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Tsumeb And The Copper Festival
Written by Dan Kirchner

welcome to Tsumeb

Tsumeb has always been primarily a mining town. The mine was originally owned by the OMEG (Otavi Minen und Eisenbahn Gesellschaft) and later by TCL (Tsumeb Corporation Limited) before its closure a few years ago, when the ore at depth ran out. The main shafts became flooded by ground water over a kilometre deep and the water was harvested and pumped to the capital Windhoek. The mine has since been opened up again by a group of local entrepreneurs ("Ongopolo Mining"). A fair amount of oxidized ore remains to be recovered in the old upper levels of the mine. Whether the deepest levels will ever again ring to the sound of the miner's pick seems highly doubtful.

The prosperity of this mining town is based on copper ore and a phenomenal range of other metals and minerals (lead, silver, germanium and cadmium) brought to the surface in a volcanic pipe. It's also the home of Africa's most productive lead mine, which is the fifth-largest in the world. Of the 184 minerals found here, 10 are unique to the area. Mineral collectors justifiably rank Tsumeb as one of the greatest natural wonders on earth, and specimens have found their way into museum collections around the globe.

Exploration began in 1900, a contract to build a 560km railway out to the coast was signed in 1903, the railway was completed in 1906 and mining operations began in 1907. After seven years, they were producing 75,000 tonnes of ore annually with its output peaking in 1930 at 236,000 tonnes. After WWII, a new flotation plant was built to separate zinc from copper and lead and production resumed in 1948. By the mid-1960's, the Tsumeb mining operation was recording a yield of over one million tonnes of ore every year!

The only two natural lakes in Namibia, Otjikoto and Guinas, lie close to Tsumeb. Both geologically similar, these lakes were formed when the roofs of vast underground limestone taverns collapsed into an upside-down mushroom shape. They are the only known habitat of the unusual mouth-breeding cichlid fish (Pseudocrenilabrus philander). These are coloured anything from dark green to bright red, yellow and blue; biologist believe the absence of predators made camouflage unnecessary. When South Africa invaded Namibia (then German Southwest Africa), the retreating German forces in 1915 dumped all their weaponry and supplies into the deep waters of Otjikoto.

One of the largest underground lakes in the world lies nearby at Harasib and the largest meteorite in the world lies in a field at Hoba, about a forty minute drive to the east of Tsumeb. The Hoba Meteorite is composed primarily of iron and nickel and weighs approximately 54 tonnes.

Tsumeb is seen as "The gateway to the North" of Namibia. It is the closest town to the Etosha National Park, from which we had just come.

We arrived in Tsumeb on September 23, after spending several days in Etosha. Tsumeb was celebrating its 100th birthday during the Copper Festival the following week. We thought that might be interesting, but didn't plan on staying that long...

The Caravan campground was beautiful. Lush green grass everywhere and an abundance of trees. I counted over 25 species of trees within the campground. Of course, all this vegetation meant loads of birdlife. Just sitting in a chair you could usually count up to 10 species of birds in a single tree!

birdlife at the campground

The Landy needed some TLC. During the past couple of weeks a number of things had come loose, broken, or become worse.

The truck was a real dilemma. I tried to repair a number of things myself at the campground and when I was out of ideas, we drove around town looking for a Land Rover mechanic. The first place we stopped at was AutoTech - a flashy looking shop that looked like they did work on 4x4's, rally cars, Lamborghinis, Harley's and everything in between. Turns out they are a bunch of crooks and don't know much. Although I was standing next to them as the work was being done, they had the audacity to charge me for parts and labour that they did not do. Stay away from AutoTech in Tsumeb. Fortunately, I stumbled upon W. Gerhard Garage. Walter, an elderly gentleman, is one of the kindest people we have come across; and he knew his Land Rovers too! We told him our story and he took a look at the Landy. I chatted with him for quite some time and we agreed to fix the most important things first. Walter tried very hard to discourage us from taking this truck through Africa. Although we had already come to this conclusion, he reiterated that this vehicle was just the wrong from A-Z and on top of that, it was in terrible condition. Walter's biggest worry was the overheating; he feared that there were problems with the cylinder head, which would mean a major job. Over the course of the next two days, Walter ordered some parts and we replaced the rear shackle and bolts, drained the oil out of the swivel pin housing and replaced it with grease (hopefully this would help with the leaking hubs), replaced the fan belt, and cleaned and adjusted the brakes. Walter helped us under the condition that we drive the truck back to South Africa and get rid of it! That really seemed like the best solution.

Before leaving Tsumeb, I had decided that I needed to address the dust problem. One morning, I pulled absolutely everything out of the truck, bought a few rolls of weather sealing tape and several tubes of silicone. First I borrowed a hose and gave the interior a good wash and later I crawled around squeezing silicone into the most inconspicuous cracks and pinholes. I also re-did the seal around the back door. The first test drive on a dusty gravel road revealed the world's first dust-proof Land Rover! I was exhilarated.

