May luck be with you…


…and bring you back up again – This is the traditional miner’s greeting from which the town of Tsumeb, in northern Namibia derived its motto – ‘Gluck auf’

The beginning of the Tsumeb mine 1907
The beginning of the Tsumeb mine 1907

Tsumeb makes for a great accommodations while taking a self drive to Etosha, as it is the gateway to the Oshikoto region, the closest town to the Etosha National Park.

Its name is believed to be derived from the Hai//om word ‘Tsomsoub’ which means – “to dig a big hole in the loose ground” and the Otjiherero word ‘Otjisume’ which means “place of the frogs” because of the various greens and browns of the 12m high, 40m wide and 180m long Malachite hill that used to dominate this area.

Tsumeb, as it is known today, is famous for its rich mineral ore deposits, the main ones being copper, lead, zinc, silver, sulphur, but no less than 240 different minerals were mined here, of which 55 have been registered as occurring nowhere else.

Tsumeb mine shaft 1925
Tsumeb mine shaft circa 1925

The Tsumeb ore pipe has been worked by a number of different peoples going back to prehistoric times and because of the scarcity of water in this area, ore trading took place at the nearby Lake Otjikoto.

The San were based in this area and the Ovambo came, on foot, from the far north to trade copper ore. When the Ovambo arrived, a fire was lit at the Trading Tree to signal to the San that the ore buyers had arrived.

Hand-forged axes, knives, spears, arrowheads, pots, salt and glass beads were spread out beneath the tree and the San then laid out their wares consisting of copper ore, sinew strings and ostrich eggs. Neither could understand the other’s language so trading was done in silence. With the trading completed, the Ovambo smelted the ore on the spot in termite mounds. The San chief guarded the malachite hill and would fire arrows at anyone who attempted to steal the ore.

The smelter 1925
The smelter 1925

In 1893 European explorers and prospectors reached the Malachite hill and “I have been holding places of trust for the past 24 years, have visited various countries of the world, inspected mines, mineral outcrops, and prospecting for minerals; have been associated with the minerals gold, silver, tin, copper and lead; but in the whole of my experience, I have never seen such a sight as was presented before my view at Soomep (Tsumeb) and I very much doubt if I shall ever see such another in any other locality…”  was what Matthew Rogers reported back to his superiors when he first saw Malachite Hill.

It took seven years of negotiating and assessment before a team of 33 miners were sent to Tsumeb to commence mining. Two shafts were sunk and in the first cut showed great promise. For six years the ore was taken by ox wagon to the coastal town of Swakopmund, but within 12 months of the railway reaching Tsumeb in 1906 the train was carrying over 25,700 TONNES of ore to the coast.

Camels in Tsumeb circa 1907
Camels in Tsumeb circa 1907

Mining at Tsumeb has continued right throughout the Great depression and both World Wars, through the sale of the mine in 1946 and in 1953 the De Wet Shaft was completed. In its heyday 300 tonnes of ore was mined PER DAY. The ore was so rich that it did not have to be treated before being sent to the smelters.

The 1990’s saw copper prices falling to an all-time low. The management team of the mine tried everything in their power to cut costs, but with the copper price falling to under USD 1,400.00 per tonne and an illegal strike by mine workers eventually forced the mine into liquidation.

Since then ownership of the mine has changed a number of times and the price of copper has risen and fallen, but with the De Wet shaft being flooded during the strike action in 1996 and the price of copper reaching another low of USD 4,000.00 per tonne Tsumeb mining was finally suspended in December 2008.

Shaft No.1 and mine foreman's office 1926
Shaft No.1 and mine foreman’s office 1926

Tsumeb mine is so unique that its very creation is open to hot debate, it penetrates almost vertically through a layer of dolomite for more than a kilometer. One theory is that is is actually an ancient cave system and that the ‘filling’ is sand that has seeped in from above, another theory is that it is a volcanic shaft – but if this is correct then the filling is even more peculiar. Whilst other sites might have the same richness of mineral wealth, the sheer size and quality of the crystals found in Tsumeb has garnered it international acclaim.

Close to Tsumeb are two large sinkhole lakes, Lake Otjikoto and Lake Guinas – but those require a blog post entirely to themselves!

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