10 Jun 2020
Travelling through Namibia often leads to discoveries of unexpected hidden treasures – which one would not always expect in small villages. Several of them have small private museums that are certainly worthwhile a visit. In our third article on museums in Namibia, we journey south to discover more about diamond diggers, a ghost town, that has become a museum on its own, a sunken sailing ship, a desert castle and historic buildings that now exhibit artifacts from the past.
Keetmanshoop museum in a church building
En route from Windhoek to Keetmanshoop some 500 km south, be sure to make a stop in Rehoboth after 90km and visit the private museum there (see our story on museums in central Namibia).
The regional capital of the Karas Region, Keetmanshoop, is also the largest town in southern Namibia as well as one of the oldest - dating back nearly two centuries. Here a former church has been converted into a museum.
In the 1860s, the Rhenish Missionary Society of Germany began to work here, spreading the gospel to the local Nama people. The first missionary, Johann Georg Schröder, arrived in Keetmanshoop on 14 April 1866. The station was named after the German trader and director of the Rhenish Missionary Society, Johann Keetmann, who also supported the mission station financially.
The Rhenish missionary church was erected by the local Nama people with bricks and local flat stones after the original church building was swept away by the Aub River in 1890. The new church was inaugurated 125 years ago on 8 May 1895.
It was declared a historic monument in 1978. In the meantime, a new and larger church was constructed. Later on, it was decided to turn the former church in Sam Nujoma Avenue into a museum.
Displays do not only inform about the town’s history with documents and photos but also include exhibits of the area’s natural history and farming implements of yesteryear. There is also a replica of a traditional Nama hut, the ‘|haru om’.
A new addition since 2016 is the “Nama Pride Exhibition“. The Museums Association of Namibia (MAN) and residents of the Nama community came together to assemble this display. It depicts the rich history of this ethnic group and their well-known historic leaders like Jonker Afrikaner and Hendrik Witbooi.
Schmelen-Haus of 1814 in Bethanie
Depending on your travel plans, you can then decide to drive further south to the border town of Noordoewer and carry on westwards along the Orange River, via a good tar road to Oranjemund, which also has a museum. From there, you can then head northwards to Lüderitzbucht and Kolmanskop. A decent tar road leads back to Keetmanshoop from here. There are three more museums in southern Namibia, one in Bethanie, an open-air agricultural museum in Helmeringhausen and the famous Duwisib Castle near Maltahöhe.
You could also go straight westwards from Keetmanshoop towards the coast via Bethanie where the Schmelen-House, a small museum, is located. Don’t miss the turnoff to Bethanie west of Keetmanshoop with grey stone walls and historic buildings, reminding one of bygone days.
Further onwards from here you will then find Aus village and the viewing point to watch the famous desert horses. Carrying on you will finally reach Kolmanskop and Lüderitzbucht.
Bethanie is located near a local fountain, called “ǀUiǂgandes“ and known to the various Nama-speaking clans in the area.
In 1814, the London Missionary Society sent the German-speaking missionary Heinrich Schmelen there, who arrived from Pella, a village near the Orange River in South Africa. His wife Zara was Nama-speaking and later played a crucial role in translating the Bible into the Nama language.
The Schmelens arrived by ox-wagon and immediately started to construct a tiny house from clay bricks and natural stone in 1814. It is widely regarded as the first European style brick-and-mortar building in Namibia. It is now over 200 years old and has been turned into a little museum. Inside, a few historic implements can be viewed. Visitors are usually astonished by this humble abode where the missionary, worked for 14 years and lived in it together with his wife and four children.
Due to circumstances they left in 1828, the mission station was not used for over a decade. In 1840, the Rhenish Mission Society took over the premises and constructed the church next to the Schmelen-Haus.
Lüderitzbucht worth a visit
This quaint private museum in the harbour town displays its history, some memorabilia of the German colonial days and diamond mining. The first diamond was found near the town in 1908.
The museum also informs about the animal and plant life in the area.
Just a few kilometres outside Lüderitzbucht, an abandoned mining town slowly encroached by desert sand, lies an open-air museum highlight. No wonder, that many film crews use the old villas as a backdrop. Kolmanskuppe has a bowling room (Kegelbahn) and a grand dance hall.
As diamond reserves decreased, the great riches of today’s ghost town dwindled and it was finally abandoned in 1956. This open-air museum is open to the public, but visitors require a permit, obtainable in Lüderitzbucht.
Open air museum in Helmeringhausen
Located 200 km northeast of Lüderitz, the four-way crossing of the national roads C14 Goageb - Walvis Bay and C13 (Rosh Pinah - Helmeringhausen), and the road D414 (Aus - Mariental) leads to Helmeringhausen. Often it is described as a drive-through village, where travellers replenish fuel and food at the small shop, however, few know that there is a museum!
It displays various agricultural implements of bygone days and brings back nostalgic memories to many visitors. It is situated in the main street in the garden area next to the hotel building. The Helmeringhausen Farming Association established it in 1984. The old fire engine from Lüderitzbucht also found its final resting place there. In 2013, a roof cover was constructed to protect the exhibits from the elements. The museum was closed in 2019 but the owners recently announced it will re-open soon.
Duwisib - a castle in the desert
An unexpected sight is the Duwisib Castle in the arid areas near Maltahöhe.
The German aristocrat and military officer Captain Hans-Heinrich von Wolf from Dresden, Saxony, who was dispatched to then German South West Africa, had it built. While on holiday back home, he married the daughter of an US-diplomat Jayta Humphrey, in 1907. They settled in South-West Africa, bought a farm, and started a horse stud. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 ended the idyllic life of the couple at Duwisib. The castle became state property in the 1970s, was later declared a national monument and was converted into a museum and now interestingly functions as a hotel with five guest rooms.
Mining history at Oranjemund
The ‘Sperrgebiet’-Museum of Oranjemund lies in the Tsau ǁKhaeb National Park, (formerly Sperrgebiet National Park). The diamond-mining town was founded in 1936 and is situated in the Sperrgebiet, a prohibited area due to diamond mining. Only since 2018, travellers can now freely visit this town in the Namib Desert close to the mouth of the Orange River .
The”Oranjemund Sperrgebiet Museum" is located in the house of the first diamond mining manager, Mr. Jasper. Even today, some locals still refer to it as the ‘Jasper house’ when asking for directions to the museum.
It houses diamond-digging machinery from the early diamond rush, photographs and hand-drawn maps of former diamond fields. Households items of pioneering days and general information of Oranjemund’s history can also be viewed. In the garden, a coffee shop invites visitors to sit down and relax.
There are plans to erect a new museum but with a special purpose: In 2008, workers at the beach diamond mining areas near the town made a sensational discovery: the wreck of a 500-year old sailing ship with a treasure of gold coins, rifles and much more. The news caught international attention. The diamond company, Namdeb, a subsidiary of De Beers, is planning to construct a museum dedicated to the story of the sixteenth century Portuguese trading vessel – a caravelle. This would greatly boost tourism for Oranjemund.
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