Exploring Namibia

29 January 2018   Lüderitz, Namibia
There was no wind at all this morning and a light sea mist.  We decided to move over to the other mooring on the west side of the port.  We’re a bit isolated out here, but the mooring looks strong and we can relax about being thrown off.  Andy tells me that the mooring is owned by a diamond dredger that is on the hard and won’t be back for at least a month.

Being a Monday, we went into town and talked to the tourist information office; the one tour operator; and the car hire company.  Rather than hiring a 4 wheel drive car and heading off by ourselves, we decided to do some tours with “Namib Offroad Excursions”.  It’s a small operation run by a guy called Heinz, who’s really friendly and has lived in the area all his life.  He’ll customise tours for us and more importantly, he’s the only operator who can get permits into the Restricted Areas owned by the diamond mining companies.

Diamond Mining Boat

We’ve managed to talk “Dreamcatcher” into coming with us.  Tomorrow, we’ll visit Kolmanskop, a deserted mining town and drive around the desert on the Luderitz Peninsula.  We’ll then spend half a day exploring another deserted mining town called Elizabeth Bay.  Finally, we’re going on a two day, 4*4 drive into the Koichab Sand Dunes - nobody else is allowed into the area and we’ll be camping overnight, so it should be fun.   The whole package is going to cost £290 per person - not bad for four days.

In the afternoon, I did some research on the diamond industry and found that diamond mining accounts for 20% of Namibia’s foreign income.  There are half a dozen, 60 foot long diamond dredgers that are based in Lüderitz.  They go out to sea for a week at a time, using a scuba diver and a long hose to suck gravel from the sea bed and then grading it down to diamond-rich gravel.  When they come back into port, there is tight security around the boats until the cargo is taken from the boat to be shipped inland to a diamond processing plant. 

30 January 2018   Lüderitz, Namibia
We went on a morning tour to Kolmanskop, which is a deserted mining town that is slowly being reclaimed by the desert sands.  

In 1908, the worker Zacharias Lewala found a diamond while working in this area and showed it to his supervisor, the German railway inspector August Stauch.  Realizing the area was rich in diamonds, German miners began settlement, and soon after the German government declared a large area as a "Sperrgebiet” (Forbidden Zone), starting to exploit the diamond field.

Kolmanskop

Driven by the enormous wealth of the first diamond miners, the residents built the village in the architectural style of a German town, with amenities and institutions including a hospital, ballroom, power station, school, skittle-alley, theatre and sport-hall, casino, ice factory and the first x-ray-station in the southern hemisphere, as well as the first tram in Africa.  It had a railway link to Lüderitz.

The town started to decline after World War I when the diamond-field slowly started to deplete.  By the early-’30s, the area was in decline.  Hastening the town’s demise was the discovery in 1928 of the richest diamond-bearing deposits ever known.  These were on the beach terraces 270km south of Kolmanskop, near the Orange River.  Many of the town’s inhabitants joined the rush to the south, leaving their homes and possessions behind.  The new diamond find merely required scouting the beaches as opposed to more difficult mining.  The town was ultimately abandoned in 1954.

We arrived at 08:30, which gave us an hour before the start of the official tour.  Heinz showed us around some of the buildings not included in the tour such as the hospital and the school.  It was good to be able to view these without hordes of other tourists invading the buildings - over 100 people visit Kolmanskop each day.

The official tour is very good and informative, describing the way of life in the 1920’s.  The people lived well in the town with ice, fresh water and lemonade being delivered to each house every day by the small gauge train.  The bowling alley has been reconstructed as well as some of the shops and the shopkeeper’s house.   It’s very interesting to wander around and see the way that the sand is slowly taking over the buildings.

Flamingo

In the afternoon, Heinz took us for a drive out into the desert on the Luderitz Peninsula in his 4-wheel drive mini bus.  One soon gets bored with looking at the desolate landscape, but Heinz was very informative about the history of the town, showing us where they mined Penguin guano; an old whaling station; Flamingos; and fortified walls built by Scottish troops during the First World War.     

31 January 2018   Lüderitz, Namibia
It blew a hooley all day.  I caught up on some administration, while Glenys swabbed down the decks and deck equipment with sea water to remove the thick layer of grime that we’d picked up in Cape Town.  We still need to wash the ropes, but we’re currently rationing ourselves with the drinking water because we can’t run the water-maker in this port - the water is too murky.

