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Kolmanskop Was Once a Thriving Town, But Is Now Drowned By Sand

Rosemary Giles
Photo Credit: Philip Volkers / VW Pics / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Philip Volkers / VW Pics / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In the vast expanse of the Namib Desert, a ghostly reminder of a once-thriving diamond mining town lies silently buried under the shifting sands. Kolmanskop, a forgotten settlement in southern Namibia, once buzzed with life and prosperity during the early 20th century. Today, as nature reclaims its territory, Kolmanskop stands abandoned, inviting intrepid adventurers and curious souls to explore its crumbling ruins.

What’s in a name?

Kolmanskop was named after a man called Johnny Coleman who lived in the nearby settlement of Aus. He drove an ox wagon, transporting supplies between the German-settled towns of Keetmanshoop and Lüderitz.

Sign reading "Kolmannskuppe" standing in front of a numbers of abandoned buildings.
Kolmanskop village sign, n.d. (Photo Credit: Patrick Escudero/ Gamma-Rapho/ Getty Images)

On one such trip, he was caught in a sandstorm which forced him to abandon his wagon on a hill just across from where Kolmanskop would be built. The wagon remained there for some time, and the site was given a name.

Founding Kolmanskop

The place was first called Colemanshuegel, but was eventually named Kolmanskop. While it had a name, it wasn’t until April 1908 that the location became something special. Zacharias Lewala, a Namibian railway worker, found stones while digging near a railway line in the region.

Abandoned building in the distance with shrubs and rocks in the sand in the foreground.
Distanced view of an abandoned building in Kolmanskop, April 8, 2013. (Photo Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/ LightRocket/ Getty Images)

He brought them to his boss, German August Stauch, who identified them as diamonds. Stauch didn’t give Lewala any form of reward for his find. News of this discovery spread quickly throughout the area, prompting many to try their luck as well.

Diamond rush

Those who hoped to make their own fortune quickly flocked to Kolmanskop, abandoning the large settlement of Lüderitz. They traveled however they could, with wagons, animals, or even on foot. By 1912, the town was finding roughly one million carats of diamonds yearly.

Blue room with two wooden bowling lanes in the middle.
One of the few places not covered in sand in Kolmanskop, a bowling ally, May 1, 2013. (Photo Credit: Hoberman Collection/ Universal Images Group/ Getty Images)

The wealth of diamonds soon led to Kolmanskop becoming a bustling town with many different businesses and amenities. There was a butcher, a gymnasium with a bowling alley, a swimming pool, a playground, numerous factories, and even a hospital.

A true community

There was also a police station that opened only a year after Kolmanskop was established. Perhaps the most interesting part of their work was that they patrolled the diamond-rich town by riding on camels.

Close-up view of an abandoned building with large windows, with a second building in the background.
Two abandoned buildings in Kolmanskop, August 21, 2009. (Photo Credit: Hoberman Collection/ Universal Images Group/ Getty Images)

The town had many cultural elements. One of the most important was the recreation center which was used for everything from over-the-top parties to opera, orchestra, and theater performances.

A German town

The area even boasted the first tram in Africa, as well as a direct rail link to Lüderitz. These businesses and amenities were created for and by the flourishing community that lived in Kolmanskop.

View through a doorway into a room filled with sand, with furniture sitting on top.
Abandoned home filled with sand, and furniture, in Kolmanskop, June 27, 2017. (Photo Credit: Gianluigi Guercia/ AFP/ Getty Images)

Many of the people who lived there were German colonists profiting from the diamond mines. They built a town that was a slice of Germany placed in the middle of the dessert.

The true locals

This is why Kolmanskop was designed in a very German architectural style, something that could really be seen in the elaborate houses built by those who profited from the mines. There were also, however, far more people living there who weren’t German.

Interior of an abandoned house filled with sand.
Abandoned house filled with sand in Kolmanskop, June 27, 2017. (Photo Credit: Gianluigi Guercia/ AFP/ Getty Images)

While the mines were owned and operated by colonists, it was the Owambo people who were paid to work in them. At the town’s peak, they outnumbered the Germans two to one.

Beginning of the end

As with nearly all towns created during diamond or gold rushes, Kolmanskop eventually came to an end. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the closure of the mines during the First World War that marked trouble for the town.

Abandoned house with many open doors, full of sand.
Abandoned buildings in Kolmanskop filled with sand, May 23, 2015. (Photo Credit: Philip Volkers/ VW Pics/ Universal Images Group/ Getty Images)

When they re-opened, the colonists in the area continued to prosper. In fact, by the early 1920s, it was one of the richest towns in the entire continent.

Better diamonds elsewhere

The first sign of trouble came in the 1930s when the mines’ diamond supplies started to dwindle. They had been mined so intensely that there simply weren’t as many stones to find as there had once been.

Wooden room with wooden shelving, filling with sand on the floor.
Abandoned wooden building filled with sand in the village of Kolmanskop, June 27, 2017. (Photo Credit: Gianluigi Guercia/ AFP/ Getty Images)

In contrast, there were many other locations in Africa identified in the following years that were still flush with the stones. Many people who lived in the settlement picked up and moved on to these operations.

Mining ceases

Not only were these areas, near the Orange River, far richer in diamonds, but they also required far less work. Instead of having to mine underground for them like in Kolmanskop, people only had to walk along the beaches to find stones washed up.

Large spacious room with an open door, filled with sand on the floor.
Interior of an abandoned Kolmanskop home filled with sand, May 1, 2013. (Photo Credit: Hoberman Collection/ Universal Images Group/ Getty Images)

While many moved on, there were some who remained in the once-great settlement. The owner of the mines left Kolmanskop in 1943, but operations continued until 1950, although on a much smaller scale than in the past.

Reclaimed by nature

It wasn’t until 1956 that Kolmanskop was officially abandoned. Without people living there, it didn’t take long for the desert town to be reclaimed by the sand.

Three doors, two open, leading to rooms filled with large piles of sand.
Sand has gradually accumulated in this abandoned Kolmanskop building, April 8, 2013. (Photo Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/ LightRocket/ Getty Images)

Blowing sand has entered many of the buildings, gathering over time into large piles that almost completely cover the interior floors and doors. It’s this sight that has made Kolmanskop a fascinating tourist destination.

Tourist town

Popular with avid travelers and photographers alike, Kolmanskop requires a permit to visit. It is located in the Tsau ǁKhaeb (Sperrgebiet) National Park, an area of the Namib desert where visitation is restricted. 

Wooden room with multiple arched windows and paint peeling off the walls.
Another abandoned building in Kolmanskop that has evaded the sand, April 18, 2009. (Photo Credit: Sergio Pessolano/ Moment/ Getty Images)

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Although the town is technically abandoned, there are now a number of businesses that have opened once more to serve any visitors.