OTAVI

The town of Otavi is situated in the Otjozondjupa area of Namibia, and together with the towns of Tsumeb and Grootfontein, makes up Namibia’s “Maize Triangle” or also referred to as the “Golden Triangle of Namibia”. Both names refer to the enormous “golden” maize plantations that are predominantly found in this triangle as rainfall within its borders is higher than outside of its borders. The area is also referred to as the Karstveld, an area in Namibia where puddles of water will never be found as the ground acts as a sponge – all rainwater gets absorbed immediately and sinks down to the underground lakes. One of these “Dragon’s Breath” constitutes the largest underground lake found anywhere on earth. The Otavi Mountains, which start close to Otavi and stretch northwards towards Grootfontein, are of fascinating importance to evolutionary studies and how life began on earth. Looking closely at the Dolomite boulders that make up the greatest part of the mountain, it becomes evident that a black layer of what seems like petrified moss or algae cover some parts of these rocks. This black layer is referred to as “Stromatolites”, 180 Million year old petrified algae that used to, and still do, cover the ocean’s surface (at that time the entire subcontinent was under water). The algae absorbed Carbon Dioxide and produced Oxygen through the process of photosynthesis, this oxygen being responsible for the existence of life on planet earth.
Otavi was never of much interest to the German colonial forces nor any missionaries before the 1900’s, as the main missionary activity took place 120 kilometres further south in the area surrounding Otjiwarongo and the Waterberg. Also, the Otavi area was occupied by Ovambos which the Germans saw as a threat due to their large tribes. The Otavi area became of interest to the Germans once they established that the Ovambo people but also the Herero and other tribes excavated iron and copper from underground mines from which they produced their iron and copper bangles and other ornaments. As soon as the Germans realised that these mines (nowadays the Tsumeb Mine and Kombat mine between Tsumeb and Grootfontein) held huge Iron and Copper reserves, they were declared German property, and the indigenous people were employed to excavate the deposits, which were taken to Swakopmund to be shipped to Germany. This process however was extremely arduous as the heavy material had to be transported by ox wagons, which resulted in the creation of the OMEG line – the Otavi Minen und Eisenbahn Gesellschaft (The Otavi Mining and Railway Company).

 In 1903 OMEG started construction on the longest 600 mm gauge railway on earth, which extended 567 kilometres (352 mi) from Swakopmund to the mines surrounding Otavi and Tsumeb, which it reached 3 years later in 1906 (the delay cam in 1904 when the construction was delayed with the German / Herero / Nama wars). The first 225 kilometres (140 mi) of railway required 110 steel bridges to cross deeply eroded gullies through sparsely vegetated arid terrain – what a feat if one considers that no heavy machinery was available! Another 91-kilometer branch was completed in 1908 from Otavi to mines near Grootfontein, which for instance included the Kombat mine.

By 1913 the train service fleet included 4 express trains, 14 mixed trains, and 29 freight trains that travelled to and from the coast every week. Express and mixed trains included a baggage car, a car for African passengers, and a coach for first and second class passengers. Express trains stopped only at designated stations, but other trains would stop at intermediate points when transport was required. Equipment included 96 low-side ore gondolas, 55 high-side gondolas, 20 limestone gondolas, 20 boxcars, 12 tank cars, 4 stock cars, 3 passenger coaches and an executive business car with a kitchen, a bathroom, and an office convertible to a bedroom at night. There was also a self-powered steam rail motor car with a coal bunker, a mail compartment, 2 compartments for Europeans, and 4 for Africans – all of this created in a matter of 11 years. Interesting to note: Train service was interrupted by a locust infestation in the 1920’s until steam nozzles were installed on locomotives to sweep the insects off the rails before their crushed bodies could reduce traction under the locomotive wheels.

A special 7-tonne rail “Crown Prince” motor coach was built for an anticipated visit of Kronprinz Wilhelm in 1914 shortly before the 1st World War (unknowingly) broke out. A 6-cylinder Daimler-Benz gasoline engine gave the car a speed of 38 meters per second (137 km/h) and the title of the fastest 2-foot gauge rail car known to mankind.

World War I intervened to prevent Wilhelm's visit, and the car was used as a railway line inspection vehicle after the war by South African forces.

Khorab Memorial

By the time World War I broke out, the British were quite aware of the treasures that were to be found in the Northern colony (diamonds, copper, iron, ivory and much more). This, in combination with Britain being at war with Germany in Europe, led to the invasion of German South West Africa in 1915, a war that did not take long as the South African / British forces far outnumbered the German forces. As Germany itself was at war, it had no possibility of sending extra supporting forces into its colonies.

German troops had moved inland by the time South African troops reached Swakopmund in January, 1915. German forces destroyed the railroad as they retreated, and South African forces reconstructed a 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) gauge line over the route to Karibib in 1915. By mid-1915 the South African advance had gained considerable ground and efforts at negotiating a ceasefire had failed. Rather than seek a decisive battle, the German commander Victor Franke had decided to resort to keeping his army as intact as possible so as to maintain a German claim to the territory after the end of the war. Rather than resort to guerrilla warfare or attempt to break out of German South West Africa, Franke decided to retreat along the railway and build up defences around Tsombe. With the South African army under Louis Botha rapidly approaching, Franke decided to leave a delaying force under his second in command Major Hermann Ritter at Otavifontein. The delaying force was tasked with holding up Botha for as long as possible so that the main force at Tsombe could concentrate its forces and solidify its defences there.

