A house in Kolmanskop Ghost Town

Kolmanskop Ghost Town: Diamonds & sand

The Namib Desert is one of the most harsh, wild environments in Africa. Nowhere is that more true than on the windswept southwest coast — a land of shifting dunes, mysterious desert horses, shipwrecks, and priceless gemstones buried in the sand. Believe it or not, this inhospitable landscape was once home to a thriving mining community. In 1908, a railroad worker discovered diamonds. For the next 30 years, this little corner of Namibia was a boom town. But after World War I, it declined as fast as it had been built up — leaving Kolmanskop Ghost Town to be slowly devoured by the wind and sand.

 

 

Today, Kolmanskop Ghost Town is a popular stop on the Namibia road trip circuit. Between the history and the photography opportunities, it’s well worth adding to your itinerary. So in this post, I’ll give you everything you need to plan your visit.

 

A brief history of Kolmanskop Ghost Town

 

This train once carried ice around the community. Now it's buried in sand.
This train once carried ice around the community. Now it’s buried in sand.

 

Kolmanskop was once one of Africa’s most technologically advanced communities. The southern hemisphere’s first x-ray machine was housed here. Local workers constructed Africa’s first tram line. And there was even an ice factory and a hospital.

 

At its height, the town housed more than 1,000 people — most of whom were Namibian workers living in shared housing blocks on the outskirts. Meanwhile, the downtown area, with its theater, ballroom and bowling alley, was designed for its primarily German inhabitants.

 

Kolmanskop was a challenging place to eke out a life. Of course, access to water was a huge problem, so water and ice were rationed. All supplies had to be brought in from elsewhere — there was no possibility of developing local sources of food. If you want to know more about life there, check out this article.

 

The downfall of Kolmanskop was the discovery of diamonds in more accessible parts of the Namib Desert. The miners relocated to regions with bigger gems and less extreme conditions. When the diamond rush moved elsewhere, everyone abandoned the town quite rapidly, leaving it exactly as you see it today.

 

Visiting Kolmanskop Ghost Town

 

Kolmanskop's abandoned buildings are a major draw for photographers
Kolmanskop’s abandoned buildings are a major draw for photographers

 

Getting a permit

 

Kolmanskop Ghost Town is located in a protected diamond area. The Namibian government is pretty paranoid about smuggling, so it tightly controls visits to the town. While it’s not difficult to navigate this bureaucracy, it’s important to understand what you need in advance.

 

Everyone who visits the town needs a permit. You can pick these up in Lüderitz (at Lüderitz Safaris and Tours). You may also be able to pick them up at the entrance gate, but I wouldn’t risk it — better to arrange your permit the day before you go for peace of mind.

 

 

Several different types of permits are available. The most common is the standard permit, which costs N80. It includes entry at set times for an hour-long tour, but you can walk around for as long as you like afterwards.

 

Alternatively, you can pick up an amateur photography permit for N230, which allows you to enter Kolmanskop Ghost Town before 7 am and stay for the 9:30 tour. Professional photographers must request a special permit (costs vary).

 

The Kolmanskop Ghost Town Tour

 

Most visitors take one of the twice-daily tours of Kolmanskop Ghost Town. These start at 9:30 and 11 am and are offered in both English and German. The tour lasts about an hour, but afterwards you’re free to explore the entire site on your own until it closes at 1 pm.

 

The tours are very worthwhile if you’re at all interested in the town’s history. You probably won’t figure out for yourself where the mine director lived, or how to find the meat cellar, but your guide can point those things out to you. Some of the guides even have relatives who lived in the town during its heyday, and can tell personal family stories about it.

 

Pay special attention in the grocer’s house — you can see the final supply list she prepared for the town. The levels of luxury they were able to truck in from the outside world are pretty astounding.

 

Be sure to bring water, sunscreen, and closed-toed shoes — you’ll trek through sand that hides snakes and other critters. I wore these hiking boots from Merrill for added protection.

 

Other things to see

 

Don't miss the chance to walk around after your Kolmanskop tour to take photos
Don’t miss the chance to walk around after your Kolmanskop tour to take photos

 

While the tour will give you a good overview of life in Kolmanskop Ghost Town, it won’t provide you with great photo opportunities. Wait until the crowds from the tour disperse (or come early) for that.

 

The houses on the hill behind the main building are among the most beautiful. Be careful, as some of them are partially collapsed and structurally unstable. If there’s a sign telling you not to enter, don’t risk it.

 

Don’t miss the bathtub drowning in sand between some of the houses. If any one thing illustrates the town’s decline, it’s this.

 

There is also a fascinating display on diamond smuggling in the building with the shop and cafe. Did you know that people used carrier pigeons to smuggle precious gemstones? I sure didn’t! Just don’t get any ideas.

 

Lüderitz: Your base for visiting Kolmanskop Ghost Town

 

Kolmanskop Ghost Town is way out in the middle of the desert, in the middle of a protected and highly regulated national park. So to visit the town, you’ll need to base yourself in nearby Lüderitz — a friendly little seaside city. It has several good accommodation options and great food. Plus, it has a real end of the world feel to it — on the sea, completely disconnected from the rest of Namibia.

