Biography of a place: Ghaub - Namibia Safari and Lodges - Gondwana Collection

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Biography of a place: Ghaub

Avatar of inke inke - 04. January 2019 - Discover Namibia

Guests from all over the world are greeted by palm trees and buildings of the former mission station. Photo: Sven-Eric Stender

Sven-Eric Stender, Bush Telegraph Namibia

As you drive through the rugged landscape of the Otavi Mountains, approaching Ghaub, you immediately feel that this is a special place full of history and stories: miles of weathered walls built from slabs of rock, ancient palm trees and buildings dating from the early 20th century. Large-format photos in the rooms take you back 100 years in time, while rock engravings in the area are thousands of years old...

The former mission church building after renovations and its conversion into guest accommodation. Photo: Ghaub

“Finally we were on our way north.  (…) Our wagon was loaded with Mother’s luggage and with provisions for the farm. Right on top, beneath the tarpaulin, a low space was left for us to sleep in. Another little space in the shade behind the box was supposed to be Mother’s place, but she couldn’t make use of this privilege often, or for very long. Calves, new-born or unable to keep up with the pace, had to be put there, and then the only remaining seat was on the box, which was uncomfortably hard and offered no shade. Instead of the bumpy ride on the ox wagon (…) Mother preferred to walk a lot. (…) The endlessly wide stretches that we had to cover every day, the awful dust kicked up by the cattle, and the fact that it took a whole fourteen days before we met another two white people was weighing on her rather heavily.”

This is how Wilhelm Detering, who in 1901 became farm manager at Ghaub, the missionary station, remembers the arrival of his wife Auguste in German South West Africa. He had met her a few years earlier in Germany, and in 1903 asked her to join him on the farm. On their journey from Swakopmund to Ghaub they stop over in Karibib early in June for their church wedding. 

Then the trek to the mountains northeast of Otavi continues: “(…) we arrived at Ghaub on July 10th, 1903. (…) 21 days on the road, a strange honeymoon trip. Our first little house was sitting naked and bare on an empty space.” All around that empty space thorn bush covered the entire valley and the mountains. North of the house was a swamp, a breeding ground for countless mosquitoes. Indeed, it was no paradise that the Rhenish Mission had chosen in 1895 for establishing a station.

The former mission church (in front) and the manager house (in the back). Photo: Ghaub

A Reservation for Berg Damara

The Berg Damara people, who had retreated to the Otavi Mountains to protect themselves from other ethnic groups, are the reason for this choice of location. Hundreds of rock engravings, including depictions of animals such as elephant and rhino, bear witness to the fact that the area was inhabited by San people since time immemorial. Another reference to the San is the name of Ghaub, the spring, which according to oral tradition was also frequented because arrows could be made from the reed growing there. The aim of the Rhenish Mission is to establish a “reservation” at the Ghaub spring and convert people to Christianity. 

In July 1895 missionary Friedrich Kremer arrives at Ghaub. Already the following year a small church built from air-dried bricks is consecrated, and the mission school boasts some 20 pupils. Two years later the number has grown to 50, as more and more Berg Damara settle at Ghaub. 

The vicinity of the swamp, however, breeding ground for mosquitoes, becomes a problem for missionary Kremer. After a fourth attack of blackwater fever, a severe form of malaria, plus side-effects caused by the treatment with quinine, he travels to Walvis Bay in the end of 1898 to recuperate and returns only nine months later. His complaints about the swamp prompt the Head Office of the Rhenish Mission Society in Germany to dispatch an engineer to Ghaub. He recommends digging a drainage ditch and employing a farmer with sound agricultural training at Ghaub.

Obviously impressed by missionary Kremer’s report, the Rhenish Mission Society decides to make a real job of it: it buys farm Ghaub with an area of “some 9000 hectares” from the South West Africa Company Ltd “for 9000 M. in cash” on January 30th, 1900. A farm manager, Wilhelm Detering, is appointed to secure Ghaub’s financial independence.  

He arrives at the farm on August 26th, 1901 and immediately tackles his task. He drains the swamp which is about 2 ha in size, cultivates land and builds a house for himself. In 1903 his fiancée, Auguste Stocksiek, travels from Germany and joins him in June.  

