Humans react profoundly to images of places, natural or man-made. Why are we moved by locations we have never visited?
From the mystical glow of the Aurora Borealis to the crumbling majesty of the Egyptian pyramids, places make a deep impression on us. We may have no ancestry there, we may never have walked there, but the image of such regions raises a lump in the throat. We wax romantic imagining what it would be like to occupy time and space there. In fact, sometimes a visit to such a place is a let down, as it is difficult for reality to measure up to the glowing imagination of the human mind.
Many of these places are famous, and justly so. But, occasionally, we are struck by an unfamiliar image that stirs us just as deeply. I was watching the 2011 movie Samsara, which I wholeheartedly recommend, when I was blindsided by images of houses invaded by the desert, filled knee deep with sand. There are so many profound images in Samsara, but this one haunted me desperately. I had to know its name.
I am fond of the desert, having traveled quite a bit in the American Southwest, especially Utah. It has been said that all deserts are one in the imagination, and I think that is essentially true. Love for one desert translates quite easily into love for another. It’s a harsh environment and one that requires respect to ensure survival. If we could drop the CEOs of large corporations into such places for a few days without outside aid, I think we would have a revolution in the way we treat the earth. Life in the desert is too fragile to waste, resources too valuable.
Kolmanskop, or Coleman’s Hill in Afrikaans, is an abandoned mining village in the Namib desert of southern Namibia, just 10 kilometers, 6.2 miles, from the port city Lüderitz. It was named for Johnny Coleman, a transport driver who found himself marooned in a fearful sandstorm and abandoned his ox wagon here.
In 1908, a railway worker by the name of Zacharias Lewala found a shiny rock resting on the sand and showed it to his supervisor, the German railway inspector August Stauch. The shiny stone turned out to be a diamond. German miners flocked to the area and a large portion of desert was declared Sperrgebiet, or prohibited area. The famed mining company DeBeers, who ran the mines in the area, had strict rules, one of which was that equipment or vehicles that entered their facilities were never allowed to leave. Most of this area is still off limits to the public, with the exception of a National Park centered in Kolmanskop and run by Namib-DeBeers. The fame of the Sperrgebiet is legendary. It is rumored that some miners would slide across the sand on their bellies, picking up dozens of diamonds as they slithered about.
In its day, Kolmanskop was incredibly wealthy and the residents used their money to recreate a German village in the savage African desert. For entertainment, there was a ballroom, theater, sport hall, bowling alley and casino. The tiny town possessed its own power station, school, ice factory and hospital. It was the location of the first x-ray station in the southern hemisphere and the first tram in Africa. Despite its glory, purchased with resources purloined from the earth and from local people who saw little benefit, the life of Kolmanskop was brief. After World War I the diamonds began to peter out and it was too expensive to keep things going here. Kolmanskop was empty by 1954. The ghost town has been reclaimed by the desert, sandstorms invading the structures and creating an eerie scene.
One is reminded of Shelley’s masterpiece, “Ozymandias”. The final lines of that peerless poem read,