Durban - The African coast is well positioned with ports and harbours, some historic and no longer in use, and others continuing to serve the purpose of providing trading gateways to the interior of this vast continent of ours.
Last week, we reported on one of these, the Namibia port of Walvis Bay, once a part of South Africa but now the principal port of independent Namibia and rapidly becoming an important trading gateway into the interior of southern and central Africa.
But Namibia has a second port, Lüderitz, just over 250 nautical miles to the south of Walvis Bay, a port with its ups and downs over the years. The town and port are a result of the politics of the time, when the Germans were settling South West Africa as a colony but because the British had annexed the more natural port of Walvis Bay, were forced to look elsewhere for their shipping independence.
The small harbour had first been noted by a European navigator in 1487 when Bartolomeu Dias voyaged towards the southern tip of Africa. Dias named it Angra Pequena - Portuguese for Little Cove or Small Bay, both of which aptly describe the place. He also left a padrão or cross on nearby Cape Dias.
Over the ensuing centuries nothing much other than the occasional whaler or sealer came this way until the 1880s when Germany had begun setting eyes on establishing a colony in southern Africa. A certain Adolf Lüderitz, who hailed from one of the leading families of Bremen, arranged for the purchase of Angra Pequena and the surrounding district from the Nama chief.
After he disappeared on an expedition to the Orange River some three years later, the Germans renamed the bay Lüderitzbucht in his memory.
Since then a small harbour has been developed providing Lüderitz with a quay that is 500m long. Today, the port handles imports and exports for local farming and for mining operations in southern Namibia as well as north-western South Africa, although the port’s draught and wharf-side limitations restrict the size of ships that can call.
The fishing industry also forms an important activity.
In 1908, a railway was completed, connecting Lüderitz with the rest of the country and South Africa. In the 1990s, however, a lack of general maintenance and interest saw the desert take over and large parts of the railway disappeared under small mountains of shifting sand.
This had been a problem for many years but it was only during the misguided austerity measures of South Africa’s Spoornet and later TransNamib that led to the abandonment of the railway to the ravages of nature. Nevertheless, under those tons of desert sand lay a serviceable railway.
In recent years the intent to make better use of railways has returned and TransNamib has completed the mammoth task of moving hills of sand from the tracks, and with the necessary maintenance to the rails and sleepers the railway to the port has been restored to service.
Just in time, and made possible by a significant contract awarded to TransNamib and to the little port of Lüderitz to transport 30 000 tons of manganese ore each month from a mine across the South African border near Ariamsvlei. This is on the railway from De Aar in South Africa that runs to Windhoek via Keetmanshoop and eventually to Walvis Bay in the west.
But just shy of Keetsmanshoop the branch line to Lüderitz heads west for the country’s second port.
The export of a significant amount of manganese through the little port has provided a sound economic reason to reopen a railway that had been buried beneath burning sands for more than two decades.
The first 520 tons of manganese has since arrived at the port awaiting the balance for the first monthly shipment of 30 000 tons.
The port of Lüderitz and its railway are back on the map.
It is south of the port that we have a barren isolated coast of several hundred kilometres until the Orange River and the border with South Africa is reached, where you can find the two small towns of Oranjemund on the Namibian bank and Alexander Bay on the southern, South African side.
The latter’s claim to fame lies in being regularly mentioned in South African weather forecasts.
The stretch of coast remains devoid of human occupation for a reason other than nature - this is the restricted Diamond Area 1 where only those with special permits may enter. Scattered along the coast are a number of small islands with names like Albatross, Pomona, and Possession islands, leaving one to ponder the origins of their names. These were once mined heavily for guano, used in the manufacture of fertiliser.
Even more incongruous are surely Plumpudding Island and Sinclair Island (once known as Roast Beef Island). Was this the yearning of the British warship that surveyed this coast, as suggested by the author Lawrence Green, or does it have some other romantic origin - without any question English though?