UPDATE September 2022: I've recently been to this amazing place and will replace the text below with a full-length chapter with an extensive photo gallery ... as soon as I find teh time. Please bear with me and check back later.
A ghost town
in the desert just east of Lüderitz in the south of Namibia
. The town was founded during the German
colonial period of South West Africa in 1908 after diamonds had been discovered in the area. The diamond boom made the place immensely rich. By 1912 the diamond mining operations at Kolmanskop supplied 10% of the world market for those gems. The entire south-western corner of Namibia was henceforth declared a “Sperrgebiet”, a forbidden area, that was out of bounds to common people (lest they might stumble upon diamonds themselves), and even today entry is only allowed with a permit.
The town of Kolmanskop – or, in German: “Kolmannskuppe” – reflected those riches from diamond mining. Designed in a typical colonial German style the town featured amenities unheard of elsewhere in Africa, such as ice-cooled refrigerators (with the ice supplied by the town’s own ice factory), a concert hall, a casino, a school, a swimming pool and a state-of-the-art hospital featuring the first X-ray unit ever seen in southern Africa. At its peak Kolmanskop had a population of nearly 350.
Following the outbreak of WW1
, which quickly led to an end of the German colonial period, Kolmanskop resumed operations under South African
management, namely under the aegis of the eminent De Beers corporation. But diamond extraction was declining and in 1928 vast new diamond deposits were discovered a couple of hundred miles south of Kolmanskop and many residents gave up their homes to join the new diamond rush down there.
The decline of Kolmanskop continued through the 1930s, 40s and 50s, and the final residents gave up and left in 1959. The town has been abandoned ever since.
However, since Namibian independence and the rise of tourism, Kolmanskop has become one of the best-known and most fabled ghost towns
in the world thanks to the immensely atmospheric abandoned houses, many of which are slowly filling with desert sand. When a photo from Kolmanskop featured in the National Geographic magazine in 2009 it triggered a boom in photographers visiting specifically for this location – you even get whole websites with tips about photography
Since Kolmanskop is just inside the Sperrgebiet, you need a permit to enter. There are regular permits for N$90 and special photographer’s passes for ca. N$200-250. The latter allow you access before the regular opening time (which is from about 8 a.m.). This is ideal for early morning/sunrise shooting when the light is best and few, if any, other visitors will be there. Such permits obviously have to be purchased in advance – they are available in Lüderitz from the outfit Lüderitz Safaris and Tours on Bismark Street. If you come so early you just have to leave your car by the gate and put the permit on the dashboard for security guards to see it. These photography permits are for “amateurs” only, professional, commercial photographers have to dig much deeper into their pockets.
The normal and amateur photo permits also include a guided tour. There are two each day, starting at 9.30 and 11 a.m., respectively. There’s also a small museum about Kolmanskop in particular and the diamond boom in general.
The rest of the ghost town can be explored freely on your own and without many health-and-safety restrictions, so it’s your own responsibility to be careful with more seriously dilapidated buildings, watch your step for debris, broken glass and potentially snakes. Hence closed boots are recommended – also because of all that walking in sand.
To get there you need your own vehicle and have to stay at least one night in Lüderitz before your visit. Better make that two nights, though, as the Kolpmanskop visitor permits are valid all day and you may want to stay longer and explore deeper than you may anticipate and then won’t have much time to drive anywhere else other than Lüderitz anyway. At Kolmanskop there is also a small cafe where you can buy snacks and other restoratives during your visit (open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.). Lüderitz has several accommodation options and a few restaurants with good prices.
Location: just over 6 miles (10km) south-east of Lüderitz in south-western Namibia
UPDATE: Kolmanskop would have been one of the key places I planned to visit on my 2020 Namibia
trip that I had to defer because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and again in 2021. Ironically, on the various pieces of advice for photography at Kolmanskop that I had read I had invested in a high-end wide-angle lens for my full-frame dSLR. Then came the pandemic and I have hardly been able to use that lens to full effect yet. Hopefully it will come into its own at Kolmanskop in 2022!
UPDATE September 2022: this has by now happened ... so you can expect a lavish photo gallery here before too long ...