The Namib desert in Namibia is a barren wasteland. The coastal edge of the desert in which the ruined town of Kolmanskop is located is particularly dry, receiving less than 50mm of rain a year. It seems an unlikely area for permanent settlement, yet a century ago Kolmanskop was a flourishing mining town. The town came into being just over a hundred years ago, when a labourer stumbled upon evidence of diamond deposits in the area. He showed his supervisor, who in turn informed the German government of this new source of potential revenue. The government subsequently declared the area a Sperrgebiet (a restricted area) to be devoted to diamond mining.
Lured by the promise of wealth, hundreds of German settlers and even more native Namibian workers moved to the area, establishing the town of Kolmanskop. The new German inhabitants built the town in a European style which looks highly incongruous in the desert landscape. Kolmanskop featured grand houses along with recreational centres such as a ballroom, a casino, a theatre, a gymnasium and a bowling alley. Public institutions and infrastructure included a power station, a school, a hospital with the first x-ray in the southern hemisphere, and the first tram in Africa.
The boom was, however, short-lived. Kolmanskop declined after World War One as the price of diamonds started to drop and richer diamond deposits were found further south. The town was ultimately abandoned in 1954. Since then, the ruined settlement has been a magnet for tourists, filmmakers and photographers. In 1980, the de Beers diamond company set up a museum to preserve the ballroom and bowling alley and to recreate several domestic interiors which show how the German settlers lived. The Namibian government is eager to exploit this attraction, as tourism accounts for 14.5% of the national GDP. Yet in spite of the conservation efforts, the Namib desert is gradually swallowing up the town, and one day it will be a forgotten marvel only to be seen in photographs.