 Botha began his advance on June 18th, learning from intercepted communications that the Germans were retreating up the railway but would not retreat farther than Namutoni. Botha split his 13,000 troops into four columns with one on each flank and two under his personal command driving up along the railway. With a swift advance, the South Africans began to surround the German positions and Botha's central columns managed to reach Otavi by July 1st. The Germans thought that Botha's advance would be hampered by a lack of water and rough terrain, and were ill prepared for the looming South African attack. At his disposal Botha had 3,500 cavalry compared to Ritter's 1,000 infantry and ten machine guns. Although heavily outnumbered, Ritter's forces did have the advantage of the high ground, as the territory they defended was quite mountainous. Despite this advantage, Ritter feared that his force would become surrounded and spread his forces out to lengthen his line of defense.

Because Ritter's line of defence was so long, his flanks were unable to support each other. That, combined with his lack of forces to man such a wide perimeter adequately, caused his left flank to falter when Botha advanced upon it. Fearful his lines would break, Ritter pulled back to the hills of Otavifontein and to Otavi Mountains. Despite the fact that these new positions held the high ground, the Germans had not prepared any fortifications there. With no artillery and no solid defensive positions, the German force easily broke into a general retreat when pressed by Botha. By 1pm the battle had ended, with Ritter pulling back to positions near Gaub and leaving Botha with a clear path to the main German body at Tsombe.

Botha's victory was swift, with the South African advance being delayed only a day and suffering only four dead and seven wounded. The Germans had fled without putting up any committed defence and Ritter's force fled largely intact with only three dead, eight wounded, and twenty captured. With no means of escaping further up the rail line and a general lack of will to pursue any other course of action, Franke had little choice but to surrender his forces to Botha on July 9, effectively ending all major German resistance in Southwest-Africa. On July 9th, 1915, the peace treaty was signed at Khorab, just 5km north of Otavi, where nowadays a memorial is situated to demarcate the capitulation of the German forces and the end of German South West Africa.

The Ghaub Caves

The Ghaub Caves are situated on the Farm Ganachaams about 50km east of Otavi in the Otavi Mountains. They are situated overhead “Dragon’s Breath”, the largest underground lake on earth and were proclaimed a national monument on 1st May 1967.  The dolomite rock that makes up most of the Otavi Mountains contains a high amount of limestone, which dissolves quite easily when coming into contact with water, thereby large areas within the mountain are hollowed out to form caves (a phenomenon also observed in the Waterberg and the Naukluft mountains). The Ghaub caves consist of a series of chambers and passages that are reached by climbing into a small hole in the surface of the mountain, after which the cave opens up quite considerably. Apart from the chambers and tunnels guests can see a waterfall (more prevalent in the rainy season), a formation of stalagmites called 'the organ', bands and curtains, sinkhole stalagtites (of which some have been cut off due to vandalism) and stalagmite fingers. As the dissolving process continues, the roof of the cave will at some stage cave in and collapse, a phenomenon that happened on a larger scale with Otjikoto and Guinea lakes north of Tsumeb. These two lakes are evidently the only naturally occurring open lakes in Namibia.

Hoba Meteorite

This meteorite, weighing some 60 tons (about 10 elephants) is the largest known piece of extraterrestrial matter on earth, consisting of 82% iron, 16% nickel and 0,7 % cobalt. It was discovered in 1920 by the farmer of the Farm Hoba West near Grootfontein in northern Namibia. As the story goes, the farmer was ploughing through one of his fields when he heard an odd metallic screech and the ox-driven plough suddenly came to a full stop. Upon closer investigation the farmer discovered a huge boulder of iron, measuring roughly 3 by 3 meters.

Some aspects of the nature of the Hoba meteorite are truely puzzling: On the one hand, the meteorite belongs, despite its huge size, to a very rare class of meteorites and is defined as nickel - rich ataxite. Ataxites consists almost entirely out a dense packing of the meteorite mineral taenite and do not display the otherwise typical 'Widmannstaettensche Figuren' on acid edging. Another enigma is the absence of any crater like structure....! The meteorite was covered by a thin crust of calcrete at the time of discovery, but upon excavation no signs of the otherwise very typical temperature & pressure induced shock phenomenae, nor any buried remains of a crater structure were reported. During excavation an odd "Iron shale" = an odd magnetic and limonite rich laminated sediment was observed in close proximity to the meteorite mass, which most probably results from long time weathering. All this support the theory, that the meteorite with its unusual form, hit the earth - estimated 80.000 B.C. - at a very low angle, jumping like a stone on water from place to place until it reached its present position.

Since its discovery the Hoba meteorite lost about half a ton of its substance through the taking of scientific samples and especially through 'specimen taking' by tourists and travellers. Marks of iron saws can be recognized easily at many places on the meteorite surface. In 1955 the Hoba Meteorite was declared a National Monument.