Desert diamond

The snow melted fast in the African sun. It trickled into rivulets on the playground revealing penguins and seals grasped by eager hands. The kids were a mixture of Ovambo, Afrikaans, Nama, German, English and even Icelandic heritage, united only by the now snow-speckled blue shorts and red sun-hats of the school.

It was ‘Antarctica day’ and the local fishing company had covered the arid playground in crushed ice to act as a teaching aid. The surreal image seemed then, as now, a particularly apt metaphor for Namibia itself. A striking blend of cultures in an often artificially created landscape or social setting.

Namibia for me revolves around the German built town of Lüderitz on the South-West desert coast. Having made this isolated place home for one enlightening year, I am keen to dispel the typical guidebook image of it as merely a bizarre colonial relic. Nonetheless the landscape does present a compellingly odd picture of a small Rhinelands town transported to the edge of the African desert.

Lüderitz’ heart is made of diamond. The lunar-like landscape resounds with smuggler legends and every family tells of some long lost fortune. The restricted area that surrounds the town is owned by the Namdeb corporation and stretches 100 km inland even though the gems can only be found ten km in. As a result land is scarce, house prices high, and the townships extremely cramped.

The deserted diamond mining village of Kolmanskop, now half consumed by the dunebelt, is a popular honey trap for sock and sandaled tourists. Visitors have freedom to explore structures almost certainly on the verge of collapse and learn about the history of the mining community there. A favourite sight is the picture of one miner’s wife sketched on the wall of his dorm room; to find it you are instructed to climb through the second floor window, scale a dune and take the second hole on the left!

Nearby Diaz Point offers another wierd image of Africa: the candy-striped lighthouse is seated in front of magnificent dunes looking out over a bay that hosts both seal and jackass penguin colonies. The many deserted coves and rocky inlets along the coastline provide great opportunities to spot the rare brown hyena and it is hard to spend any time by the sea without spotting the odd Benguela dolphin too.

Purchased for 10,000 Reichsmark in 1883 by the German trader from whom it takes its name, Lüderitz still has a strong German presence. During the World Cup I even met a local man who shaved and dyed his hair to resemble the German flag. Despite having never set foot in the country, he calls it his motherland.

Just ten minutes walk from the Felsenkirche, Turnhalle and Bismarck Street stand the townships of Nautilus and Benguela. The shanties and government build homes here are blasted daily by the ‘fish wind’ blowing off the Atlantic via factories that line the coast.

Surprisingly, the greatest racial division in this ex-apartheid area is often not between black and white, although economically this contrast remains stark. Rivalries between the mainly black community in Benguela and the ‘coloured’ one in Nautilus are often violent; a sad testament to both enforced colonial ideologies of racial order and older tribal clashes.

Despite the soaring crime rate Lüderitz is still a great tourist spot. Of course it’s not a good idea to wander into the townships with a camera slung around your neck; but the sensible visitor is completely safe. You could never capture the vibrant, diverse energy of this place on film anyway.

It is not only Lüderitz that appears to operate on multiple cultural and historical trajectories. Namibians in general refuse to accept time as a force in their lives. Somehow the concept ‘now’ is lost in translation: the word is used variably to mean ‘soon’, ‘later’ or ‘sometime’.

The government introduced daylight savings eight years ago, but bizarrely people seem determined not to adhere to it.

Slightly further North the diamonds disappear, the dunes swell upwards and the sand turns red. Sossusvlei is an essential destination for any tourist, so I hear. My one attempt to see the largest dunes in the world was thwarted by a burst tyre on the dirt road from Lüderitz.

Namibia’s capital Windhoek can act as a comfortable stop over in between trips North to the safari lands or West to the skeleton coast, but it doesn’t offer a great deal to the tourist. Independence Avenue and Robert Mugabe Avenue (which succinctly reminds us all it’s not a good idea to name a monument after anyone still living) are the best places to stock up on supplies, while Post St Mall marketplace is perfect for souvenirs.

For the compulsory safari experience head to Etosha National Park, the best place in the world to see the endangered black rhino. I spent hours swaddled in a sleeping bag at the look out point in one camp listening to their deafening roars get louder and expecting them to appear at the watering hole any second. Fortunately we did get a glimpse of a lioness hunting the next day, but by this point sleep deprivation had dampened my enthusiasm.

The North of the country is also home to the Himba and Herero people, although I personally would advise against a trip to any of the ‘tourist villages’ that have sprung up across the region. These places tend to sell an unrealistic view of tribal culture to those merely in search of an exotic photograph.

Namibia is the perfect diverse taster of post-colonial Africa. Whether you’re interested in duneboarding, a safari experience or the magnificent Victoria Falls, take some time to get to know the people and learn about their heritage too.

To get a truly representative feeling for this astounding nation make a detour south to Lüderitz, diamond in the desert.

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