For the past few days, we’ve had a huge diamond factory ship called the Debmar Pacific in port.  I gleaned this information about the ship:

In recent decades, geologists realized that because diamonds could be found in Namibia’s Orange River, there was a good chance they could also be detected at sea, swept there by the current. As it turned out, the underwater gems were among the world’s most valuable stones — with far greater clarity than diamonds mined on land.

DeBeers uses survey ships and drones to investigate vast stretches of the ocean, looking for areas that might be worth exploring.  Ships like the Debmar Pacific are then sent out to dredge the most promising areas. 

The Debmar Pacific, which often stays at sea for over a year, uses an airlift drill of 6.8m diameter that bites into the ocean floor somewhere between 90m to 120m beneath the surface.  Most of the diamonds are close to the surface, so it does not go deeper than six feet beneath the seafloor.

Diamond Factory Ship

Every year, the ship will mine around 5 sq km of sea bed. Four anchors keep the ship in position while drilling is underway.  They work 24 hours a day and only consider stopping production when the swell hits five metres.

The process recovers sediment from the sea bed, which is sucked up into the vessel above.  The gravel is de-watered and sized, with waste dispensed over the side of the ship.  The graded gravel is then passed through a Dense Medium Separation plan, which produces a diamond rich residue that is flown by helicopter for further processing.

Other, more modern ships have a Remotely Operated Subsea Tractor, which trundles about the sea bed extracting gravel.  These more sophisticated ships take the diamond extraction process further and have x-ray detection machines to find the diamonds in the diamond rich residue.  The diamonds are automatically sealed into tin cans and flown off the ship.

1 February 2018   Lüderitz, Namibia
We went on another tour with Heinz - this time to see the old mining town of Elizabeth Bay.  Just past the entrance to Kolmanskop, there’s an entrance into the "Sperrgebiet” (Forbidden Zone), where Heinz had to show our permits to enter.  They have searching rooms where people are x-rayed and have full body searches to stop diamond smuggling.

The Forbidden Zone is huge - 300 kilometres along the coast and 100 kilometres inland.  There are several active diamond mines including one at Elizabeth Bay.  Diamonds were mined off and on at Elizabeth Bay from 1911 to 1948 with major interruptions due to world wars and economic recessions.  The mine was reopened in 1991 with modern infrastructure and the workforce now lives in Lüderitz. 

It’s 28 kilometres from Elizabeth Bay to Lüderitz and most of the way, we drove on a well graded road - the workers in the new mine use the road to commute to Lüderitz.  The landscape is barren, rocky desert and the only wildlife that we saw all day was three Black-backed Jackals.

Elizabeth Bay

In 1926, a small town was built at Elizabeth Bay to house mineworkers and their families.  This was abandoned in 1935 and it is quickly returning to the desert - a windswept place of fragile ruins.  Heinz took us on a tour of the place, telling us stories about the people who lived and worked here.  There was a huge diamond processing plant, which crushed and then graded the gravel, reducing it to a size that would yield the most diamonds for the area.  Men then sifted through the gravel and picked out the diamonds.

The town housed white Germans in style, with single men sharing a house while married couples had their own six room houses.  Black workers were housed in dormitories with mattresses on the concrete floor separated by three foot high walls - very crowded.  The black workers would have a two year contract, separated from their families, while the white workers were allowed to bring their families.

There was a large “Casino” - a social club with a restaurant and bars; a school; and a train line linked the town to Kolmanskop and Lüderitz.  The ruins of the buildings are deteriorating faster than in Kolmanskop, because the town is right next to the sea and battered by the wind.  There is no sweeping sand like Kolmanskop and the crumbling walls stand bare and skeletal.   

A small pack of Brown Hyenas has taken residence in the ruins.  They feed on a large colony of Cape Fur Seals in a bay about 4 kilometres to the north of Elizabeth Bay.  We weren’t lucky enough to see them, but we did see many tracks, their white scat and they have dragged seal carcasses into a boiler room in one building - it stank to high heaven.

It’s Crayfish season and Heinz got us 2 kg of live Crayfish, which we ate with relish in the evening.