Tuesday, May 31, 2022
After a terrific launch of our Complete Namibia photographic tour with Martin Bailey in the Quiver Tree Forest and Giant’s Playground, we did a complete photographic about-face today. Diamonds were and still are an important Namibian export. Diamonds mined in Namibia are alluvial and formed underground eons again in South Africa. Volcanic eruptions in South Africa drove kimberlite, a diamond-containing igneous rock, towards the earth’s surface. Over time, these deposits were swept via rivers and ocean currents from South Africa up the Atlantic coast of southern Namibia. Above ground mining operations involve sifting and separation of diamonds from a sedimentary slurry. In more recent decades, the ocean floor off the coast of Namibia is combed to extract diamonds. Because of the forces these diamonds sustained on their journey from South Africa to Namibia, a relatively high percentage of Namibian diamonds are gem-quality.
Although I love jewelry, I have never really been into diamonds (I’m more of a “pearl girl” at heart) but the history of how the De Beers company created the expectation that engagement and marriage must be sealed with a diamond engagement ring is quite a marketing success story, at a minimum. At one level, the rarity of diamonds and the extreme conditions under which they are formed (near pure crystallized carbon, compressed by temperature and pressure ages ago 70-120 miles under the earth’s surface) are a nice metaphor for marriage. On the other hand, this is a historically recent development with a troubled legacy, to say the least. Although Namibia is now regarded generally favorably as a source for conflict-free diamonds, its early history in this arena is less illustrious.
As I write this (in July), we just celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary. We were impoverished radiology residents when we married, when paying the credit card off each month was a major financial turning point. I wouldn’t even have a diamond engagement ring but for my mother-in-law, who came up with a family ring that we had reset into a typical Tiffany style setting, which I proceeded to never wear. Being in medicine and pulling on gloves regularly to do procedures, it was a pain. Eventually, I had the diamond made into a necklace, which also languishes, infrequently worn.
But I understand the allure of the world’s hardest substance for other people, especially after this trip, seeing the conditions under which people are willing to live and the lengths to which people are driven to pursue their dreams of riches. The area we explored for two days sprang into life with a chance discovery, analogous to the Gold Rush in California in 1848. We also saw dark hints of exploitation.
We spent the afternoon exploring and photographing an unusual ghost town, Kolmanskuppe, an enclave of houses, shops and a school which the desert is reclaiming (alternate spelling: Kolmanskop). It was an outpost of Namdeb (a joint venture of the Namibian government and De Beers with the motto, On diamonds we build) which once housed a thousand settlers after diamonds were found glinting in the sand by a railroad worker in 1908.
In boom and bust fashion, the town sprang into existence by 1912, harvesting a million carats of diamonds per year. Intensive mining and discovery of even richer diamond fields to the south in 1928 led to the town’s inexorable decline in the 1930s and complete abandonment by 1956. Since then, it has been progressively decaying, with sand dunes reclaiming forlorn empty buildings.
Our accommodations for two nights were the Lüderitz Nest Hotel, a modern accommodation on the waterfront.
Wednesday June 1, 2022
We returned in the morning to Kolmanskuppe to sign in to visit another abandoned diamond mining town, Elizabeth Bay. To visit this site, in an even more advanced state of decay, we had to sign separate waivers, lest a roof cave in on us or a floor give way. There is still some ongoing mining, mostly of industrial quality diamonds, so security is tight, with signs posted advising that there is no going to toilet before entering search rooms.
Following the local guide in our vehicle, a cry of “Wait, wait, wait, wait!” erupted as we eased out of Kolmanskuppe. A control bar narrowly missed the front of our Toyota Landrover. Jackals scampered over the sand as we approached lonely, desolate Elizabeth Bay, a study of decay through neglect, wind, erosion and rust, leaving traces of interrupted dreams and lives frozen in time. Martin, who was last here 3 years ago, noted the buildings had really progressed in their decline.
Many of the structures, constructed of bricks made with seawater, now consist of a mortar latticework, as the bricks dissolve, leaving the infrastructure behind.
There is a stark disparity among the decaying housing stock, from small single family homes with rotting wallpaper still hinting at domesticity, which mostly housed German miners to the “worker’s quarters” in which local workers, indigenous Namibians, slept. The official story is that the workers were paid a wage, therefore, were not slaves. Seeing their spartan, coffin-like sleeping quarters and learning that the doors were locked at night suggests otherwise.
After lunch, we returned to Kolmanskuppe for a second afternoon shoot. It was hot and hard work slogging through the loose sand between buildings.
For a demanding photographic itinerary, I accomplished a surprising amount of reading on this trip, between long flights (up to 10 hours), long layovers (up to 8 hours) and longish drives between destinations (longest 8 hours). Namibia is a sizable country, and distances between points of major interest can be considerable. That said, I thought this trip was very well organized and paced, as we spent 2 nights in most destinations. Although these diamond mining towns were not motivators for me to sign up on this trip, I did find this segment photographically interesting and psychologically challenging.
I have been on an African literature jag for a while, which continued unabated this trip. Today, I starting reading Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah, the selection for my next book club session. Gurnah won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2021. I enjoyed this tale of Yusef, a young boy whose life is disrupted when he is given up to serve “Uncle Aziz” as payment for debts owed by his father. It is a time of turmoil, as Germany seeks to wrest control of East Africa. When the roads were too rough to keep my eyes on the Kindle app on my phone, I continued listening to Glory, by Noviolet Bulawayo, a Zimbawean writer whose We Need New Names was a favorite of my book club several years ago. In Glory, Bulawayo charts the fortunes of an imaginary country, Jidada (with a -da and another -da), which closely mirrors those of Zimbabwe in the waning years of Robert Mugabe’s rule and the struggle for control of the country after he was finally overthrown. Jidada is ruled and populated by animals, whose hierarchies parallel those in Orwell’s classic, Animal Farm.
From here, we would head north towards Walvis Bay on the coast, the subject of a future post. But first, our next, eagerly anticipated destination was Sossusvlei. Here’s a couple of previews: