Morning dawns on Luderitz, but you’d barely notice. A dense bank of sea fog has rolled in overnight, and the small German colonial town near the southern tip of Namibia is lost; a place of shadows, half-glimpsed Gothic churches, haunted-house mansions and the ghostly glimmer of muted lights.
|The town of Kolmanskop, outside Luedertiz, Namibia, once provided luxury housing for the diamond mining industry.|
The salt smell of the Atlantic hangs heavy in the chill air. The mournful call of seals can be heard. From far away drifts the lonely honk of a trawler.
Most noticeable, however, is a spitfire burst of obscene expletives as Luffy, our guide, attempts to bring eight 4WD vehicles into order on a Luderitz side street.
“You f*****g b****y g***z! Reverse for Christ’s sake, you g***t!” shouts Luffy.
Odd chap, Luffy. Full of character. Tells the worst jokes in southern Africa, is built like a gnome on steroids, has one of the foulest mouths imaginable — and is surely the only man to ever emerge from the sea and throw a live shark at two unsuspecting Japan Times travel columnists.
Despite these quirks, however, it is impossible to dislike him. There is a primeval, indestructible quality to Luffy. And where we’re going, we’ll need it.
|A sign warns off intruders at the edge of the Sperrgebiet (Restricted Area) in Namibia.|
Our destination is the Sperrgebiet (lit. “Restricted Area”), the diamond zone of Namibia’s deep south. It is one of the harshest spots on Earth; an expanse of desert boasting some of the tallest dunes in the world laps against a shoreline littered with the skeletal, rusted remains of wrecks.
“The coast where men and ships come to die.” That’s what the guidebooks say.
For much of the last century, the Sperrgebiet was forbidden territory. If you entered, you would be shot. Simple as that. Then in 1999 the authorities decided that all the diamonds north of Luderitz had been found and reopened this part of the Sperrgebiet to the public.
The southern Sperrgebiet, which stretches down to the Orange River border with South Africa, still has diamonds and is still off-limits. To prevent smuggling, not even mining company vehicles are allowed to leave. Once a truck enters the area, it is in there forever.
Only one safari company is allowed to take visitors into even the northern Sperrgebiet: Coastways Tours. Only one guide knows his way around: Luffy.
So, love him or loathe him, you’re stuck with him. As he bullies the drivers (“Reverse, you b****y b*****d rock spider!”) into order, we pick up two interesting facts. Only one woman has ever driven into the Sperrgebiet before. No one from Japan has made the trip. So assuming we don’t crash, break down or chicken out, we’ll be making a little bit of history.
It is a three-day expedition. There are various rules. First, you need your own 4WD vehicle. You can rent one in Luderitz. You don’t need to bring high-lift jacks, air compressors, winches, etc. — Luffy provides all that.
Nor do you need camping gear. Accommodation is provided in an abandoned diamond mining camp. Not the Ritz, admittedly; very remote, and some of the mod cons come up short in the “mod” department, but it is perfectly adequate.
You bring food and drink. And don’t forget to pack a certain reckless optimism.
Luderitz is our first stop, and, despite its small size, the town boasts various tourist attractions. Indeed, when not smothered by fog or scoured by some of the strongest winds recorded on the African continent, it is a very gracious place to stay.
A yacht will take you out to see jackass penguins and Heaviside’s dolphins. Luderitz oysters and crayfish are renowned. You can fossick for desert roses, and there are beaches where agates can be picked up in handfuls. There is even a golf course (or, more accurately, one exceptionally large sand trap).
The most famous tourist lure, though, is Luderitz’s neighboring town of Kolmanskop, just a few kilometers drive from the coast. Ghost towns simply do not get any better than this.
Kolmanskop was built during the diamond rush and, in its heyday, was quite a place. Despite a population of only 1,200, Kolmanskop boasted a theater, several restaurants, a ninepin skittle alley, a gymnasium, a library and a casino. Its 250-bed hospital had its own wine cellars and was also the first establishment in the southern hemisphere to own an X-ray machine. The people here lived the high life. Artists and performers were brought over from Europe, and there was an icehouse to keep the champagne and oysters cool. Then bigger, better diamonds were discovered further south in Oranjemund, and the population just took off overnight. Some didn’t even bother packing their furniture or turning off their lights. By 1956, Kolmanskop was deserted.
A few of the houses have been restored to their former glory. Most, however, are filled with sand and are home only to lizards and other furtive desert creatures. Disappointingly, Kolmanskop is not actually haunted, though the hospital has “an atmosphere,” according to locals.
If you wish to explore the ghost town, allow for an extra day in Luederitz. Coastways Tours’ Luffy-led convoy simply roars past it, anxious to get far away from civilization — or its remains — as quickly as possible.
Perhaps 20 km further on, Luffy’s vehicle turns abruptly, leaves the thin strip of tarmac road and bulls off into the desert. The next car follows. It immediately gets stuck in the sand. It stalls.
Rule nine in the list of rules Luffy gave us all says, “Don’t criticize. Be supportive.”
“Turn the f*****g steering wheel, you daft b*****d!” yells Luffy supportively at the hapless driver.
“I do hope this isn’t going to be a complete nightmare,” says one Japan Times travel columnist to the other.
“It’s looking that way . . .”