16 Oct 2020
When I was growing up on a farm east of Windhoek in the late 60s, collecting post felt like collecting treasure because of the attractive stamps that were attached to the envelopes. Once a week I’d go with my father in the farm bakkie to the nearby Orumbo railway siding to wait for the train and collect our postbag that was deposited in a metal drum. Already on the way home, I would empty the letters onto my lap to admire all the stamps. One of my favourites was the one depicting the 55-metre-high Bogenfels (‘bow’ or ‘arch rock’). The image stayed with me. It would take many years before I was able to travel south of Lüderitz into the once forbidden Sperrgebiet and gaze at it with my own eyes. I later learnt that people were attracted to Bogenfels at the beginning of the twentieth century for entirely other earthly riches – diamonds!
When diamonds were discovered in 1908 near Lüderitzbucht (Lüderitz Bay, as it was called at the time), there was a frenzy of activity and excitement as men seeking their fortunes flocked to the south-western corner of the country. Several diamond mining towns sprang up in the desert around Lüderitz, like desert blooms after a rainshower. These included Kolmanskoppe, Pomona and Bogenfels.
At first, transportation posed problems for the Deutsche Diamanten-Gesellschaft. Unlike the diamond fields closer to Lüderitzbucht that could be serviced with mule-drawn carts, sea transport was necessary for the diamond towns further south. The steamer ‘Linda Woermann’ plied the coast between Lüderitzbucht and Prinzenbucht conveying material and goods. Supplies were brought to shore by small rowing boats (‘Brandungsboote’) and then transported to Bogenfels by camels, mules and horses. In 1913, a 46.4km strip of railway was built from Prinzenbucht to Bogenfels, allowing the town to develop. And develop it did. It soon became a ‘centre of the south’ in the unlikely location of the waterless Namib Desert. Buildings, houses, offices and a workshop sprang up, as did a clinic (with its own doctor), a post office, skittle alley, bakery and abattoir. Bogenfels also housed one of the first Schiechel plants for separating diamondiferous gravel, a huge advancement of the time. In 1912 the desalination plant was moved from Prinzenbucht to Bogenfels, complementing the water from the Buntfeldschuh waterhole, 10km inland, and ensuring that all the residents had an adequate supply of water.
The boom of the Bogenfels diamond-mining town was short-lived and it had a bumpier journey in its later years. When World War One broke out in 1914, diamond production was interrupted, only to resume again in 1916. Production continued after the establishment of Consolidated Diamond Mines (CDM) in 1920, but the economic restrictions of the depression years after the war once again brought it to a grinding halt.
It didn’t take long for the town to disintegrate into the desert. Already by 1930 it was reported that the houses were in disrepair and the desert was reclaiming its territory with gusto. There were several short revivals of the industry over the years, but the new deposits were quickly depleted. Although they produced good quality diamonds, the larger specimens were found further south in Oranjemund where the industry was now centred.
Today, there is little visible of the once bustling town and besides some remnants of mining activity, all that remains are diamond dreams and memories of bygone days that waft on the wind and whistle through the desert sands. Nature has a strength, tenacity and endurance, however, that far outweighs our fleeting human lives and the Bogenfels rock arch still stands majestically straddling the crashing Atlantic Ocean, entirely unaffected by the industry and effort of humankind in its midst. A faded photograph reveals travellers of old on their horse-drawn carts marvelling over the arch as we still do from our more robust Namibia2Go vehicles more than a century later.
As a geography teacher at heart, I am always fascinated by the ancient earth history that we continually encounter in the landscape around us, and rock arches naturally call to me. After a lapse of about thirty years, I recently revisited the Bogenfels rock arch in the Tsau //Khaeb (Sperrgebiet) National Park - as the area is now called - with Coastway Tours and was once again awed by its utter magnificence.
I’ve visited Pont d’Arc in the south of France, I’ve explored Monument Valley in the US, I’ve paid homage to the beauty of Hole-in-the-Wall in the Eastern Cape and I’ve happily sat under the small rock arch at Spitzkoppe, but I have never been as enthralled by the immensity and power of rock, accentuated by the crashing sea, as I have been at Bogenfels, Namibia’s very own monument to the grandeur of nature.
Formed by dolomite deposited in layers and continually eroded by the crashing force of the waves, the rock arch has been carved over the last 500 million years at the slow pace of eternity, a time period that we cannot even begin to fathom. Although it will still take considerable time to erode completely, there will be a day when it will inevitably crumble into the ocean, leaving all who have beheld it richer for the experience.
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