While sitting at the campground, I also started working on the website in earnest. I had so much catching up to do! I found this great little internet cafe in town that let me hook-up my laptop and I ended up spending an hour or so there everyday uploading files that I had worked on during the day.

tasks that needed to be done

work done at W. Gerhard Garage

A few days after our arrival, I was tinkering around on the Landy and heard the sound of a TDI approaching. This white Landy pulls up next to me and as cheerful as could be, John sticks his head out the window and says something witty about Land Rovers. We would spend the next two weeks with John.

our buddy John whom we met at the campground

It is during one of our first dinners around the campfire with John that Felix came into our lives. A story about Felix was the first to be published on the website. We took turns cooking with John, did a little work on the Landys, ran errands in town and went on a few excursions.

We ended up being in Tsumeb for the Copper Festival after all, so we decided to partake in the festivities. The central park was used for the venue and all kinds of tents and exhibits were set up while tunes were pumping. Arts and crafts, a demo put on by the mine and various vendors were set up for display. Some live music, dancing, soft ice-cream and cotton candy were all part of the merriment. His Excellency, the President of the Republic of Namibia, Hifikepunye Pohamba, was also giving a speech. Turns out the president spent a good part of his life in Tsumeb and even worked at the mine, many years ago.

One evening we went back to the festival to eat. There were two large food tents set up with grilling pits outside. We walked into the first and immediately noticed that something wasn't quite right. Not a single black or coloured was in the tent! I looked back at the door and noticed a guard was standing to the side; I had missed him on the way in. What the hell!? I thought apartheid had ended quite some time ago. We promptly walked out and into the other tent where the atmosphere was much more pleasant; laughing, dancing, kids running around but almost no whites. We felt better in this tent.

It took a lot of effort to tear ourselves away from our tranquil oasis, but one day, we decided it was time for a field trip. Quite eager, we were going to go see the Hoba Meteorite and Dragon's Breath Cave.

We've posted a blurb about the meteorite in our Fun Stuff section under World Records.

checking out the Hoba Meteorite with John

Dragon's Breath Cave is apparently the opening to one of the largest under ground lakes in the world. Finding the location of this cave however, was a bit of a mission! The three of us had read completely different things as to the whereabouts of this elusive hole in the ground. After asking for directions once or twice, we came to this farm at the end of the road. The owner, an amicable old chap, sent a couple of his farm hands with us to direct us to the infamous cave. "Not much there", said the farmer. Ah, we'd come all this way, we'd check it out anyway. At the first stop we hiked up a hill to this daunting precipice. One of the farm hands grabbed a boulder and tossed it over the edge. You could hear the rock crashing down the crevasse for a long time before finally splashing into the waters below. Next stop was at the Dragon's Breath Cave. The farmer was right. A small shaft amidst a pill of rock rubble. One of the farm hands told us we could climb in, it was a short drop and then a level passage way for about 10 meters before dropping down about 100 meters or so. I'm always up for a bit of a climb, especially when I'm wearing flip-flops. We all climbed down and inched are way along the passage. Of course none of has had brought a flashlight either. Not particularly wanting to go for a swim 100 meters below, we turned around and climbed back out.

climbing down Dragon's Breath Cave

We met many people at the campsite and made a point to enjoy a drink or two with each of them. Martin's Mog was truly impressive. Not many luxuries were spared in his set-up! You can check out his website at Mog Tours. I was equally impressed with this elderly couple from England, Mike and Margaret, who have come to Africa in their Defender 300TDI again. Their last trip was in 2004 and you can check out their travel story. We also met another couple, Mark and Marlene, who were travelling a Series III R6. Check out their travel blog. Jurgen comes to Africa almost every year, this year with his girlfriend Alexandra. While he is back in Germany working, he stores his Toyota Landcruiser with friends in Zambia. Towards the end of our stay at the campground, we met Kevin and Sarah, a couple from Australia who had driven down from London in a red 1980 Series III in just over five months. They were heading to Cape Town to sell their vehicle and fly back to Australia. Apparently they had very few problems with their truck all the way through Africa! This got me thinking, perhaps we should drive back to Cape Town, get rid of our truck and buy theirs instead. I made a plan to discuss this with them further once they got to Cape Town. It sounded promising.

other people we met at the campground in Tsumeb

After spending almost a month in Tsumeb pondering the next move (at least I managed to get a fair amount of work done on the website), we decided to drive back down to Windhoek first and take the truck to Theatre Garage to get Oubaas' opinion. Depending on the outcome, we would make a plan accordingly. In my mind, we were heading back to Cape Town, getting rid of our truck and figuring out how to buy Kevin and Sarah's Landy. Alternatively, we would sell the truck and return to Canada or travel else where, but put Africa on hold for a while. These thoughts, however, horrifically clashed in my mind as I'm way too stubborn to let go of this dream.