This excerpt is taken from my travel book, Wild about Africa. After many weeks travelling through Zimbabwe and Botswana, our truck headed into Namibia, famed for its wildlife, history and expansive sand dunes. This part of the story picks off, after three nights of relaxation in Swakopmund, a friendly coastal city with a strong connection to its German heritage.
After three nights in Swakopmund, it was time to close the gap on Cape Town. Once again, we headed in a southerly direction, along a desert road devoid of towns or villages. We stopped once, at a windblown settlement, for the chance to stretch our legs, top up on water and hunt for snacks on the sandy shelves of a lonely convenience store.
The sun was low by the time we parked alongside Dune 45, a 130-metre pinnacle of sand, located in an area known as Sossusvlei. This vast, semi-arid land is home to the princes of the desert, known as gemsbok. These majestic antelope have adapted to the harsh climate and roam the desert with mysterious ease. A few stood nearby, but effortlessly remained one step ahead as each passenger made their way towards the base of Dune 45.
Our aim was to plough through the soft, red sand, to reach the summit before sunset. Some raced ahead and others stopped often, to take a breath while posing for photos. I went in search of fog basking beetles and found a few of them lining the ridge, patiently waiting for the evening mist to arrive. The precious moisture is collected in ripples on their backs and funnelled towards their mouths.
By the time I reached the top, Fran was seated alongside Wayne and Naomi. Together, we sat side by side on the sand, silently appreciating the panoramic view. Ours was not the biggest dune. The summit revealed a rippling carpet of sand stretching to the horizon, carved by searing winds and forever changing over time. Each dune differed in some way. Some were sheer-sided and lost in shadow, while others sparkled from the blaze of the setting sun.
A group of girls from our truck appeared soon after, breathless but happy. Instead of taking a rest, they joined hands and leapt over the edge, sending their excited screams across the desert as they tumbled towards the bottom. Without warning, Fran followed suit, hurtling down the angled sides and sinking into the velvety sand with each giant step. Wayne attempted to reach the desert floor in ten huge strides. I raced Naomi to the bottom, her little legs sending her spiralling into the soft sand.
We camped that night in the desert and woke to a fiery sunrise. While waiting for coffee to brew, I reached for more layers and complained about the bitter cold of the night. Tony smiled and pointed to the rising sun, before reminding me that we were in for a scorcher.
During breakfast, Jeff explained that we were close to the Sperrgebiet; known as the ‘forbidden zone.’ This vast area was once off limits to visitors for more than a century, following the discovery of diamonds. The first recorded finding occurred in 1908, by a Namibian railway worker called Zacharias Lewala. Within weeks, many more were found. Word soon spread about the field of diamonds, millions of years old, deposited by ancient sea storms onto the coast of Namibia.
At the time, the German Empire occupied most of southwest Africa, and to control the diamonds, they closed off an area of 10,000 square miles. With so many people flocking to the region, a tiny community by the name of Kolmanskop was developed into a bustling town, complete with a school, casino, skittle alley and hospital. It even had its own lemonade factory and was once regarded as the wealthiest town in the world. Kolmanskop prospered for many years until the diamonds became too difficult and costly to find.
In the 1950s, when word spread about another find, far more profitable and closer to the Orange River, the residents began leaving in droves. The last time that the local orchestra played was in 1954, to a small audience. Soon after, it packed away its instruments and abandoned the town, along with the remaining residents.
Kolmanskop is now a ghost town, but the forbidden zone remains intact, with harsh fines in place for those who enter without permission. Warning signs were positioned alongside the road, but many of the words and symbols had been bleached by the sun and eroded by sandstorms.
We’d gained a permit before our arrival, which gave us the freedom to explore the abandoned town. As soon as the truck stopped, each passenger bounded towards the broken-down buildings. I raced up a hardened mound of sand and gained access to the hospital via a missing window. After clambering through the gap, I emerged unscathed into an empty ward. The floors were covered in sand, with deep piles in each corner. Remnants of faded wallpaper clung to blistered plaster and one of the adjacent rooms contained a bathtub, now half filled with sand, blown in through a gap in the wall.
Fran appeared on the scene and took a photo while I lay in the bath, feeling the warmth of the sand as I gazed at a cloudless sky through a hole in the roof. It was hard to imagine that such a remote and dry location once had the luxury of running water and bathing facilities.
We then tried our luck in another building. Like most others, the doorframes had warped over time. I squeezed through the gap of a splintered doorway, shining my torch into an abandoned bedroom. The roof was still intact, but the windows were sealed by sand, with no sign of life in the shadows. With each breath of wind, the desert was slowly taking over the town, one grain of sand at a time.
The bus was strangely silent as we pulled away from Kolmanskop. Like most passengers, my thoughts were consumed by the once purposeful town, now abandoned and left to the mercy of the elements.