When the east wind blows through Luderitz, the locals say it can make you crazy. Pounded for days on end by gale force blasts carrying sand from the Garob plains inland, it's no wonder this small Namibian town has a resolute, stubborn look about it. When the wind stops though, and the gentle rays of the sun setting over the Atlantic wash over the town, this no-nonsense corner of Namibia takes on a character all of its own.
The town dates back to 1883 when Adolf Luderitz arrived here from Germany, sparking a wave of migration that continues to this day. Luderitz's plan was to use the vast open spaces to plant fields of tobacco - one can only imagine the look on his face when confronted by dunes in all directions.
Surrounded by desert on three sides and the Atlantic Ocean to the West, Luderitz clings to the coastline seemingly against all odds. Lashed by wind and sea, it has that end-of-the-world feel, like Annie Proulx's Newfoundland town of Killick-Claw in 'The Shipping News'. When the crayfish fleet is in town from November to March Luderitz is a hive of activity as fishermen haul out crates of the 'red gold', while in the quiet winter months it's a peaceful little place where not much is likely to disturb the sound of seagulls and rushing seawater.
Diamonds on the soles of his shoes
Luderitz is unlikely to win any awards for quaintness, but don't be fooled by its frontier character. Look past the drab docks and fish processing factories and you'll see that the town is a jewel of Germanic and Art Deco architecture dating back to the early 20th century.
Tobacco schemes and fishing fleets aside, it wasn't until 1909 - when a railway worker literally stumbled over diamonds while laying tracks to the interior - that the town took off. With pockets stuffed full of diamond profits, the town's great and good created magnificent homes for themselves, many of which are still standing today.
Goerke House, dominating the skyline of Am Diamantberg Street, is perhaps the finest example of these. It's open to the public most days of the week, except when executives from De Beers, who still mine in the area, use it as their Luderitz home away from home. As Inspector of Mines, Hans Goerke was a powerful man in Luderitz and his double-story abode is a great example of the gracious art deco style of the time, and the comfortable living to be had when South West Africa belonged to Germany and the diamonds were plentiful.
Back in those heady days fortune seekers could simply pick diamonds up off the dunes, turning enterprising young miners into millionaires overnight. The honeymoon wasn't to last though, and as the diamonds became scarce and two World Wars took their toll, the boomtown of Luderitz slipped slowly into the quiet little spot it is today.
Deserted desert towns
One of the best places to get a feel for this boom and bust is the 'ghost' town of Kolmanskop, just a few kilometers inland from Luderitz. A guided tour takes visitors around the dozen or so houses that are still standing, with well-informed guides bringing the ruined buildings to life. Home to 300 German diamond workers and nearly 1000 local labourers in its heyday, the town became a bustling centre which even attracted European opera stars to perform in the entertainment hall. Kolmanskop was also home to southern Africa's first X-ray machine, although it was intended more for uncovering smuggled diamonds than medical emergencies!
Guided tours of Kolmanskop take place at 9.30am and 11am (Mon-Sat) and at 10am on Sundays, but make sure you set aside an hour or so to poke around the fascinating ruined houses. If ghost towns are your thing, a number of local tour companies combine a Kolmanskop tour with a trip to Elizabeth Bay, an even more spectacular deserted town in the dunes to the south of Luderitz. These tours need to be booked in advance, as visitors have to be granted a permit to visit the Sperregebiet (Forbidden Area) mining zone.
The diamonds may be long gone, and the red gold is caught in ever fewer numbers, but Luderitz has woken up to the latest jewel in Namibia's crown: tourism.
Ghost towns aside, Luderitz (along with Walvis Bay further north) has become a popular spot for water-sports enthusiasts. A good option is a sailing trip on the schooner 'Sedina', which runs regular charters out past Dias Point (named for the famous Portuguese explorer who landed here in 1488) and on to Halifax Island, home to a colony of African penguins. Fishing trips out into the rich Benguella Current are also worthwhile, and if you don't mind the freezing Atlantic water the two-hour Guano Bay kayak tour should get you up close to some of the local Heaviside dolphins.
Most tours leave from the revamped waterfront development, which has become a popular spot for shopping and dining. Phone ahead out of season or on Sundays though, as many places are likely to be closed.
Also worth a visit is the Felsenkirche, the historic German Lutheran Church perched on a hilltop to the south of town. Commanding a great view of the town and surrounds, the 100-year-old church is worth a visit just for its stunning stained glass windows. The church is open everyday at 4pm. Except Sundays, of course.
Although time and the east wind have taken their toll, there's still a certain charm to Luderitz. It's a place where locals come first and tourists second, but scratch beneath its drab exterior and you'll find a rough diamond on the edge of the desert.
For more info...
- Discover more at www.namibiatourism.com.na.
- The Nest Hotel is one of the best hotels in town, offering great rooms at decent prices. For more places to stay, visit our accommodation finder.
- iafrica.com travelled to Namibia courtesy of the Namibia Tourism Board and Air Namibia. We also flew with Scenic Air, who offer a range of flying safari packages, along with well-priced Sky Shuttle services.