 

What to see in Lüderitz

 

Flamingos on the drive to Diaz Point
Flamingos on the drive to Diaz Point

 

Lüderitz has a couple attractions of its own. First, the downtown area is full of colorful German architecture. The church at the top of the hill provides great views of the area. And the harbor is equally charming — it’s a relaxing place for a post-lunch stroll.

 

Additionally, drive a few kilometers out of town to Diaz Point. You’ll pass cute little coves filled with flamingos, see the shipwrecks the region is so famous for, and climb up a cliff to spot seals.

 

Finally, the area around Lüderitz is home to a large number of African penguins. You can organize a catamaran trip to see them for about $40. On the way, if you’re real lucky and the season is right, you can even spot whales.

 

Where to stay

 

Sunset over the sea from my room at the Nest Hotel in Luderitz
Sunset over the sea from my room at the Nest Hotel

 

Even if you’re on a budget camping/backpacking trip, it’s worth splurging for a hotel or hostel when visiting Lüderitz and Kolmanskop Ghost Town. This is because the winds around Lüderitz are insane. In fact, they’re so powerful that they cause the dunes on the road to Kolmanskop to dangerously shift throughout the day. And of course, nights can be freezing. With several affordable accommodation options that have roofs available, it’s just not worth the misery to camp.

 

If you have a travel buddy or several, splurge for a stay at the Nest Hotel. With balconies overlooking the sea, a swanky pool, a good restaurant, and a stunning location, you can’t go wrong. It’s not outrageously expensive by Namibian standards if you share rooms, and if you’re traveling with a tour company you can get deep discounts.

 

Dorm-lovers should check out Element Riders Place for the cheapest beds in town, with a good location to boot.

 

Where to eat

 

The best little cafe in Namibia -- Diaz Coffee Shop
The best little cafe in Namibia — Diaz Coffee Shop

 

Lüderitz had my favorite little cafe in all of Namibia. Diaz Coffee Shop, on the hill approaching the church, is super-friendly and relaxed. The coffee is real (no Nescafe) and strong, and they do good cappuccinos and iced beverages too. I didn’t have breakfast here but it looked like they had great options. However, the real highlight is some of the world’s cheapest seafood. I got a plate of very fresh and delicious grilled calamari, fries, and a coffee for around N30.

 

The Nest Hotel has Lüderitz’s most popular midrange restaurant. The menu is typically Namibian — emphasis on meat and seafood. It’s not quite as good as it should be for the price, but if you’re craving something swanky after weeks’ worth of campfire meals, it’ll do.

 

 

While I didn’t go, a few of my travel buddies enjoyed Garden Cafe, right along the harbor, for lunch. It has lots of light options like salads and quiches, and proper coffee. A meal runs about N60 including drinks.

 

If you’re aiming to get to Kolmanskop Ghost Town early in the morning to take advantage of your photography permit, grab breakfast at the cafe on site. It serves affordable breakfasts and pastries, which looked pretty good. It has a real espresso maker too.

 

How to get to Kolmanskop Ghost Town and Lüderitz

 

The long, lonely road to Sesriem from Luderitz
The long, lonely road to Sesriem

 

Lüderitz and Kolmanskop Ghost Town are out on a limb from the rest of Namibia. So visiting is a commitment of at least two days.

 

No public transportation runs to Lüderitz. The easiest way to get there is to drive yourself or take a longer organized tour. I visited on a tour with Wild Dog Safaris, which I highly recommend for folks not comfortable driving on African roads (I have no affiliation with them and paid for my tour just like you would). You could also fly to Lüderitz and take a tour to Kolmanskop Ghost Town from there, but I doubt it would work out cheaper.

 

Most travelers stop in Lüderitz between Fish River Canyon and Sesriem/the Namib Desert. It’s about a six hour drive from each and in both cases, you’ll have to venture onto some pretty rough roads.

 

Alternatively, break up the trip between Sesriem and Lüderitz with a night at Klein Aus Vista. This spectacularly-situated campsite just outside the town of Aus offers hiking and mountain biking on trails suitable for all fitness levels. It’s one of the most off-the-beaten-path and profoundly enjoyable spots in Namibia.

 

The drive to Sesriem from Aus requires navigating some very remote and tiny back roads. This isn’t the main tourist trail and if you have a breakdown or accident, you could be hours away from help. So drive carefully and watch out for wildlife.

 

This drive takes more like eight hours, with a long way between fuel stops. But it takes in some of the most absolutely incredible scenery in the entire country.

 

However you approach Lüderitz and Kolmanskop Ghost Town, the last 30 km or so are on a very windy, sandy road. Pay close attention to the speed limit signs. The dunes shift constantly and sometimes appear right in front of your car — and you don’t want to hit a sand dune at 100 km/hour.

 

As with most places in Namibia, a trip to Kolmanskop Ghost Town is as much about the journey as about the destination. The long, lonely road leading here only adds to the sense of isolation and feeling of wonder that people were able to build and sustain such a thriving community. Don’t forget to take plenty of photo stops along the way!

 

Have you ever visited a ghost town in the desert? What did you think? Leave a comment!

 

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Visit Kolmanskop Ghost Town, near Luderitz, Namibia -- a photographer's paradise

 

Read more about Namibia here

 

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