Kolmanskop, Namibia’s Ghost Town in the Desert

It really didn’t make any sense.

We only had 12 days in Namibia, and our itinerary was already looking ambitious. It’s a big, spread-out country with terrible roads, and there was already a lot of driving in our future when Lauren suggested a detour to Kolmanskop. A 1500km detour, mostly on gravel, to check out an old mining town. It just didn’t sound like it would be worth the effort.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Early last century, Kolmanskop was a rich diamond-mining settlement, close to Luderitz on the south-western coast. The wealth meant that despite never having much more than 1000 inhabitants, the town built itself a hospital, ballroom, casino, even a casino and ice factory.

After a couple of decades, though, the diamonds got harder to find, and inhabitants started to move to mines with better prospects elsewhere in the country. By 1954, the town was abandoned to the surrounding desert… and nature took full advantage.

For the last seventy years, the relentless wind has been picking up grains of sand, and depositing them at Kolmanskop. As doors sagged and roofs fell in, sand drifts started to grow inside the once-grand buildings. In some parts, those drifts have risen almost to the ceiling, pushing out windows, breaking floorboards, and leaving ‘ground’ level several feet higher than it used to be.

Kolmanskop

I didn’t know any of this beforehand, of course, but a few carefully-selected guidebook photos and Google Image searches were enough to convince me. We squeezed our itinerary even further, worked out a route that make some kind of vague sense, and that was that. We were going to Kolmanskop.


The drive to Luderitz was long, bumpy, and uncomfortable, but by that stage of the trip we were almost used to it. Another seven hours on terrible roads, you say? Sure, why not.

You need a ticket to enter the site, either the standard 85 NAD (~$6.50 USD) one that coincides with guided tours starting around 9:30am, or the 230 NAD photographer version that’s valid from sunrise to sunset.

With another long drive the next day, and knowing we’d get the best shots shortly after dawn, we’d planned to buy the photographer permit when we got to Luderitz. We rolled in at 3pm on a Saturday. The store that sold permits had closed at midday. Oops.

Fortunately you can buy them at the entrance as well, so that became the new plan.

Kolmanskop sign

After all of about 15 hours in Luderitz, we got up in the dark and slipped back out of town. The sun was just peeking over the distant hills when we arrived at the Kolmanskop gates, but the ticket office was firmly closed. We decided to go in anyway, and sort out permits later, a decision that wasn’t well received by the guard when he finally did show up. Oops again.

By the time he grumpily demanded payment, I’d already taken approximately eleventy-billion photos… and we’d only checked out the first half dozen buildings. None of the structures looked very interesting as we approached them…

Outside buildings, Kolmanskop

… but that all changed moments later.

Door handle, Kolmanskop

Doors hung from a single hinge, or lay submerged in an ocean of sand. Perfectly-sculpted dunes climbed the walls, the long shadows of empty window frames stretched across them in the dawn light. Scratched baths lay angled across empty bathrooms, filled with sand instead of water. Collapsed roofs offered views of the sky as it rapidly turned from grey to flawless blue.

Kolmanskop bath

With so little light when we first arrived, all the colours were washed out, making Kolmanskop seem a grim, solemn place. The wind whistled and howled around us, and with nobody else around, the abandoned buildings gave off a weird, eerie vibe.

As the sun climbed in the sky, though, everything changed. Rays of light shone through those empty windows and doors, giving sudden warmth to rooms that had felt cold and forbidding only minutes earlier.

Kolmanskop

The clammy sand started to heat up as well, which was handy… because I was spending a surprising amount of time sitting in it.Taking photo at Kolmanskop

Or lying down in it.

Kolmanskop Dave

Or, ten minutes later, returning to frantically scrabble around in that same piece of sand, trying to find the sunglasses which had fallen out of my pocket. Spoiler: I found them, only slightly more scratched than usual.

The more we explored, the more we came to appreciate the differences between each room and building. Some of the larger spaces had only a inch of sand on the floor, while in smaller ones, it piled far up the walls, and spilled through every door and window.

Hallway, Kolmanskop

Buried door, Kolmanskop

Spilling sand

Since the entire town is built on a hill, I’d often find myself stepping through a back window that once sat several feet off the ground, and looking down a steep slope to the front of the house!

Down the slope, Kolmanskop

As the sun rose ever-higher, the temperature did the same, but we couldn’t stop exploring. Little snippets of daily life lay among the sprawling sand, a reminder that once the diamonds ran out, many people left everything behind when they headed south.

Rusted cans, Kolmanskop

The further into the town we got, the more interesting it became. I found the second and third row of buildings most fascinating, a rabbit warren of small rooms joined by a tidal wave of sand.

Kolmanskop

Four doors, Kolmanskop

Kolmanskop doors

Finally, close to four hours after arriving at the gate, we were done. A few more visitors had shown up by then, but at least in the depths of low season, Kolmanskop was never crowded. We’d had the place largely to ourselves all morning… which is exactly what you want when visiting a ghost town, right?

We’d hoped to get breakfast at the cafe inside the restored train station, but despite the sign out the front suggesting it opened at 9am, there was no sign of life an hour later. Whether that was because it was Sunday, low season, or both, it’d hard to know, but our rumbling stomachs would have to wait another hour for their breakfast.

A quick look around the museum, an even quicker visit to the toilets with a sign reminding visitors to close the door to keep the snakes out, and we were off. It took two days to drive back to Windhoek to fly out, and we talked about Kolmanskop the whole way. It was easily the best part of our time in Namibia, no mean feat in a country full of highlights.

I’d never been anywhere like it, and having the whole place to ourselves made it all the more memorable. Was it worth driving a thousand miles on terrible roads, getting up before dawn, and still finding grains of sand in my ears days later?

Yes, absolutely. If you’re going to Namibia, you need to go to Kolmanskop. It’s as simple as that.

 

There’s no accommodation at Kolmanskop itself, but the smallish town of Luderitz is only about a ten minute drive away.

We took a room at Kairos Cottage, a clean and tidy B&B just outside the centre, on the Shark Island peninsula. It had a great view over the ocean, with friendly staff. We didn’t get a chance to try the breakfast, but it gets good reviews.

There are only five rooms, though, and it fills up fast. Fortunately, Luderitz has other decent accommodation options.

  • The photographer permit is definitely worth the money. We got our best shots shortly after sunrise, and also had the place to ourselves. The later you arrive, especially in high season, the busier and hotter it will be. For me, the magic of Kolmanskop was the empty buildings, howling wind, and feeling of total isolation.
  • If you do want the photographer permit, try to get it in advance from Luderitz Safaris and Tours, in the town centre. That way, if the ticket office isn’t open when you arrive at sunrise, you’re still allowed in, and won’t get a dressing down from the guard like I did. As we discovered, though, the store is only open in the morning at weekends.
  • Make sure your camera is fully charged — you’ll likely take hundreds of photos, and my battery indicator was flashing angry red by the time we left.
  • Wear a solid pair of shoes, as you’ll be walking through fairly deep sand at times, and climbing in and out of broken windows and doors.

 

Want to know more about travelling in Namibia? I wrote a free guide to doing exactly that!
Visiting Kolmanskop

One Response to “Kolmanskop, Namibia’s Ghost Town in the Desert

  • What a great adventure you had at this amazing place. The photos you captured are fantastic – I really like all the doorways, the multitude of colors, and especially like the one of the long hallway! Not sure I’ll ever get to Namibia, but if I do you guidebook looks great!!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *