Ghost towns and wild horses in world’s oldest desert

Updated 1:18 PM EDT, Wed May 2, 2012

Story highlights

Today a ghost town, Namibia's Kolmanskop was once a booming diamond village

During its peak in the 1920s, it was home to about 340 Europeans and 800 locals

Access to stretches of the Namib, the world's oldest desert, has been restricted for mining

A population of feral horses has bred there for generations, becoming an icon of the Namib

Kolmanskop, Namibia CNN —  

Vast and inhospitable, the Namib Desert in south west Africa is a land of ghosts. Along a notorious stretch of shoreline known as the Skeleton Coast lie the wrecks of ships stranded in the morning seafogs.

Venture inland and you’ll encounter even more spectral scenes: one of Africa’s most famous ghost towns – and even “ghost horses.”

Considered the world’s oldest desert, the Namib has been dry for an estimated 55 million years. Stretching for hundreds of kilometers along Namibia’s Atlantic coastline, its infamously hostile terrain has made Namibia one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries.

Yet amid this unforgiving landscape is evidence of once thriving human settlement. Kolmanskop – Afrikaans for “Coleman’s Hill” – was once a diamond-mining boom town, complete with a grand ballroom, casino and skittle alley. Today it is an eerie ghost settlement, its sand-logged buildings slowly being reclaimed by the dunes.

Named after Johnny Coleman, a man who abandoned his ox wagon there during a sandstorm, the area was the center of a diamond boom a century ago.

In 1908, an African railway worker named Zacharias Lewala was shoveling sand from the tracks when he struck a glittering diamond. The ensuing rush brought a wave of European fortune hunters to the region, 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, complete with amenities such as a hospital with a rare X-ray machine, and a tram.