Kolmanskop Photography Guide

“Namib Desert Ghost Town”

Photo by Olga Ernst CC by-sa

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Visit and photograph the ruined remains of an abandoned town slowly succumbing to the deserts of Africa. 

Sand Overtaking a Room in Kolmanskop - Photo by Damien du Toit
Sand Overtaking a Room in Kolmanskop - Photo by Damien du Toit

The Story of Kolmanskop

Lying roughly 850 kilometres southwest of the Namibia capital, Windhoek, rests the remains of Kolmanskop. Ornate homes rise from the barren desert sands here, standing silent witness to the ravages of time and defying the desolate surroundings with quiet dignity. The wayward traveller may find themselves wondering what would compel someone to establish a town out here, among the shifting sands of the Namib desert. The answer is diamonds, lots and lots of diamonds.

Kolmanskop Ghost Town Aerial View - Photo by SkyPixels CC by-sa
Kolmanskop Ghost Town Aerial View - Photo by SkyPixels CC by-sa

The Diamond Boom

The story goes that a rail line once ran through here, connecting the town of Keetmanshoop with the coast of Luderitz. One day in 1908 a railway employee named Zacherias Lewala toiled at clearing the tracks when he came across some unusual stones. Taking them to his supervisor, they discovered that the rocks were in fact, diamonds. It wasn’t long before labourers were pressed into service and began crawling (literally) the desert and filling jam jars with these precious stones. Prospecting of this sort continued long into the night as the diamonds glinted in the moonlight.

Kolmanskop grew out of this diamond boom, and the town quickly sprang up. Germany administered the region, and the architecture of Kolmanskop adopted this style of construction. Rumours suggest that the Germans first built the pub, and only then began considering suitable plots for their homes. By 1912 this town had produced one million carats and was one of the richest diamond deposits in the world at the time.

This wealth meant that the Germans who settled here could afford almost every European luxury. Ornate furniture graced these halls, and the town enjoyed such amenities as a butcher, baker, hospital and post office. In fact, even an ice plant once graced this desert town providing large blocks of ice for the wealthy’s coolers to combat the stifling desert heat.

Kolmanskop Ghost Town Interior View - Photo by sandragphillips
Kolmanskop Ghost Town Interior View - Photo by sandragphillips

The Diamond Bust

Then, in 1928, it all came to an end. In this year the most significant diamond deposit ever known was discovered 270 kilometres to the south near the Orange River. Gradually the residents of Kolmanskop abandoned their stately homes for this new opportunity, leaving their possessions behind. By 1956 the last three families deserted the town, leaving it to the shifting desert sands.

Today, the Namib desert sands slowly reclaim the land that was once a town. Where once fine grain sand was swept away, it now presses deeper and deeper into the rooms of the luxurious homes. Gradually the glass works free of the window frames, through which winds carry the sand deep into parlours and studies. The relentless sand buries the furniture and smothers the echoes of a time forgotten. What remains is dry, unforgiving and beautiful. Welcome to Kolmanskop.

Kolmanskop Haunted House in Black and White - Photo by Thomas Pedrazzoli
Kolmanskop Haunted House in Black and White - Photo by Thomas Pedrazzoli

Photographing Kolmanskop

Getting There

Kolmanskop attracts many photographers because of it’s surreal presence and unique photographic opportunities. Namibia itself is also a top-rated photography destination for world travellers, and Kolmanskop is a typical stop on these expeditions. As a result, it is fairly accessible and has a small tourist industry to support it. Kolmanskop itself is roughly 12 kilometres southeast of the coastal town of Luderitz. You can fly to Luderitz from Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. Because of the small size of the airport, and Lueritz’s remote location, the flights are not frequent. Make sure you plan your trip around these flight schedules.

Photo Permits

Once you arrive, you will need a permit to visit the ghost town. There are 3 classes of permit. The first is the visitor permit which allows access to the town during regular hours. For the photographer, there are amateur and commercial photo permits. These permit visits outside the regular hours and lets you take your time photographing the ruins. Amateur photography permits allow access to the town from sunrise to sunset and the commercial permit allows all-hours access. If you opt for the cheaper amateur permit, you will have to sign a waiver stating you are not shooting the ghost town for commercial purposes and cannot resell the images. Whichever permit you choose, they can be purchased in Luderitz at travel consultants in the area such as Luderitz Safari and Tours or more info can be found on the Kolmanskop website.

Guided Tours

Guided tours run at 9:30 am and 11:00 am and are included in the photo permit cost. Be sure to take advantage of the tours as many of the buildings are not open outside of the regular hours. Tours are also the best way to access closed parts of buildings and will provide you with some hidden gems.

Light and Weather Planning

For a perfect visit, we recommend booking a shoot overnight when the moon is full, and the sky is clear. You can find a lunar calendar for the area here. Start your shoot well before first light. Thankfully being a desert, the sky is usually clear, and the full moon will add light to your photos and character to the desolation. Next, when blue hour arrives, plan to shoot the building fronts and capture the first rays of morning. Once sunrise ends, head inside the buildings and capture the warm angular light as it bleeds through the windows. As the day progresses, use the midday sun to photograph the larger homes on the north side of town. As you head into the late afternoon and evening you may find the wind makes shooting impossible. Winds in the area are often quite bad, and as the day progresses they get worse. For this reason, sunsets are challenging to capture here without being sandblasted. The good news is that a strong sandstorm will eradicate the footsteps of tourists after sunset adding more desolation to your exterior shots as you head into the evening.

Photography Tips

The biggest photographic challenge you will face is dynamic range. The harsh light of the sun and the deep dark contrast of shadows will demand some technical skill to shoot. We recommend you pack an ND filter so you can create longer exposures and be sure to bracket your exposures for HDR if that’s your thing. Wide-angle lenses are essential and a tripod. You may not want to lug a full-size tripod all over Africa, but a small, lightweight one will suffice, or a Gorilla Pod will work well.

Equipment-wise sand will be your enemy. It gets everywhere, no matter what precautions you take. We do not recommend changing lenses in the open when the winds are blowing. Instead, returning to your car, or doing lens changes in a sand-free bag might be a good idea. Ensure that you bring a towel to wipe the sand off your gear as the day progresses. Do not clean your lenses on-site as the fine sand can scratch the lens element. Instead, slap on a UV filter and do the cleaning in your hotel room at night. Last but not least, a strong LED flashlight is a must if you plan on shooting overnight. Not just so you can see what you are doing, but also for painting with light. We recommend studying light stacking techniques used in high-end architecture photography before you go. This technique will permit some very cool night photography if done well.

Exercise Caution

Be careful, dress appropriately, pack lots of water and be on the lookout for wildlife. Snakes and hyena populate the ghost town, and you likely will run into them, especially when you are alone. These are abandoned buildings and they are dangerous. Glass, rusty nails, and unstable structures are a reality here and can seriously injure you. Be careful, plan ahead, and try not to go completely alone. If you follow these tips, we have no doubt your visit Kolmanskop will be a life-changing photo experience.

Kolmanskop Abandoned Home and Bathtub - Photo by Jo Wiggijo
Kolmanskop Abandoned Home and Bathtub - Photo by Jo Wiggijo