Ahmed Elbatrawy

The world’s oldest desert


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Today a ghost town, Kolmanskop was once a booming diamond rush settlement in the unforgiving Namib desert, present-day Namibia.Today a ghost town, Kolmanskop was once a booming diamond rush settlement in the unforgiving Namib desert, present-day Namibia.

During its peak in the 1920s, it was home to about 300 European adults, 40 of their children and 800 local workers.During its peak in the 1920s, it was home to about 300 European adults, 40 of their children and 800 local workers.

Diamonds were found in less extreme conditions further south, and the population began to drift away. The last residents left in the 1950s, leaving the town to be reclaimed by the desert sands.Diamonds were found in less extreme conditions further south, and the population began to drift away. The last residents left in the 1950s, leaving the town to be reclaimed by the desert sands.

Overrun by the wilderness, and home to the likes of this antelope, it is a popular tourist attraction as a relic of a distant age.Overrun by the wilderness, and home to the likes of this antelope, it is a popular tourist attraction as a relic of a distant age.

Another major attraction in the area are the wild horses, believed to be the feral descendents of military horses. Over the generations, the horses of the Namib have adapted to be able to survive for long periods without water.Another major attraction in the area are the wild horses, believed to be the feral descendents of military horses. Over the generations, the horses of the Namib have adapted to be able to survive for long periods without water.

The horses survived the guns of hunters for generations as they existed on restricted-access land used for diamond mining. Waterholes like the one in this picture help keep the population at a sustainable level.The horses survived the guns of hunters for generations as they existed on restricted-access land used for diamond mining. Waterholes like the one in this picture help keep the population at a sustainable level.

They were once known as ghost horses as they were rarely seen and kept their distance from humans, but in recent years have become more accustomed to human contact.They were once known as “ghost horses” as they were rarely seen and kept their distance from humans, but in recent years have become more accustomed to human contact.

Dry for an estimated 55 million years, the Namib is considered the world's oldest desert. It stretches along Namibia's coastline and into Angola and South Africa.Dry for an estimated 55 million years, the Namib is considered the world’s oldest desert. It stretches along Namibia’s coastline and into Angola and South Africa.


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Kolmanskop, Namibia (CNN) — Vast and inhospitable, the Namib Desert in south west Africa is a land of ghosts. Along a notorious stretch of shoreline known as the Skeleton Coast lie the wrecks of ships stranded in the morning seafogs.

Venture inland and you’ll encounter even more spectral scenes: one of Africa’s most famous ghost towns — and even “ghost horses.”

Considered the world’s oldest desert, the Namib has been dry for an estimated 55 million years. Stretching for hundreds of kilometers along Namibia’s Atlantic coastline, its infamously hostile terrain has made Namibia one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries.

Yet amid this unforgiving landscape is evidence of once thriving human settlement. Kolmanskop — Afrikaans for “Coleman’s Hill” — was once a diamond-mining boom town, complete with a grand ballroom, casino and skittle alley. Today it is an eerie ghost settlement, its sand-logged buildings slowly being reclaimed by the dunes.

Named after Johnny Coleman, a man who abandoned his ox wagon there during a sandstorm, the area was the center of a diamond boom a century ago.

In 1908, an African railway worker named Zacharias Lewala was shoveling sand from the tracks when he struck a glittering diamond. The ensuing rush brought a wave of European fortune hunters to the region, then part of a colony known as German South West Africa.


Stories of the Namib Desert

With their newfound wealth, the settlers set about building a German-style village amid the dunes, complete with amenities such as a hospital with a rare X-ray machine, and a tram.

Read also: The Namibian women who dress like Victorians


Searching for diamonds in a desert

“Life was hard,” said Kolmanskop tour guide Christo Biewenga, but made tolerable by the fact “they were organized in this town.”


The wild horses of the Namib

During its heyday in the 1920s, Kolmanskop’s population consisted of about 300 European adults and 40 of their children, supported by 800 local workers.

Read also: Real-life ‘Lion Kings’

But when new diamond deposits were discovered in less extreme conditions further south, the fortune seekers drifted away. When the hospital closed its doors in 1956, the last remaining settlers left shortly afterward.

Today, as a monument to the settlement’s distinctive history, Kolmanskop is a popular tourist destination, although a permit is required to enter.

This is because the site sits within the Sperrgebiet — a “prohibited zone” declared by German authorities on the discovery of the diamond deposits. Although South West Africa was occupied by South Africa in 1915, and Namibia emerged as an independent state in 1990, diamond mining remains a lucrative concern and the area remains a restricted region under the control of Namdeb Diamond Corporation.

James Alexander is a geologist for Namdeb, a joint venture between the Namibian government and diamond mining company De Beers.

He said the early miners “took the easy ones, the ones on top.” “They would glisten in the dunes in the light of the moon,” he said. “Now we have to blast them out of the ground because the ground has cement in it. So it’s harder and expensive, but there’s still a lot out there… There’s 400 million (carats) sitting somewhere.”

But Kolmanskop is not the only ghost of the Namib. Just as iconic a symbol of the area is the hardy population of 150 or so wild horses, who have adapted to be able to go without water for longer periods than domestic horses, surviving for generations on the desert’s fringe.

Read also: Mali’s treasure at risk from uprising

Horses are not native to southern Africa, and the horses’ origins have long been shrouded in mystery. According to Piet Swiegers, manager of the nearby Klein-Aus Vista lodge, the most likely theory is that they were German and South African military horses abandoned in the chaos of the First World War.

“There was a water point close by,” he said. “That’s why the horses survived all these years.” It is also thought the restricted human access to the region helped their survival, sparing the the feral animals from being caught or hunted.

For generations, the horses existed largely out of sight of locals. “They were known as the ghost horses,” said Swiegers. “We hardly saw them.”

But in recent decades their habitat has been reclassified as part of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, Africa’s largest game reserve, bringing them into greater contact with humans.

This has raised the question of if and how humans should support the horses to keep their numbers at a sustainable level. Experts have settled on a policy of limiting intervention, but providing some support, especially in times of hardship — which has helped to bring people a little closer to these ghosts of the desert.

“The behavior of the horses changed because they got used to people,” said Swiegers. “They don’t fear man because man feeds them in dry times.”






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Ahmed Elbatrawy