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Jun / Jul 2012
Ghosts in the Desert

Writers: Errol Barnett & Tim Hum/CNN / Illustration: Gina Abou Hamad

Vast and inhospitable, the Namib Desert in southwestern Africa is a land of ghosts. Along a notorious stretch of shoreline known as the Skeleton Coast, you’ll find the wrecks of ships stranded by sea fogs and sometimes, the skeletons of their crew, too. Venture inland and you'll encounter even more spectral scenes: one of Africa's most famous ghost towns and the rare and elusive "ghost horse”.

Considered the world's oldest desert, the aptly-named Namib – a tribal word meaning ‘vast place’ - has been dry for an estimated 55 million years. Stretching for hundreds of kilometres along Namibia's Atlantic coastline, its hostile terrain has made the country one of the world's most sparsely populated.

Yet amid this unforgiving landscape is evidence of a once thriving settlement. Kolmanskop was originally a diamond mining town, complete with a grand ballroom, casino and skittle alley. Today, it is abandoned and eerie, its sand-filled buildings slowly being reclaimed by the dunes.

The boom began in 1908, when an African railway worker named Zacharias Lewala was shovelling sand from the tracks of the new railway that linked the coast to the capital, Windhoek and unearthed a glittering diamond. The ensuing rush brought a wave of European fortune hunters to the region, which was then part of a colony known as German South West Africa. With their newfound wealth, the settlers set about building a German-style village amid the dunes. “Life was hard,” said Kolmanskop tour guide Christo Biewenga, but it was made tolerable by the fact that “they were organised in this town.”

During its heyday in the 1920s, Kolmanskop's population consisted of about 300 European adults, 40 of their children and a total of 800 local workers but when new diamond deposits were discovered in more hospitable conditions further south, the fortune seekers drifted away. When the town’s hospital closed in 1956, the last remaining settlers left shortly afterward.

Today, it stands as a monument to a distinctive period of the coast’s history and a reminder of Namibia’s colonial past. Kolmanskop has become a popular tourist destination, although a permit is required to enter. But the town is not the only ghost of the Namib. Just as iconic a symbol of the area is its hardy population of 150 or so wild horses. Not native to the region, they have adapted to the desert’s harsh conditions and are able to go without water for longer periods than domestic horses, which has enabled them to survive for generations on the desert's fringe.

The horses' origins have long been shrouded in mystery. According to Piet Swiegers, manager of the Klein-Aus Vista lodge near Kolmanskop, the most likely theory is that they were German or possibly South African military horses abandoned in the area during the chaos of World War I. “There was a water source close by,” he says. “That's why the horses survived all these years.” It is also thought that restricted human access to the region helped ensure their survival, sparing the feral animals from being caught or hunted.

For generations, the horses existed largely out of sight. “That’s why they were known as the ‘ghost horses’,” explains Swiegers. “We hardly saw them.” But in recent decades their habitat has been reclassified as part of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, Africa's largest game reserve.

This has raised the question of if and how humans should support the horses to keep their numbers at a sustainable level. Experts have settled on a policy of limiting intervention, though still providing some support, especially in times of hardship, which has helped to bring people a little closer to these ghosts of the desert. “The behaviour of the horses changed because they got used to people,” adds Swiegers. “They don't fear man because man feeds them in dry times.”

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