Sandwiched between the cold Atlantic Ocean to the west and the rugged Great Escarpment to the east, southwest Namibia is a land of mountainous dunes, gravel plains and inselbergs. And the weather is just as varied as the landscapes; it’s hard to believe, in the scorching midsummer desert heat, that the town of Aus, on the eastern fringes of the Namib, receives occasional winter snowfall. Much of southwest Namibia is inaccessible, but those reachable sights are among the most iconic in the country. The ever-changing Sossusvlei dunes deservedly hog their fair share of the limelight, but the anachronistic mining town of Oranjemund and the ghost mining towns of the Sperrgebiet simmer with intrigue. Lüderitz is also well worth a visit for a colourful glimpse into Namibia’s German colonial past.
Much of the Namib, one of the world’s oldest deserts, is protected within the boundaries of the largely inaccessible Namib-Naukluft National Park, which includes the magical, richly coloured dunes round Sossusvlei – one of the country’s most visited attractions – and the impressive Naukluft Mountains, home to the rare Hartmann’s mountain zebra, and a popular hiking destination. Tucked away on the coast at the southwestern limit of the park sits the anachronistic German port town of Lüderitz, now an emerging tourist centre and the only point of access to the former diamond mining area that is now the Tsau|Khaeb (Sperrgebiet) National Park.
Down in the far southwest corner of Namibia, right on the South African border, the Orange River empties into an avian-rich estuary at the high-security diamond-mining town of Oranjemund, a little-visited, rather off-beat destination. Not far up the road from here, the booming mining settlement of Rosh Pinah sparkles with its pristine streets and shopping centre.
Hemmed in by the wild Atlantic coast and the encroaching dunes of the Namib to the north and south, LÜDERITZ is undoubtedly Namibia’s most isolated, and for many years forgotten, major town. It’s also the country’s windiest settlement, with gusts regularly topping 40kmph, especially during the summer months (Nov–Jan), and temperatures rarely top 24 degrees Celsius. Yet, on the mornings when the wind drops and the sun gleams on the pretty, brightly painted colonial buildings that decorate the town’s slopes, Lüderitz’s charm is clear to see, and its chequered history easy to forget. There’s enough to keep the visitor entertained for a few days: taking in the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) architecture, making forays into the desert to the abandoned mining communities of Kolmanskop, Pomona or Bogenfels, exploring the lagoon-laden rocky peninsula to the south, or seeking out whales, flamingos or penguins on boat trips round the bay. The annual wind- and kitesurfing speed challenge (Oct–Nov) and five-day crayfish festival (May–June) – when accommodation prices will be hiked – are also major draws.
One of Namibia’s lesser-known tales of colonial greed played out off the Namibian coast on a clutch of tiny islands near Lüderitz, with the discovery of large deposits of guano (bird or bat droppings). A corruption of the Quechua word “wanu”, guano had been cherished by the Incas as a natural fertilizer long before the colonizers in Peru cottoned on to its worth and began shipping it wholesale back to Europe and North America in the early nineteenth century. This may have helped prompt the recollection by a retired British mariner of an old US sea captain’s 1828 accounts of islands “covered in birds’ manure to the depth of 25 feet (over seven metres)” off the coast of Africa, thereby triggering Namibia’s “Guano Rush” some fifteen years later. The cold waters of the Benguela Current provide ideal conditions for the production of the seabird excrement: nutrient-rich upwellings feeding vast quantities of fish, on which large colonies of gannets, cormorants and penguins feast, plus an arid climate that prevents these nutrients from being leached into the sea.
By 1843, Ichaboe Island, some 45km north of Lüderitz, had become a centre of frenzied harvesting of “white gold”. Only 15 acres in size – the equivalent of some seven football pitches – Ichaboe was soon home to around 6000 seamen and 350 vessels. Working conditions were appalling and extremely hazardous: constantly damp, squeezed into makeshift accommodation and with no medical facilities, the workers frequently lacked fresh food and drinking water, much of which had to be shipped from Cape Town. What’s more, they suffered constant exposure to the stench of excrement and high levels of ammonia. But the financial rewards – for the concession owners, at least – were huge. Within two years, the rush was all but over; the island had been scraped dry, with some 200,000 tonnes removed in two years. The seabirds have now reclaimed the rock, though in depleted numbers, but small-scale sustainable guano harvesting still continues in Namibia today, predominantly on artificial platforms dotted along the coast, most notably at “Bird Island” just north of Walvis Bay.
Coastways Tours, on the B4 on the way into town, behind the Engen station, specializes in 4WD day- and multi-day trips into the desert. Coastways was the first operator with a licence to enter what is now the Tsau ||Khaeb National Park, but is better known as the Sperrgebiet (meaning “forbidden area” in German – reference to the fact that it is an off-limits diamond-mining area) – and a copy of your passport will need to be submitted well in advance for approval. For its most popular full-day tour, you’ll spend several hours in the back of a 4WD vehicle, but the experience is otherworldly as you cross dune fields studded with lichen and extraordinary succulents, and visit the abandoned mining communities of Pomona and Bogenfels. There are also sobering views of dunescapes wrecked by mining, which you can see before the tour finishes off at the gigantic Bogenfels Rock Arch on the Atlantic coast.
