Will Goodlet

The Ghosts in the Desert

Will Goodlet

Johnny Coleman stumbled away from his oxen and wagon as the stinging, sand-laden wind raged around him. He aimed himself eastwards towards the top of the gentle slope, hoping to find refuge from the sandstorm on the other side.

Ten kilometres away, in the opposite direction, the small port of Luderitz offered the hope of safety but it was too far away and impossible to see in the sand storm.

Instead, Coleman abandoned his wagon and with his head buried in an old shirt, hunched over and fighting for breath, he made his way across the brow of the hill and into its lee.

The wind off the Atlantic, cold misty and bitter, felt almost personal in its assault. Its icy fingers grasped at Coleman's clothes and sand choking pulses harried him as he stumbled and felt desperately for shelter amongst some rocks over the crest.

 Forgotten doorway

Forgotten doorway

The hill had no name, it was just another fold in a folded landscape and on it, the sand lay thick. Here and there a rocky outcrop described its bones, with most lying deep below the shifting surface.

There are many lonely places in Southern Africa that bear the name of a lost traveller, a dead man or a pioneer:

Jan se draai, the place where a Nama, named Jan, thought better of his trek and turned back. Dikbaardskolk, the place where ‘Big Beard’ overwintered and Colemans Hill, Kolman's Hugel, Kolman’s Kop, the place where Johnny Coleman abandoned his wagon.

 Hole in the wall

Hole in the wall

Kolman’s Kop, might have been just another forgotten place on another forgotten map but in 1908, Zacharias Lewala, a veteran of the diamond mines at Kimberley and now working for a German railway inspector named August Stauch, found a number of glittering stones.

Stauch laid claim to the stones and the area while history has forgotten what became of Lewala.

Within no time a diamond rush began. Lucky miners made quick fortunes and built themselves a town named, for lack of anything better, Kolmanskop.

 Miss Colman's Koppa

Miss Colman's Koppa

Buried in the desert, far from any conveniences, the newly rich decided to splash out on their town.

Before long, it boasted an exotic German architectural style, deeply at odds with the desert surroundings. They also built themselves a ballroom, skittle hall, hospital, ice factory, school, theatre, power station, casino, sports hall and the first X-ray station in the southern hemisphere. It was a boomtown with all that implied…

 Sunlit room

Sunlit room

Kolmanskop sprang up out of the desert overnight but by the end of the First World War, the diamonds had started to run out. The town’s decline was hastened by another diamond discovery further south (the richest ever found) and many of the miners left the town to try their luck elsewhere along the bitter coast.

 The water tanks in the window

The water tanks in the window

In 1954 Kolmanskop was abandoned by its last inhabitants and the sand and the wind began to reclaim the area.

Now, more than 100 years after it was founded, Kolmanskop lies dormant, the silence in its empty halls punctuated only by the ghostly moaning of the Southern Atlantic wind.

Slowly the town is being swallowed by the marching desert. Its empty rooms, with their long-forgotten secrets, are filling with sand, much like an antique hourglass.

 Dirty windows

Dirty windows

These days, the town is famous as a tourist attraction and a photographers playground.

There is always something fascinating about hubris, especially for photographers, perhaps it just looks awesome in print? At the very least, it serves to remind us humans that our place in the world is temporary and that eventually, we will be wiped away by time; our stories forgotten. Memento mori, as the Romans used to say.

 Burial

Burial

For me at least, the thought seems comforting as I listen to the ghostly wind and watch the sand melt and drift near the place that Johnny Coleman left his wagon.
 

 Sunlight and shadow

Sunlight and shadow

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