Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Namibia: Diamonds on the soles of my shoes, Part II

“In the wildest parts of one of the most desolate and useless tracts of land which earth can show, bare surfaces of rock thickly studded with lustrous gems as the showcases of a jeweler’s window, surely put to shame even the celebrated legends of Sinbad the Sailor. It is almost as if Nature, conscious of her injustice to this portion of the African continent had added the diamonds as an afterthought by way of making amends.”
 P.A. Wagner, geologist

I sit silently and alone in the historical Felsenkirche, Church of the Rock and wonder about all the souls that have entered this building over the last 100 years. What troubles and insecurities weighed on them?  When diamonds revealed themselves beneath the desolate dunes, did the people of Luderitz feel remembered and blessed by God? Or with the greed and tragedy that shadows diamonds, did they feel even more forsaken? 

One of the many signs stating the obvious

I have been in Luderitz for 10 days. This is about 9.5 days longer than most visitors stay. I have had 9 cappuccinos and 75 oysters—one of the few fresh, local foods in Luderitz.  A wise woman just wrote to me and said: “When I am reborn I will be a grain of sand, which blows all over the world...”.  I loved the idea of this, and apparently there are bazillions of sand grains, which are quite content right here on the coast.  When these little grains aren’t forming the landscape and hiding diamonds, they will take the paint off your car in a strong wind. It is because of these winds that Luderitz and Walvis Bay have become meccas for champion kite surfers and speed sailors.

 Because this desert landscape is littered with diamonds, the little town of Luderitz is brimming with history*—much of it tragic.  Before it became a German colony in 1884, Namibia belonged to an array of native Africans: The Bushmen (San), Ovambo, Nama (Hottentots), Herero, and others.  Many ships have come and gone from Luderitz Bay over the centuries. Oddly enough, even the CSS Alabama used neighboring Shark Island as a base during the US Civil War. It pirated a ship, Seabride and just as Captain Griffith decided to take the booty and head to Madagascar, the Vanderbilt from the Northern States caught up with him, seized the ship and executed him as a traitor.

When diamonds were discovered in the late 1800’s, it would not have been unusual to see lines of men inching across the sand on their stomachs in search of these tiny sparkling stones.  Some valleys, one of them known as Marchental or Fairy tail valley, yielded stones as large as 53 carats. Emil Kreplin and August Stauch were 2 of the many high rollers during the diamond boom in the early 1900’s even though Zacharias Lewala (working for Stauch) was the first to actually find a diamond.

August Stauch
Zacharias Lewala
Emil was a blacksmith and later became the mayor of Luderitz, providing horses for both racing and diamond mining.  In fact, some of the wild horses today are believed to be descendants of his original stud farm.  August was a humble railway worker just outside of Luderitz who, in 2 years time returned to Germany as a diamond millionaire in 1908.  Both of them were immensely successful, but as with anyone who dabbles in diamonds, tragedy and loss were mainstays in their lives. Mo’ diamonds, mo’ problems.  Emil, penniless, shot himself and August, although he lived until 1947, died broke. And the diamonds? Who knows where they have all ended up over the years, but if those stones could speak…oh, they stories they would tell.

Luderitz from the view of the church. Emil Kreplin's house is the baby blue one.

4 of the hundreds of African penguins as seen from the boat
About 200 years ago it was discovered that islands along the Namibian coast were home to large numbers of sea birds, including the charismatic African penguin. Imagine a pile of bird doo-doo 75-feet deep blanketing each island.  Rich in nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, bird guano was a hot commodity for the fertilizer market.  At one point, warships were sent in to maintain law & order as reports were coming in of men (6,000 of them) not only throwing penguin eggs, but also beating each other with dead penguins.  In a matter of a few years, the nutrient-rich, nest- building guano was scraped clean, like frosting off a cupcake.  Today, in addition to the dilapidated houses, the Ministry of Fisheries has implemented half-buried garbage bins and stacked tires for the penguins to use as nesting sites on Mercury Island.  New England Aquarium Education folks: work that story into your next penguin talk! 

 Despite the gale force winds, lack of rain (about 1” annually) and the moonscape that surrounds Luderitz, it is blessed with amazing, yet fragile biodiversity.  Halifax, Ichaboe, Possessions and Mercury Island host most of the Namibian population of African Penguins, Cape Gannets, and almost 80% of the global population of Bank Cormorants.  The nimble and endemic Haviside dolphins as well as bottlenose dolphins, swift terns, Cape fur seals, humpbacks and Southern right whales navigate these chilly nutrient-rich waters. Often there are giant smacks of jellyfish, which in turn attracts leatherback turtles to gorge on the gelatinous buffet.
Diorama of Luderitz Bay at the one room museum

The sun breathes light into portraits all around me.  One of them depicts Peter grasping the gown of Jesus. He is sinking in the Sea of Galilee while Jesus defies gravity on the surface. Another illuminates the story of Jesus with the woman at the well—the theme of water resonates. It makes me think of everyone who has tried to make it here in this isolated and unforgiving habitat…the bitterly cold bay that still keeps most people away, but gives life to everything beneath and the fresh water that at one point was more expensive than beer and champagne during the diamond boom.  As I make my way down the hill, everything seems to sparkle. Glimmers of mica in granite and on the ground bedazzle my slow walk back to the hotel.  The saying should go, “granite is a girl’s best friend” because diamonds always seem to stab you in the back in the end.  With that, I pick up a tiny chunk of granite, slip it into my pocket and suddenly, I’m not so lonely anymore.

*Most of the history from this entry originated from the fantastic book by Olga Levinson called Diamonds in the Desert: The story of August Stauch and his times.

No comments:

Post a Comment