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 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 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.
On April 14, 1908, Zacharias Lewala, a black labourer toiling on the railway just outside Lüderitz, discovered a rough diamond and showed it to his foreman, August Stauch. History doesn’t relate what happened to Lewala, who had acquired his keen eye for the mineral while working in Kimberley, but Stauch quietly resigned his position with the railway and set himself up as a diamond prospector, becoming very rich almost overnight. The Germans immediately declared the 320km stretch of coastline (extending 100km inland) from Lüderitz to the Orange River, a Sperrgebiet (Forbidden Area) – which in practice remains in place to this day – so as to control the diamond rush that ensued. Namibia was soon producing 1 million carats (200kg) annually, accounting for 20 percent of world diamond production, and helping German South-West Africa to turn a profit by 1913.
Following German defeat in World War I, the country’s diamond mines, mostly along the Orange River, came under the control of Ernest Oppenheimer, founder of Anglo American, and the man behind De Beers, who maintained a monopoly on the Namibian diamond trade right through the apartheid era until the 1990s.
Since 1994, the diamond trade has been controlled by Namdeb, a company set up by De Beers and the Namibian government, who each have a 50 percent stake. Although not found in such quantities as in neighbouring Botswana and South Africa, diamonds continue to be a mainstay of the Namibian economy, with Namdeb, the country’s largest taxpayer and biggest foreign exchange generator, contributing a fifth of the country’s foreign exchange.
Namibia’s diamonds have traditionally been found in alluvial and coastal deposits. Washed downstream over the centuries, into the sea and then back onto the coastline’s raised beaches and sand dunes, the diamonds are small but crystal clear, the result of centuries of erosion and weathering which have weeded out the imperfect stones. As a result, some 98 percent are of “gem quality” (the highest proportion in the world) and are highly valued compared to diamonds from the land-based mines of South Africa.
Over the last decade, the biggest challenge for the industry has been the depletion of land diamonds, which are likely to run out completely in the next 15 years, and the increasing reliance on marine diamonds, which are now being dredged up from the bottom of the ocean at depths of over 120m. Debmarine, Namdeb’s offshore arm, is now its most important asset. The major downside to this marine mining is the obvious negative environmental impact of sucking up the sea bed, sifting it for diamonds and then spewing the remains back into the sea, though the industry argues that such activity is restricted to a relatively small area. The other threat to the diamond market is the arrival of cheaper synthetic diamonds of gem quality – industrial diamonds are nearly all synthetic now, but the gem-quality synthetic diamonds are now so good, it’s impossible for experts to tell the difference without the help of expensive technology.
Marooned at the far southwestern tip of Namibia, the anachronistic mining town of ORANJEMUND lies at the mouth of the Orange River – hence its name, which literally translates from German as “Orange mouth”. Although unlikely to be on anyone’s holiday hit list any time soon – especially given the security restrictions and the fact that the surrounding desert and the estuary still bear the scars of its mining history – it’s an intriguing and incredibly leafy place to visit, full of mature trees, flower-filled gardens and green spaces. Moreover, it has tourism potential since the river delta is a listed RAMSAR wetland site, supporting up to 20,000 birds and over 50 species – when summer migrants pass through – including important populations of southern African endemics such as the Damara tern, Hartlaub’s gull, and Cape cormorant. Although so far no bird hides have been established, you can drive down to the river to watch pelicans, flamingos and terns going about their business.
At present, Oranjemund’s principal draw is its “forbidden” status; a no-go area for the public for many years, in case they indulged in a little extracurricular prospecting on the beach, security paranoia persists even now that the mining action has moved upriver and out to sea, so a permit is still required to get past two security gates, to visit the town.
The two extremely modest sights include a museum and a tiny nature reserve. Arguably, however, the star attraction, which features on the town’s crest, is the omnipresent oryx: nibbling at residents’ herbaceous borders, trimming the parks or the greens at the golf course, lazing around outside the municipal offices or simply strolling around the town centre, window-shopping.
In total contrast to faded Oranjemund, just down the road, the gleaming new centre of the small mining town of ROSH PINAH is bristling with confidence and money, boasting freshly painted cream houses with green roofs, neat, clean streets and a sparkling shopping centre. All this is mainly due to the booming Skorpion mine, 25km to the north. After opening in 2000, it has become one of the largest zinc mines in the world, though various rare and valuable minerals have also been found. There’s nothing to the town itself, though the setting is attractive – once you turn a blind eye to the slag heaps, which announce your arrival from the south – as it’s overlooked by the Huns Mountains to the east and the Swartkloof Mountains that lie to the north and west, straddling the eastern limits of the Sperrgebiet.
The main reason to break your journey here is to use the ATM, get supplies from the well-stocked supermarket in the shopping centre – it’s your best bet if you’re heading south to camp along the Orange River, or visiting the South African side of the Richtersveld park – and to refuel at the petrol station, as there’s nowhere else for 150km in either direction, unless you’re bound for Oranjemund. Should you want or need to stay the night, there are a couple of decent guesthouses with restaurants aimed at visiting mining executives.