Between wind and water
The town of Lüderitz stands in isolation on a great frontier between the desert and ocean. Beyond the structures huddled together beside the bay and a lighthouse on the peninsula, the surroundings are much as Bartolomeu Dias found them in 1487, when his flotilla of three small ships first sailed into the uncharted anchorage.
The townlands form an enclave in the Sperrgebiet, 26 000 km² of coastal desert rich in diamonds. The greater part of the Sperrgebiet lies to the south. Northward the dune fields of the Great Sand Sea sprawl overland to the horizon and far beyond.
Lüderitz was built on a windswept, rocky hillside and ridge beside the bay. Behind the town, out of sight from the sea, a black-top road runs into the interior. Outside the town limits it passes Kolmanskop, now a ghost town, where diamonds were first mined in the Namib. The next town is Aus, 125km to the east, across the desert.
Lüderitz is located on the only part of the Namibian coast with a rocky shore. A peninsula with numerous coves, locally called fjords and bays, juts out of the coast at an angle to form the bay proper. Three small islands -- Penguin, Seal and Flamingo -- lie within the bay. Shark Island was once also an island in the bay, but a solid causeway now joins it to the mainland. It encloses the harbour and a yacht basin.
Twelve islands lie in Namibian waters north and south of Lüderitz. Collectively they are known as the Penguin Islands or sometimes the Guano Islands. Penguin colonies live on few islands nowadays, but guano still accumulates abundantly, as seabirds -- especially cormorants and gannets -- roost and breed on all the islands. The islands are bleak and barren, except for a few bushes on Possession, the biggest one with an area of 90ha.
Bartolomeu Dias sailed from Portugal in search of a sea route for trade with India. He became the first European navigator to round the southern tip of Africa after he tacked out of the bay he had found on the Namib coast. In time his compatriot Vasco da Gama would follow and sail beyond the Cape of Good Hope to Calcutta.
On his homeward voyage Dias again put into the bay and named it Golfo de São Christovão (Gulf of Saint Christopher) after his flagship. Cartographers later changed the name to Angra dos Ilheos (Bay of Islets) and later still to Angra Pequena (Narrow Bay). Both names describe the locality well, a bay dotted with little islands where -- in the words of a contemporary seafarer -- "a hundred ships could anchor". Small ships, that is, like caravels.
For nearly 400 years after Bartolomeu Dias dropped anchor in its waters, the bay remained an obscure anchorage on a barren part of the African coast, except for a rapacious scramble for whales and guano in the 19th century.
Angra Pequena would change forever after Adolf Lüderitz, a merchant from Bremen in Germany, contrived to purchase the bay and adjacent land in 1883. In addition he later purchased all of the coast to the south as far as the Orange River and to the north as far as the Kunene River.
Within months Imperial Germany placed his acquisitions under its "protection" and proceeded to colonise the future South West Africa. The process took exactly a year, from its inception on 24 April 1884 to the dispatch of a resident commissioner on 23 April 1885, with Angra Pequena utilised as the entrepot. The offshore islands and Walfisch Bay, earlier annexed to Britain, remained in British hands.
For lack of a natural harbour elsewhere, Angra Pequena remained the principal port for German South West Africa, despite its being out of the way in the south. It was renamed Lüderitzbucht (Lüderitz Bay), eventually shortened to Lüderitz, after Adolf Lüderitz was drowned at sea in 1886. A plaque in his memory is located on Shark Island.
THE MAN WHO BOUGHT A COUNTRY
Franz Adolf Eduard Lüderitz, the man in the gold-rimmed glasses, was an unlikely empire builder. A tobacco merchant from the German city of Bremen, he inherited the family business from his father after he himself had failed as a rancher in Mexico, where as a young man he bred horses and cattle.
One day he looked at a map of Africa, saw an empty space and decided to take it, since "nothing better (was) left." Foreign powers such as Britain, France, Belgium and Portugal were fast gobbling up the continent.
Lüderitz sought and obtained prior assurance of German protection when in 1882 he declared his intention to build a factory for purposes of trade on a desert coast he had never seen. His grand design was to acquire possession of land in the interior from tribal chiefs and to "introduce German goods under German labels".
