Despite its designation as a national park in 2008, and renaming to Tsau ||Khaeb (meaning “deep, sandy soils” in Nama), the diamond mining Sperrgebiet (“Forbidden Area” in German) remains true to its colonial title as it’s still pretty much a no-go zone except on a strictly controlled guided tour from Lüderitz. The park stretches 320km northwards from the important Ramsar-protected wetlands at the mouth of the Orange River, encompassing vast sand sheets and dune areas, mountains, inselbergs and gravel plains, to some 70km north of Lüderitz. From the wild Atlantic coast, whose most photographed feature is the impressive 60m Bogenfels Rock Arch, the park extends 100km inland.
Having been effectively off-limits for over a century, this whole environment (roughly the size of Rwanda) has remained pristine, apart from the five percent exploited for mining, where the scars are all too apparent. In particular, the park is renowned for its outstanding plant biodiversity, boasting the greatest variety of succulents on the planet. After spring rains they explode in a profusion of colour, enlivening the otherwise stark and desolate landscape. And nowhere is the desolation more tangible than at the abandoned mining towns of Bogenfels and Pomona, where a forlorn graveyard is gradually being engulfed by sand, and the wind speeds regularly top 60kmph in the summer, generating ferocious sandstorms.

Kolmanskop
For many the main attraction of Lüderitz is the chance to poke round the eerie mining “ghost town” of Kolmanskop – the most accessible part of the Tsau ||Khaeb National Park – and witness the desert sands reclaiming the decaying buildings of what was once the richest town in Africa. In 1908 Kolmanskop was merely an insignificant train station on the line out of Lüderitz, until railway worker Zacharias Lewala espied the area’s first diamond, triggering a mining frenzy that in turn fuelled an extravagant construction boom. Within three years, the settlement boasted electricity and a hospital – with the region’s first x-ray machine – a ballroom, theatre, casino, swimming pool and bowling alley, plus a wealth of luxurious houses to accommodate the seven hundred white families resident in the town’s heyday. There was even an ice-making factory, to ensure the champagne stayed suitably chilled, though the fresh water needed for the ice still had to be shipped in from Cape Town. After World War I, when diamond prices dropped, and richer deposits were found further south, Kolmanskop’s star began to wane and by 1956, the last remaining families had left, though mining had ceased some time before. Periodically, diggers are sent into the ruins to excavate some of the sand so that the area’s main tourist attraction isn’t totally buried beneath the dunes.

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