is a 50% shareholder in the business, and little has changed.

Meanwhile many small towns like Kolmanskop were flush with money. It had a butcher’s, a baker’s and a general shop; a large theatre, community hall and school; factories for furniture, ice, lemonade and soda water; a hospital with the region’s first X-ray machine; comfortable staff quarters, elaborate homes for the managers – and a seawater pool fed by water pumped from 35km away. Yet Kolmanskop was fortunate: it was next to the main railway line. Often deposits were less accessible, far from water or transport – and many such early mines still lie half-buried in the Namib.

History of Luderitz & the Sperrgebiet

Archaeologists estimate that early Stone Age people inhabited the area around the Orange River at least 300,000 years ago, while the presence of rock art indicates that their descendants made their way inland. It wasn’t until the 15th century that the first Europeans – Portuguese sailors – arrived here.

Bartholomeu Diaz, the great Portuguese explorer was the first recorded European to visit Lüderitz in 1487. He erected a limestone cross at a point he named Angra Pequena or ‘Little Bay’ which is now known as Diaz Point. By the mid-1800’s whalers, sealers, fishermen and guano collectors were gathering in the area and some had set up bases on the shores.

In May 1883 a German trader, Adolf Lüderitz sailed up from Cape Town, landed at Angra Pequena and ventured inland to Bethanie. He struck a deal with the Nama kaptein Josef Fredericks to buy the bay and 8km around it for £100 and 200 rifles. Two weeks later another deal was struck for the sum of £100 and 60 rifles to extend the area to a 32km-wide coastal belt and the German flag was raised. By August 1884 Britain had agreed that Germany could found its first colony here.

The town slowly grew and became a very important base for the German Schutztruppe during their war with the Nama people in 1904-07. The diamond boom started in 1908 when the first rough diamond was picked up. Deposits were found all over the coastal region and around Lüderitz which prompted the German colonial government to proclaim the Sperrgebiet or ‘forbidden zone’ to restrict further prospecting. The town became the base for the diamond mining operations, which became monopolised by Sir Ernest Oppenheimer’s Consolidated Diamond Mines (CDM) after he obtained options on many of the German mining companies. This was the forerunner for the current NAMDEB which has a 50% government ownership. The headquarters of CDM was moved to Oranjemund in 1943 which started the decline of the town. Today tourism, fishing and some diamond diving are what keeps the town alive.

Flora & fauna of the Sperrgebiet

Lack of human intervention within most of the Sperrgebiet for almost a century has left a remarkable diversity of wildlife. Plants, in particular, have thrived, with over a thousand species identified: almost a quarter of Namibia’s total, qualifying the Sperrgebiet as one of the world’s top 34 biodiversity hotspots. Many of these are succulents that bring bursts of colour to the desert during the rainy season.

A total of 215 bird species have been identified within the park as a whole, many of them congregating at its southern edge, in the wetlands at the mouth of the Orange River. The authorities claim that 80 mammals live within the park confines, including the solitary brown hyena, and a further 38 marine mammals off shore.

Inland from Luderitz: Aus

About 125km east of Luderitz lies Aus, notable for its unpredictable weather and its history as a POW camp.

The Desert Horses

On the edge of the Koichab Pan, around Garub, perhaps the world’s only desert-dwelling horses are thriving. On average, the numbers fluctuate between 90 and 300 at any one time, depending on the annual rainfall. In 1996, for example, there were about 134 horses, and the following year at least ten new foals were born, but 1999 saw a sharp drop to just 89 animals. The current number stands at over 200.

Their origins have fuelled considerable controversy over the years. Some considered that they were descended from farm animals that had escaped, or horses that the German Schutztruppe abandoned at the start of World War I. Others proposed that they came from Duwisib Castle, near Maltahöhe. By October 1908 Captain Von Wolf, Duwisib’s owner, had assembled a herd of about 33 animals, namely ‘2 imported stallions, 17 imported mares, 8 Afrikaner mares, 6 year-old fillies’. He was a fanatical horseman, and by November 1909 he had expanded this collection to ‘72 horses. Mares: 15 Australians, 23 others, 9 thoroughbreds. Rest: Afrikaners and foals. 2 imported thoroughbred stallions’. Von Wolf left Duwisib in 1914 and was later killed at the battle of the Somme. Yet there were reports of wild horses near Garub in the 1920s, ten years before Von Wolf’s farm manager reported the loss of any horses.

New research conducted by biologist Telané Greyling in 2005, with the support of the MET, as well as Klein-Aus Vista and the Gondwana Desert Collection, suggests that the herd was drawn together from all of these sources, as well as those of the South African Army. As a result of this research, plans have been drawn up to protect the welfare of these animals that are neither domestic nor natural game, with resources to be raised in part by improving tourist options.
Observe the horses in March, surrounded by a wavy sea of fine green grass, and their situation seems idyllic. But see them on the same desolate gravel plains on an October afternoon, and you’ll appreciate their remarkable survival.

The weather & flora around Aus

Aus’s weather can be extreme, very cold in winter and hot in the summer. It is also unpredictable – which stems from its proximity to the Cape – although the winter rain, and its associated flora, is more pronounced in the area around Rosh Pinah.
Sometimes Aus’s weather will follow a typically Namibian pattern; at others it will have the Cape’s weather, with showers in winter, and occasionally even snow. If heavy or prolonged, this rain can cause a sudden flush of sprouting plants and blooms, rather like the ‘flower season’ in Namaqualand, south of the border.

Many unusual plants have been catalogued here, including a rather magnificent species of bulb whose flowers form a large globe, the size of a football. When these seed, the globe breaks off and rolls about like tumbleweed. Endemic to this small area is the yellow-flowered Aus daisy, Arctotis fastiosa, which grows only within a 30km radius of the town (a slightly more orange sub-species is found at Rosh Pinah). In winter, the yellow kuibi or butter flower, Papia capensis, brightens up the plains at the foot of the mountains, interspersed with the blue sporry, Felicia namaquana, and the bright purple fig bush. Higher up, the mountain butterflower holds sway, the western slopes are scented by wild rosemary, and the Bushman’s candle is to be found – although here it is yellow or, rarely, white, unlike its bushier pink cousin in the desert to the west.

History

When the German colonial troops surrendered to the South African forces in 1915, a camp for the prisoners of war was set up a few kilometres outside what is now Aus, just off the C13 about 1km south of the B4. At one point 1,552 German POWs were held here by 600 guards. It seems that the German prisoners worked hard to make their conditions more comfortable by manufacturing bricks, building houses and stoves, and cultivating gardens. They eventually even sold bricks to their South African guards.

The camp closed shortly after the end of the war, and little remains of the buildings bar a few ruined huts, although a memorial marks the spot. On a hill 1.3km to the east of town, however, is a small cemetery maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Here lie 61 prisoners of war, and a further 60 members of the garrison, most of them victims of a flu epidemic in 1918.
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