Lignite strip-mining pits, Lausitz

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The story of mining lignite (or 'brown coal', "Braunkohle" in German) in open-cast strip mines in Germany is that of a double disappearance. The first occurs when mining is taking place. The second happens when the former strip-mining pits are "re-naturalized", esp. by filling them with water to form artificial lakes.  
Strip mining is the most brutally destructive form of extracting raw materials from the Earth's crust. It means that whole landscapes get "eaten" away, chewed up and spat out again by gigantic machines. What's left behind is an utter wasteland – man-made canyons, craters, hills, forming a lifeless moonscape ... or rather "Mars-scape", given the often red hue of the soil where lignite is mined.
The whole process is particularly tragic for the people who live in settlements that have to be evacuated before being erased from the map by the expanding strip-mining pits. Many a heroic resistance fight has been put up against being forcibly moved … but in the end the state or the big mining/energy corporations tend to win. Meanwhile doomed villages become temporary ghost towns.

After an area/pit has been exhausted and mining moves elsewhere (or ceases to continue altogether), the question arises of what to do with the wastelands left behind. Left alone they'd slowly be reclaimed by nature, with the possible exception of places where pollution levels are too high (always a problem with mining). By law, the mining companies are required to provide for some sort of reclaiming of the destroyed lands. Generally, and especially in the Lausitz area of eastern Germany, the approach is to reclaim the exhausted pits simply by filling them with water. Thus the largest artificial lake land in the world is currently being created there.

For the dark tourist, the Moon- or Mars-like wastelands (and the abandoned ghost towns and villages) are of course more of an attraction than artificial lakes with their growing recreation industry infrastructure. But of course, dark tourists or other people appreciating the exotic aesthetics of strip-mining pits are a minority, so (rare) voices calling for the preservation of the bare lands of the pits tend not to be heard or heeded. Thus, these stunning sights are disappearing ...

They're not all gone yet, though, and new ones are also being created. Lignite mining is still going on in the Lausitz area in south Brandenburg and north-eastern Saxony – albeit on a smaller scale than was the case during the days of the GDR, when it formed the backbone of the country's energy supplies and industry. Many pits are closed, though, and "recultivation" is progressing.

There are massive strip-mining operations in western Germany, too, esp. near Cologne and Aachen (the pit at Hambach is currently regarded as the largest; it's also the deepest "hole" in Europe). In this area at least, strip-mining will carry on for many decades … Additional smaller-scale pits can also be found near Hötensleben.

From a distance, strip-mining pits are, by their very nature as holes in the ground, not particularly visible. But from the odd viewpoint (there are even official tourist routes) you can peek over the edge. Actually going into these pits is not normally permitted. However, my own "love affair" with these stunning and fascinatingly raw artificial wastelands began in the mid-90s, when I did in fact go in …

… I was at a two-day party near Senftenberg in the Lausitz, and during the day a small group of us, including two locals, headed off by car to have a look at a nearby lignite pit. First we explored one of the doomed ghost town villages near the pit – we even rooted around in a deserted barn, where the local girls found old GDR youth propaganda material, after which they indulged in a bout of eastern nostalgia ….

Then we descended into the strip-mining pit proper … our driver casually ignored the no-entry signs and down we went. We cruised around the bottom of the pit, a disused section, for a while, and also walked about a bit. Later we came across an enormous machine that was still in place (a 'conveyor/spreader' for the 'overburden'). But as we were walking around at the foot of this steel monster, a car with a security guard drove up and admonished us to leave. So we drove off until we were out of view and then carried on exploring at the far end of the pit … here surreally green lakes were forming at the bottom (probably toxic), while on the edges and in pockets around the flat expanse, new plant life was beginning to sprout.

Admittedly, this was reckless, possibly irresponsible and quite certainly not legal behaviour (trespassing) … and I'm not encouraging anybody to follow our "bad example". I'm just trying to convey the fascination these crazy, dead landscapes can exude. For me it's one of the most lasting memories of an otherworldly experience … and I so regret I didn't have a camera on me then …

My hope is that at least one or two large enough sections of such pits may be preserved and opened for visitors properly, legally. So far I know of only temporary exceptions, or transitional projects.

That's as far as the actual landscapes are concerned … the situation is different when it comes to the machinery. The holes in the grounds can simply be flooded or filled in and put to new uses, but what about the redundant monster machines used in strip-mining? If they can't be relocated, then they usually become scrap. But in a couple of cases, these machines have been preserved and now function as museum pieces:

The largest of these is the F60 overburden conveyor/spreader at Lichterfeld. This is a particularly magnificent monster (in fact it was the largest movable machine in the world). At over 1650 feet (500m), it's significantly longer that the Eiffel Tower in Paris is high. You can explore this structure on guided tours, even up to the highest point – or simply from ground level. Various packages are on offer (located near Finsterwalde, Brandenburg, East Germany; web address: At night the massive structure becomes a light installation, which is also worth seeing. The F60 sits on the edge of a former lignite strip-mining pit, which is slowly being flooded. Soon the former moonscape will be gone completely.

Another example is the machine park museum called "Ferropolis" ('city of iron') near Dessau (between Leipzig and Berlin). It incorporates five older machines, diggers and spreaders (smaller than the F60, but still pretty big brutes), placed together in a cluster on what is now a peninsula in a lake that was once a lignite mining pit too, which has already disappeared without a trace; the site is signposted from the "Dessau-Ost" motorway exit off the A9. This open-air museum of iron giants is also a venue for concerts and for the "Melt!" music festival.

Fascinating as all those huge machines may be in their own right, on their own they cannot recreate the impressions of the landscapes they once created. To see those, you have to go to active or recently suspended strip mines. By their very nature, they don't stay in the same place, so a bit of preparation and flexibility are needed to keep up to date. The Internet can help (and esp. Google Earth satellite images, though they’re not necessarily up to date).

Here, only the general idea shall be promoted, without identifying any particular locations (other than those machine museums). So go and find out and explore for yourself if you happen to share this off-the-mainstream interest in these fascinating industrial hell-holes on earth.


F60 overburden conveyor/spreader at Lichterfeld – [51.586,13.777]

Ferropolis – [51.76,12.45]


©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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