In Lüderitz, you’re never far from the desert.
Coming in to land at the small international airport the runway is just a thin strip of tarmac, carved out of sand and rock. From the hill near the Felsenkirche, dunes of yellow and orange creep ever closer from the north. And when the south wind blows, which it does most of the time, the dust sweeps in from the Sperrgebiet, whispering of the gems that may still lie hidden.
While today Lüderitz relies on the riches from the sea – mainly the “red gold” of prized West Coast rock lobster – it wasn’t so long ago that the desert sands made the Lüderitz buchters, as the townspeople are called, rich beyond their wildest dreams.
In 1909, workers laying train tracks to the interior stumbled across diamonds lying loose on the sand, and Namibia’s diamond rush began. In the nearby town of Pomona, the legend goes that under the glow of a full moon the valley floor sparkled with the precious stones.
There are still diamonds being sifted from the shifting sands, but today the dunes for kilometres around Lüderitz are out of bounds. This is the Sperrgebiet, the forbidden mining area where you can look forward to a hefty fine and an intimate interrogation if you're found trespassing.
For a taste of the harsh but profitable life that once flourished in the desert, most visitors head for Kolmanskop, the most accessible ghost town in the region. With the rush for diamonds it became one of the wealthiest towns in Africa, boasting opera theatres visited by European stars and hilltop swimming pools for the residents.
There was so much money to be spent that drinking water for thirsty miners was shipped all the way from Cape Town. Kolmanskop was even home to the first X-ray machine in Africa, allegedly to keep an eye on any diamonds leaving the Sperregebiet illicitly.
There are worthwhile guided tours of Kolmanskop at 9:30 am and 11 am Monday to Saturday (grab a delicious scone at the tea-room beforehand), but it is well worth allowing yourself a few hours to explore on your own.
Wandering down rows of abandoned houses it's easy to imagine the lives once lived here. Vacant doorways and windowless frames provide a glimpse into houses where bedroom doors lie anchored in the sand. The wind whistles through hallways and once-opulent wallpaper peels away in long desiccated strips. There may not be real ghosts in Kolmanskop, but the spirit of the town certainly lives on.
Back in Lüderitz, for a taste of the riches the area once enjoyed, it’s worth strolling through the delightful Görke House on Am Diamantberg Street.
As the inspector of mines, Hans Görke was a powerful man in Lüderitz. His mansion is a fine example of the elegant art nouveau style that found an unlikely home on the edge of the Namib Desert. The house is open daily for visitors and the stained glass windows on the stairway are alone worth the visit.
A few steps from Görke House is perhaps the best place to get a sense of the town.
The Felsenkirche has gazed out over Lüderitz since 1912, when it was built by the diamond-flush German aristocracy of the time. Thick walls keep the relentless wind at bay and the bright sunlight streams through the soaring stained glass windows.
To the right Martin Luther gazes down at the faithful, while to the east Jesus appears to be saving a wrecked fisherman. A fitting blessing for a town whose fortune now relies on the sea’s bounty.
The church is only open for an hour each afternoon (check the church door for times), and the sound of sermons is rarely heard here now. A minister from Swakopmund or Windhoek, some five hours to the north, visits just once a month.
Step outside and wander up the hill to your right to enjoy the spectacular views over the town. The rows of brightly coloured houses wander towards the new waterfront development; the harbour bustles with deep-sea fishing boats while the dunes of the distant desert creep ever closer. Across the bay, Agate Beach is a popular spot for weekend barbecues and long lonely walks.
If lonely windswept coast is what you’re after, you’ve come to the right place.
Diaz Point is at the end of a wonderful 65-kilometre circular drive that runs close to the Sperrgebiet to the south. Follow the good gravel road past Radford Bay to Second Lagoon – known as one of the country's best bird-watching spots. You'll find curly sandpipers, grey lapwings, flamingos and myriad waders here at various times of the year. Further on, Grossebucht (Big Bay) is home to a breeding colony of the endangered Damara tern.
The road runs along a crenulated coastline of buchts and fjords until finally delivering you to Diaz Point, where a replica cross marks the spot where Bartolomeu Dias erected a padrão on his homeward voyage to Portugal in 1488 after rounding the Cape of Good Hope. It’s a wild, dramatic corner of this remote Namibian coastline, and one can only wonder what he must have thought of this untamed landscape.
As it turned out, Dias hoisted sails and made his way back to Europe. It wasn’t until one Adolf Lüderitz stepped ashore in 1883 that the town’s long history of European influence really began.
Lüderitz is certainly no place for softies. It’s seen its fortunes wax and wane, forever battling the desert and the elements, but sandwiched between the desert and the deep blue sea this hardy seaside town is, surely, a diamond in the rough.