Thursday, March 19, 2015

An eccentric town

I have just returned from one of my favourite countries to visit – Namibia.  It is situated north of South Africa on the Atlantic Ocean.  Previously it was called South West Africa, when it was administered by South Africa after the First World War.  Before that, it was Deutsch Südwesafrika – a German colony.

It is big - 825,615 sq. km (318,772 sq mi) – about the size of Germany, the UK, Portugal, Austria, Denmark and The Netherlands put together.  It is the second least densely populated country (behind Mongolia) with a population of only 2.1 million people.

Its modern history is marked by the extreme brutality by the Germans during the Herero and Nama uprisings, followed by the imposition of apartheid by the South Africans.  This year, it celebrates twenty-five years as an independent country with a stable, democratic government.

For me, the appeal of Namibia is both its arid beauty – it’s almost all desert – and its eccentricity.  Today I want to tell you about one of its charming eccentricities – the town of Lüderitz, on the southern Atlantic coast.

What is now Lüderitz was first discovered by Europeans in 1487, when Bartolomeu Diaz sailed into its small, but excellent, harbour.  A replica of the cross he erected there still stands.  Nearly three hundred years later, the Dutch landed to explore the area for minerals.  They found none, so they left.  Then, in the early 1800s, people realized how rich the marine life was, and it became a centre of fishing, whaling, seal hunting, and guano-collecting.  On some islands off the coast, the guano was over 15 metres (about 50 feet) thick.  Twenty-five years ago, I spent a week on one of such islands – Ichaboe – which probably explains why people notice my arrival through their noses first.

The town was officially founded in 1883 when a German trader, Heinrich Vogelsand, bought the area from the local Nama chief on behalf of a trader from Bremen, Germany, named Adolf Lüderitz.  When Lüderitz didn’t return from an expedition south to the Orange River, the town was named Lüderitzbucht in his honour.  The name was later shortened to Lüderitz.

The Felsenkirche overlooks Lüderitz and its harbour.

The town of Lüderitz

During the Herero and Nama uprisings, the Germans established a concentration camp on Shark Island in the bay at Lüderitz.  This resulted in the deaths of several thousand prisoners.

However, it was in 1909 that the town really began to prosper.  Diamonds were discovered in the area, just lying on the sand.  And so began a diamond rush.  The town prospered, and many homes and commercial buildings were built.  Most of these looked exactly like their German counterparts.

Today, many of them remain – not only looking out-of-place in the Namibian desert through their architecture, but also through a wondrous range of colours that have been used to paint them.

As is always the case, pictures tell the story better than words.  First, the German architecture:

The ostentatious Goerkehaus - built by the owner of an early diamond company

Another view

Goerkehaus tower and sun dial

Another view of Goerkehaus tower and sun dial

Goerkehaus sun dial

Concert hall

And some modern houses:

Just outside Lüderitz is a ghost town - Kolmanskoppe - that died when the diamond mining moved elsewhere.  It has become a big tourist attraction.  It is certainly weird to see buildings being slowly devoured by the desert.

There is one other wonderful type of abode throughout this part of Namibia - namely the nest of the Sociable Weaver.  

Sociable weavers construct permanent nests on trees and other tall objects, such as telephone and power poles. The nests are huge - the biggest built by any bird - and can be home to several hundred pairs of birds.  The nests have many chambers inside, with multiple entrances, and are constructed in such a way to help the birds deal with the desert heat.  The central chambers retain heat and are used for nighttime roosting. The outer rooms are used for daytime shade and maintain temperatures of 7-8 degrees Celsius inside, while outside temperatures may range from 16-40 degrees Celsius.  

 If you are ever in southern Africa, put Namibia on your to-see list.

Stan - Thursday

PS.  If you like penguins, there are thousands of African penguins around Lüderitz.  It is very strange to see these little creatures wandering on desert sands rather than on snow and ice.


  1. Great column, Stan! All kinds of things I'd never heard of before. Lüderitz is definitely one of those exceedingly strange cultural collisions, and I love the Sociable Weavers! I'd never seen nor heard of them before. Amazing!

  2. Wonderful pictures Stan. I'd never heard of the Sociable Weavers, either.

    And I guess even penguins have to go on holiday somewhere!

  3. What a fabulous place. Now I know where Pete Seeger got his inspiration. I sure as heck am.

  4. The great Frankie Fredricks was from Namibia? Is that right? A beautifully elegant runner, called Frankie The Floater as his feet never seemed to touch the ground.
    And are those penguins also called Magellan Penguins? Or are they a different species? If so, these wee chappies were at Long Beach Aquarium, enjoying the sunshine while we were busy working in the...err's a tough life.