Southern Namibia and Kolmanskop
Namibia is a big country, very big, far bigger than you might imagine, and it has just so much variety, interesting places and even more interesting people. Taking a road trip is my all-time favourite way of seeing the country from up close, getting to meet the people who make it unique and just enjoying the space and solitude.
This wasn’t our first trip and it for sure won’t be the last, but having learnt from previous visits to respect the vast distances and driving times between towns, we kept our trip to the Southern part of the country. According to Google Maps, from Mata Mata which borders South Africa and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (read about that experience here), is a 3 hour and 40 minute drive, but I’d allow more time, it’s a gravel road all the way and depending on conditions and your level of tiredness it can take quite a bit longer.
The first stretch from the border to Twee Rivier is through undulating Kalahari red sand and scrub. After recent rains, it was quite green and almost lush, not what you’d expect from a desert at all. Twee Rivier (Two Rivers) is quite easy to miss, in fact, we drove right past it, and that’s partly because there is no actual river, let alone two of them, and, it’s really just a marker on a map, there is nothing whatsoever to distinguish it from the previous 100 km of emptiness.
Actually, it’s not empty at all, and that’s the beauty of Namibia, there is life all around if you take the time to look for it. Like the massive weaver cities (they can’t be called nests) that take over half the tree. Or numerous antelope and birds of prey. There are a good couple of private game lodges along the road as well.
After Twee Rivier, the red Kalahari sands and undulations over the dunes gradually make way for more open terrain, much flatter and getting dryer the further West we travelled. There had been some severe thunderstorms in the days before our visit, and parts of the road were flooded, we had to engage 4 wheel drive on a couple of occasions to get around the flooded sections. So while the road is easily passable in a regular vehicle most of the time, it goes to show that nothing can be taken for granted in Namibia.
The original plan had been to camp at Aus, but it was hot, really, really hot, and the idea of erecting a tent didn’t sound as good as it did while planning our trip back at home. So we stopped in at the Seeheim Hotel, which is 50 or so kilometres past Keetmanshoop, a town that you can safely drive on past, it’s depressing and bleak, maybe that’s because we went past on a Sunday though. We did stop at the Engen One Stop however for fuel and a late breakfast at the Wimpy.
If you are looking for an average city hotel or tourist resort experience, then stay in your car and drive right on past the Seeheim Hotel, because you won’t find it here. But, if you want a real, rural Namibia vibe, great food and heaps of character, then you will love the place. It’s like Hotel California crossed with the Royal Hotel, where anything might happen.
The bar is real country style with loads of ornaments and trophies on the wall, each one with a story to tell. If you are squeamish about hunting, maybe the bar is best avoided, but this is Namibia, and it’s part of life, so my advice is to just go with it.
The owner and manager is Zirkie, a real character who seemed to be in the midst of a war of some kind with his chef, the 2 of them were at it most of the time, very entertaining, but whatever the case he certainly delivered on the food. Dinner was Gemsbok (Oryx) steak done to perfection with all the trimmings to make it a memorable meal. Beers were cold, and watching not very much to be honest, going by, was a relaxing end to the day.
Accommodation was comfortable, and while there was no air conditioning the ceiling fan did a good job of keeping things cool. The bed was very soft, too soft for us, and bedding somewhat tired, maybe time to replace some of it by this stage. I heard that there was a devastating fire a few weeks after our visit, but by all accounts, the hotel is still up and running, so the damage seems to have been contained.
The hotel is off the grid, which means a “donkey” boiler to heat the water for showers. A donkey is an old rural African method of heating water that requires a fire to be lit and then to wait for the water to get hot, so no early morning shower is available unless by special arrangement with the manager. Electricity goes off at a specific time and is turned on again in the morning, which also means no coffee station in the rooms so your morning caffeine fix will have to be obtained in the dining room.
Special mention needs to be made of Omaruru, the African Grey parrot who makes himself at home around the guests. He was the proverbial icing on the cake, such a cool bird.
Wild Horses Of The Namib Desert
A short distance past the little town of Aus, on the road to Lüderitz is another uniquely Namibian “thing”, the Wild horses of the Namib Desert. Nobody is sure of their exact origin, but they are believed to be descendants of horses left behind by departing German troops at the end of the 1st World War. The hardy survivors can be seen along the road between Aus and Lüderitz. The horse’s numbers have dropped hugely over the past couple of years due to drought, but kindly benefactors have stepped in to help with fodder and water. Since our visit I’ve heard that there have been good rains in the area, so we can hope that the horses will pull through as they have done throughout the last century and grow their numbers again. There is a viewpoint a few kilometres past Aus where you can stop and watch the horses and Gemsbok drink at the waterhole. They are wild animals though so should not be approached.