When the Herero in Okahandja rise in rebellion in January 1904, work at Ghaub comes to a standstill for ten months. All white families are ordered to seek shelter in the closest fortress. The Kremer and Detering families flee to Grootfontein. In April Friedrich Kremer dies of blackwater fever and his widow wants to return to Germany. It is probably in July that the Deterings take her by ox wagon to the railway station in Karibib, where they intend to load provisions. In a twist of fate, however, Wilhelm Detering is signed on for transport duties by the German colonial forces, the Schutztruppe, while Auguste remains in Karibib. On August 11th, 1904 the decisive battle between the Schutztruppe and the Herero is fought at the Waterberg Mountain – but the Deterings return to Ghaub only in the end of October.  

Children of the small congregation in front of the mission church. Photo: Ghaub

Bananas, dates and oranges

During the next years Wilhelm Detering transforms the farm into a thriving oasis. He plants more than 600 banana trees as well as orange and lemon trees, ironwood, mulberry and pepper trees. He establishes a wine walk, 60 metres long, and probably he also planted the date palms, some of which still exist today. He produces meat, butter and cheese to sell to the mines. And he has the gardens and orchards cleared of rocks and stones and a wall built around them. That wall, 1.50 m high and 80-100 cm thick, impresses even today by its sheer length and neatly stacked stones.  

The field of missionary work, on the other hand, is lying fallow for most of seven years, and when it is resumed it is for a few years only. In May 1911 missionary Heinrich Vedder arrives at Ghaub, who later becomes a household name all over the country.  Until 1914 he trains missionary assistants to relieve the mostly overworked missionaries in other parts of the colony.

In August 1914 the First World War breaks out. Vastly outnumbered by the South African Union forces, the German colonial troops retreat further and further north and confiscate all stocks of wheat and maize. Ghaub also has a food shortage and people are leaving the mission station in increasing numbers. After the Schutztruppe surrenders Windhoek in May the following year, the German governor, Theodor Seitz, moves to Ghaub for a short time.

The last battles against South African forces are fought in the area of the Otavi Mountains. In his notes missionary Vedder describes the “fateful” Sunday, July 4th, 1915. The building serving as a church and a school had been turned into a military hospital. The benches had been arranged in the shade of a fig tree, but nobody came to attend the service. Everyone knew that the enemy was approaching. The first shots were fired around midday, two hours later South African troops took control of Ghaub. On July 9th, 1915 the capitulation of the Schutztruppe is signed at Khorab, about two kilometres north of Otavi. A memorial plaque serves as a reminder of the historic event.

Traces of the past: a rock pulpit for church services in the open, some 500 metres from the reception of Ghaub Lodge. Photo: Sven-Eric Stender

End of the mission station

The following years are fraught with difficulties at Ghaub. Farm workers demand land for themselves from the mission station. Charges of stealing and hiding government property are filed against Vedder and Detering in 1918. The buildings and grounds are searched. Vedder is eventually acquitted. Detering is not brought before the court, as he falls seriously ill at Christmas 1918 and is taken to Swakopmund with his family. His health is only restored in June 1919.

In the meantime Germany has lost the war in Europe. Under the terms of a League of Nations mandate South West Africa is placed under South African rule. Many Germans are deported as ‘undesirable subjects’. Vedder receives his deportation order on May 10th, 1919. With that, missionary history at Ghaub comes to an end. Vedder returns to South West Africa in 1922, but settles in Okahandja.

From now on Ghaub is used for farming only. Wilhelm Detering is allowed to return in October 1919. In 1938, at the age of 65, he puts his son Karl in charge of the farm and returns to Germany with his wife. But just a year later he is back again – without Auguste. He intends to assist his son for two years, but the outbreak of the Second World War forces him to stay. Karl is sent to an internment camp and Wilhelm lives in solitude until his death on September 8th, 1945 in Grootfontein. Several farm managers are subsequently working on the farm until 1969, but then Ghaub lies dormant for 27 years.

Guest farm and agriculture

Ghaub awakens to new life in October 1996. Werner List, CEO of the Namibian group of companies Ohlthaver & List, buys the farm from the Rhenish Mission Society and has everything repaired and refurbished and extensions added with care. Guest farm Ghaub opens its doors in May 1999.

Today, Ghaub is a lodge that combines modern comfort with a historic ambience. Guests now live where missionaries once taught and held church services for the locals. Traces of history are still visible everywhere – be it the kilometres of stacked stone walls, the overgrown drainage ditch at the game viewing hide on the fringes of the lodge premises or the rock pulpit and the small cemetery with graves of missionaries, parishioners and soldiers next to the trail near the lodge… 

The renovated former manager house now serves as the guest farm’s reception and restaurant. Photo: Ghaub

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