For such a project he needed "the protection of the German flag". Besides he did not want to pay duties to the British authorities on imports through Walfisch Bay.
He initially sent out a young man named Heinrich Vogelsang as his agent. Vogelsang persuaded Joseph Fredericks, a tribal chief who claimed suzerainty over that part of the coast, to part with Angra Pequena -- the anchorage along with all land within a radius of 8 km -- for £100 in gold coin and 200 rifles.
As it turned out, Lüderitz did not pay the £100 in gold, but in trade goods. The good chief for his part chose not to reveal that his predecessor, David Fredericks, had already sold part of the land to someone else.
Less than three months after the first deal, Vogelsang bought all of the coast from Angra Pequena to the Orange River, to a width of 20 "geographical miles". Known for a time as Lüderitzland, the acquisition contained vast treasure in the form of diamonds, although nobody knew it at the time. It would eventually become the Sperrgebiet.
The agreed price was £500 in gold and 60 rifles, but as before no gold changed hands. Lüderitz again paid in trade goods.
Vogelsang had plied Joseph Fredericks with strong drink. Moreover he led him to believe that geographical (or German) miles were identical to English miles when they were in fact five times as long. When the chief later became aware of the deception, he rued the loss of "more than half of Bethanie" (his tribal territory).
Lüderitz later bought the coast north of Angra Pequena, as far as the Kunene River, from other chiefs for the princely sum of £170 in all.
To all intents and purposes he had bought an entire country, the future South West Africa, in little more than two years from 1 May 1883 to 19 June 1885. He owned about a third of it outright and held mineral rights to a large part of the remainder.
Unfortunately for him he had run out of money. Unable to exploit his acquisitions and concessions, he sold them to the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft für Südwest Africa (DKG), a chartered company founded in Berlin to develop the colony.
Lüderitz had failed as a trader and his geological expeditions -- each more costly than the one before -- failed to discover the gold and copper he sought.
With a subsidy from the DKG he went on a final expedition in search of mineral wealth. On his homeward journey in a small boat with a flimsy sail, he and his helmsman were lost at sea, somewhere between the Orange River mouth and Angra Pequena.
Diamonds were discovered 22 years after his death in the desert he had once owned. Almost a century later, they are still being mined.
Diamantberg, Nautilus Hill, Water Tower Hill, Shark Island.
Lüderitzbucht Safaris & Tours,
P O Box 76, Lüderitz, Namibia
Tel +264 (0)63 20 2719
Cell +264 (0)81 129 7236
Fax +264-(0)63 20 2863
Ghost Town Tours,
P O Box 305, Lüderitz, Namibia
Tel & fax +264 (0)63 20 4031
Cell +264 (0)81 128 4336
Germany in Africa
In streets almost devoid of trees, the townscape today still reflects the colonial past, a remnant of Germany in Africa: edifices with domes, towers and turrets, steep roofs with oriel windows, embellished gables, bay windows on ground level and, for shelter from the wind, Wintergärten or sunrooms in homes.
Uniquely in Africa, the predominant architectural style of public, business and residential buildings, especially in Ring, Bismarck, Berg and Bahnhof streets, is straight out of late 19th century Germany.
Goerke Haus is a grand residence or "diamond palace" built in 1909, restored to its former glory and furnished with period pieces. It is named after Hans Goerke, the original owner and first occupant, who was a prominent businessman.
An apocryphal story once had it that the castlelike house was built to accommodate German royalty on a proposed visit to the colony that failed to materialise.
Situated in Diamantberg Street. Open weekdays 14:00-16:00, weekends 16:00-17:00. Closed on public holidays.
Felsenkirche (Church on the Rocks) is the name given to the German Evangelical Lutheran Church built in 1912 on a rocky hill. The stained-glass windows and the woodwork inside the church are impressive. The window in the altar apse was a gift from the German emperor.
The fine proportions of the church and its verticality of form, especially the helm roof of the spire, represent an English Gothic style -- specifically Vertical Gothic, prevalent in the Victorian era -- rather than the neo-Gothic preferred in the German Church at the time.
The church is on Diamantberg. Open daily, Monday to Saturday, from 17:00.
Flora, history, ethnology.
Open daily, Monday to Friday, 15:30-17:00.