I hated Lüderitz the first time we visited but this time around it was way better. I think that changing our accommodation, doing away with camping and staying at the Lüderitz Nest Hotel had something to do with that. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy camping in the right circumstances, but after long days on the road in the heat, staying in hotels and self-catering chalets was a much better option on this occasion.
The Lüderitz Nest Hotel was one of the most comfortable stays of our trip; it’s a civilised oasis in a harsh environment. Our room was right on the water, with views over the bay, and the sound of waves (actually the really loud sound of waves) soothing our sleep. Food was delicious, and the staff seem to care about the guests.
We stayed 2 nights, on the second night we had dinner at a local restaurant that had been recommended, Barrels. The vibe was awesome, and I approve of their slogan as highlighted on a sign at the entrance. Food was a mixed bag, the best soup starter I’ve had EVER, a delicious buffet-style dinner and what must have been the smallest, least fresh lobster ever seen in a restaurant. Which is weird, because surely lobster is abundant in this town that claims to be “a drinking town with a fishing problem”? Anyway, it was a very cool evening out despite the dodgy lobster.
There are some excellent drives around Lüderitz, recommended is a trip to the other side of the bay to Diaz Point Lighthouse. The sheer barrenness is a sight to behold with the wild Atlantic waves crash against the rocks. There is a self-catering cottage right at the point; unfortunately, time didn’t allow for a night there, but I think it would be very special, it is just about as remote as it gets.
For a photographer the photo opportunities are excellent, take a bit of time to sit and watch the Flamingos doing their thing with the town of Lüderitz in the distance across the bay. But don’t think about swimming, the water is cold, the Benguela current, bringing the icy water up from the Antarctic sees to that. It’s the reason why this coast is so desolate and dry.
Our purpose in visiting Lüderitz was to experience Kolmanskop. This is a Ghost Town with some family history, my wife’s grandfather was an electrician there in the early years of the 20th century. It’s called a “ghost town”, and it certainly looks like it, with the desert gradually reclaiming the derelict houses and streets, but I think that some of it is staged, at least to some extent. It’s quite well maintained because it’s a real money spinner for De Beers, who owns the town and are still making money even if diamonds have gone.
Nevertheless putting scepticism aside and just wandering through the old houses gradually being reclaimed by the desert sands, imagining the thriving town that it once was, is an extraordinary experience — one that I can highly recommend. It’s got photo opportunities galore, but it’s best to get there as early as possible, not only because the light is best at that time, but also because I gets extremely hot later in the day. There is a gift shop and restaurant to purchase a trinket to take home or to have a light meal and a cup of coffee or tea.
A Short History Of Kolmanskop
In 1908, a railway worker by the name of Zacharias Lewala found a shiny stone and showed it to his supervisor, a German railway inspector named August Stauch. Stauch recognised the diamond for what it was and pretty soon word spread, miners began arriving and not long afterwards the German government declared a large area as a “Sperrgebiet” (forbidden area).
It’s said that in the early days diamonds were to be found lying on the ground, and soon a village had sprung up in the architectural style of a German town. There was a hospital, ballroom, power station, school, skittle-alley, theatre & sport-hall, casino, ice factory and the first x-ray-station in the southern hemisphere, as well as the first tram in Africa. There was also a railway link to Lüderitz.
In 1928 of the richest diamond-bearing deposits ever known were discovered at the mouth of the Orange River, 270 kilometres to the South and there was an exodus to the more lucrative diamond fields. The town was entirely abandoned by 1956. (Information above paraphrased from Wikipedia)
If time had allowed it would have been a treat to visit Elizabeth Bay, which is 25 km South of Lüderitz. It’s within a working diamond mine though and access is only possible with a guide, sadly we weren’t able to arrange a visit in the time available. Elizabeth Bay is by all accounts a more genuine ghost town than Kolmanskop, but it wasn’t to be on this occasion, next time then.
Onward to Sosssusvlei
The next stage of our trip would take us North, through some of the most incredibly beautiful, and pretty remote parts of Namibia to the dunes at Sossusvlei. You can read about our Road Trip here.