Duwisib Castle In Southern Namibia - A Rare Sight

28 Dec 2020

Brigitte Weidlich

Namibia's sparsely populated south with the wide plains, where the travellers' eyes can wander almost to the horizon, inspire again and again on the way to Sesriem, Sossusvlei or the Fish River Canyon, and other sights. The sublime landscape of the pre-Namib along the C27 trunk road from Helmeringhausen north to Sesriem to Solitaire is a special experience.

In the middle of this landscape, far from any place in the middle of nowhere, stands an unusual building - Duwisib Castle - which is reminiscent of a medieval knight's castle and arouses romantic ideas about who built it. The German aristocrat Hansheinrich von Wolf lived there during the German colonial era with his amiable, rich American wife Jayta, as a farmer and also bred horses.

Hansheinrich von Wolf (Photo: Sam Cohen Library)

It is fascinating that Duwisib Castle is very well preserved with various pieces of furniture and other inventory once belonging to the Von Wolf couple and tourists can visit it. When you enter the castle, you get the feeling that the baron and his wife have only just left for a short time and are just about coming back from a horse ride to perhaps have coffee on the veranda in the courtyard! Anyone who wants to turn the clock back 110 years to have a rare experience, can even spend the night there. Duwisib Castle is managed by the state owned company, Namibia Wildlife Resorts.

The entrance hall of Duwisib Castle. (Photo: Roxanne Reid)

The life of the slim, almost two meter tall, Saxon professional soldier ended at the age of 43 - on the battlefield in distant France in World War I, but he made the most of his life - the stuff dreams are made of. Von Wolf left a legacy with his castle in Africa and the descendants of his horses in the Namib Desert, the wild horses near Garub are now a major tourist attraction.

Who was Hansheinrich von Wolf?

He was born in Dresden on January 11, 1873, to a Saxon family ennobled in 1790. Whether he actually carried the title of baron has never been fully determined. He embarked on a military career and in 1890, at the age of only 17, became an ensign in the 1st Field Artillery Regiment No. 12 in Dresden. He quickly made a career, was also an excellent rider and was sent to Hanover to train cavalry recruits to ride. His thirst for adventure led him to undertake a private trip to Egypt in 1896 at the age of 23, accompany a camel caravan through the desert.

Jayta von Wolf on her wedding day. Foto: Dresden municipal archive

From September 1901 Hauptmann von Wolf served in the 4th Field Artillery Regiment No. 48 in Dresden and signed up for the Imperial Protection Force (Schutztruppe) in early 1904 when the Herero uprising broke out in South West Africa. He landed with other soldiers and officers in Swakopmund in November 1904 and was dispatched to the south via Maltahöhe to Gibeon, as the Nama uprising had just started.

In 1905 he partook in various battles near Gochas and the Auob River, was wounded and therefore travelled by ship to Germany on leave in April 1906. During this time he got to know the wealthy stepdaughter of the acting American consul in Dresden, Jayta Humphrey, and married her on April 8, 1907. Von Wolf resigned prematurely from the Schutztruppe and entered the Saxon Military Service but returned as a private citizen at the end of May the same year, to South West Africa.

The couple wanted to buy land near Maltahöhe to farm and also to breed horses for the Schutztruppe. The pragmatic baron quickly put his plans into practice and bought the Duwisib farm, as well as neighbouring land, and planned a residential building in keeping with his status.

The castle being built

Based on their experiences during the Herero and Nama uprisings, the couple wanted a safe and “impregnable” home. The architect Wilhelm Sander was commissioned to build a castle. It is more of a fortress with four reinforced towers and small windows so that it could withstand longer sieges. Inside it was comfortably furnished including huge fireplaces, the so-called knight's hall, a wine cellar and a gentleman's smoking room up in the bay window with a steep wooden staircase. The many social events, festivities and the hospitality at Duwisib Castle were legendary and some visitors could only leave the smoking room with support to master the steep stairs down.

The courtyard with verandah. Photo: Namib Info

Following only two years of construction – 1907 to 1909 - the castle was ready. During the construction period, the couple lived with a manager, an apprentice from Dresden, the horse supervisor and a Herero servant in a makeshift hut and in tents next to the construction site in scorching heat and cold winters.

Duwisib Castle is almost a square of 35 meters by 31 meters with 22 rooms and was built from the red stone near the construction site. Everything else had to be imported, however. Materials such as iron, wood for the interior work, cement and skylights came by ship from Hamburg to Lüderitzbucht and were transported through the Namib Desert in an ox wagon with 24 oxen. Stonemasons from Italy as well as carpenters from Scandinavia and even Ireland were recruited. A large riding arena was built almost 300 m to the west, also with the red quarry stones, a forge (today the breakfast room of the private guest farm Duwisib) and other utility rooms and accommodation for employees. Von Wolf later had almost 100 Herero workers, and he had proper accommodation built for them and their families. Until the middle of 1914, the couple von Wolf lived happily on Duwisib and farmed successfully, and their horse breeding was also excellent. The couple had no children.

The First World War changed everything

On August 1, 1914, the couple embarked in Lüderitzbucht on the steamer Gertrud Woermann to fetch a thoroughbred stallion they had bought in England. A day later the captain at sea received the news of the outbreak of the First World War. To avoid English ships, the captain headed for the neutral port of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. There the ship was seized and the crew and passengers interned.

As an American citizen, Jayta was released after a short time and, thanks to her father's connections and the assurance that she would travel to the USA, she was also able to get her husband released. Once there, the couple was able to travel illegally and under adventurous circumstances on a Dutch passenger ship to Rotterdam in early 1915 and from there to Dresden. Hansheinrich von Wolf immediately reported to the military and was wounded in the legs in Flanders. After his recovery he was deployed to France. There he was fatally wounded and bled to death after being hit by shrapnel on September 4, 1916 near La Forêt, only 43 years old.

His widow stayed in her house in Munich after the First World War, remarried in 1921 and moved to Zurich in the 1930s, where she lived until the end of the Second World War. Widowed again, she returned to the United States in 1946, where she lived in her parents' home in Summit near New York and died in the early 1960s. She never returned to Namibia.

Duwisib Castle is situated southwest of Maltahöhe. Photo: Willyman (Wikipedia)

Duwisib was administered by the couple's friend, Count Max von Lüttichau, but soon after the Union troops entered South West Africa in 1915, it went bankrupt and was publicly auctioned in 1921 and the new owners were the Swedish Murrmann family. The family father died shortly after moving to South West Africa and the only son, who served in the South African Air Force, died in World War II. Duwisib was bought by a company shortly after World War II.

Duwisib and the surrounding lands later had different owners until the castle and 50 hectares of land became state property in the 1970s. The surrounding farmland remained in private hands, with the guest farm Duwisib of the Frank-Schultz family located next door. The castle was renovated in 1991 and is now a sight in southern Namibia, managed by Namibia Wildlife Resorts.

From Maltahöhe it is just about 82km to Duwisib in south-westerly direction.

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