Agate Beach forms an enclave on its own, 8 km out of town, within a remnant of the Sperrgebiet. It is a long and sandy beach located on the fringe of the sand sea with the dunes clearly in sight. Seal Island is just offshore. The water is calm as the beach is situated on the shore of the bay. Barbecue places are provided. The road to Agate Beach is open to the public and suitable for sedan cars.
A small beach close to town.
Supervised digs for rosette-like desert or sand roses take place at Agate Beach. Desert roses are gypsum or calcium sulphate crystals that form in moist conditions under the desert sand. It is necessary to arrange a dig and obtain a permit in advance.
Ministry of Environment & Tourism,
Schinz Street, Lüderitz
T el +264 (0)63 20 2811
F ax +264 (0)63 20 4188
Radford Bay (Damara terns),
Second Lagoon (greater flamingos).
Daily cruises under sail, when weather permits, on the schooner Sedina. Departure at 08:00 from Robert Harbour. The schooner follows a course across Lüderitz Bay to Angra Point, Sturmvogelbucht, Shearwater Bay, Diaz Point, Guano Bay and Halifax Island. Returns to port 10:15-10:30.
Sedina Boat Tours,
P O Box 305, Lüderitz, Namibia
Tel +264 (0)63 20 4030
Fax +264 (0)6320 4031
ON THE BOW
Benguela or Heaviside's dolphins often accompany the Sedina and criss-cross in front of her bows. They are endemic to the west coast of southern Africa. About half of them live in Namibian waters, mostly inshore and on the southern coast, with their highest density around Lüderitz. They are the smallest dolphins in southern African seas, with a maximum recorded length of 1,74m and mass of 70,8kg.
On a lofty point on the Lüderitz Peninsula, Bartolomeu Dias in 1488 erected a padrão or stone cross on his homeward voyage to Portugal, after he had rounded the Cape of Good Hope. A replica now stands on the spot, known as Diaz (sic) Point, with the original kept -- as found, in pieces -- in museums in Cape Town and Lisbon. Seen from a sailing boat at sea, Diaz Point gains its true perspective, a rocky headland with its back to the desert. A colony of Cape fur seals lives at the foot of the point.
In open sea south-west of Diaz Point, just off the peninsula, Halifax Island supports a penguin colony. The Sedina tarries offshore for a close look. Classified as vulnerable overall and critically endangered in Namibia, African or jackass penguins are endemic to southern Africa and the only resident species. They breed only in South Africa and off the Namibian coast on Halifax, Ichaboe, Mercury and Possession islands.
THE ATLANTIC SHORE
A 65km route around the peninsula runs from Lüderitz to Grosse Bucht (Big Bay) and back to town along the Atlantic shore. Sandy embayments or pocket beaches alternate with rocky promontories. The ground is fairly bare, but supports lichens and -- in sandy places -- hummock vegetation, especially woody shrubs and succulents.
Some of the oldest formations in Namibia, gneisses and other metamorphic rocks, crop out extensively on the peninsula. Visible mainly as darker or lighter intrusions in other rocks, they are remnants of a mountain that was formed 1 500-1 000 million years ago. In the course of geological time the mountain was eroded away.
The gravel roads on the peninsula are maintained in good condition, but a route map is necessary as they are poorly signposted.
Diaz Point, Griffith Bay.
On the landward side of Diaz Point a wooden bridge crosses a gully to steps that climb up to the Diaz Cross. The top is exposed to the elements, with an atmosphere that can become somewhat eerie, particularly in high wind and thick fog.
An old whaling station rusts away at Sturmvogelbucht (Storm Petrel Bay). From the late 18th to the early 20th century British, American and Norwegian whalers hunted the southern right and other whales in Namibian waters, with no fewer than five whaling stations eventually established on the coast between Angra Pequena and Walfisch Bay.
A 2km sandy beach on the shores of Grosse Bucht is where the Lüderitz Peninsula ends and the Sperrgebiet begins.
Halifax Point (penguins visible on Halifax Island through binoculars).
Essy Bay, Fjord, Griffith
Bay, Grosse Bucht, Halifax Point, Kartoffelbucht, Kleiner Bogenfels, Sturmvogelbucht
The Sperrgebiet ......