Must-see Structures in the Desert

Words and Images by Chris Marais

When you visit a desert country like Mali, Namibia or right here in the Kalahari or Karoo regions of South Africa, you often come across a structure that catches the eye. And you wonder: Who built this? Why? And how the heck did it last so long?

1. The Grand Mosque of Djenne, Mali

One of the most incredible African buildings I’ve ever seen stands in the Malian riverside town of Djenne. It’s a desert mosque that may first have been built back in the 13th Century. Restored in 1907, the Grand Mosque of Djenne is made of mud and sun-baked earth bricks, with protruding wooden sticks inserted for both style and annual maintenance. Once a year, everyone in town is expected to mix up a special mud concoction of shea butter, baobab leaves and grass. Then selected individuals clamber up the stick scaffolding and shore up the outer walls of the building.

man-made desert
The mud-built Grand Mosque of Djenne, Mali.

2. The Bandiagara Escarpment, Mali

In eastern Mali lies the Bandiagara Escarpment, where an ancient culture called the Tellem once lived in cliff-side dwellings made of mud. The Dogon people who live on the plateau above this phenomenal ghost village and down at the base of the escarpment, say that the Tellem were “magicians who flew” – at the very least they were expert climbers…

man-made desert
The deserted cliff-side dwellings of the Tellem, on the Bandiagara Escarpment in Mali.

3. Kolmanskop, Namibia

Outside the seaport town of Luderitz in Namibia stands the remains of a settlement where diamond boomers once lived high on the hog. Wads of money were thrown away at the local horse races and carousing men drank champagne out of women’s shoes every night. In addition to the mansions of Kolmanskop (like the one in picture) there was a beautifully designed recreation hall where the parties were so hectic that the people of neighbouring Luderitz grew jealous and flocked into the desert to join in the fun.

man-made desert
One of the ghost mansions of Kolmanskop, Namibia.

4. AfrikaBurn 2012, Tankwa Desert

If you really want to see amazing man-made structures in the desert, book now for the next AfrikaBurn festival out in the Tankwa desert between Ceres and Calvinia.
Every year the creations get better, bigger and brighter. They say your imagination goes wild in the dry spaces of the world. That’s truly so in the Tankwa desert every April.

man-made desert
A man-made desert oasis – AfrikaBurn 2012.

5. AfrikaBurn Relic, Tankwa Desert

And should you visit this region of the Tankwa later in the year and stay over at the Tankwa Tented Camp, chances are you might see some incredible relics of that year’s AfrikaBurn standing silent in the desert, awaiting the next crowd of festival-goers. The relics – like the festival grounds in general – are meticulously curated, however. There is no MOOP (Matter Out Of Place) left behind once the thousands have departed and the clean-up crews have done their thing.

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Ship of the desert – an AfrikaBurn relic.

6. The Kalkwerf Primary School, Kalahari, Northern Cape

I once passed this place somewhere up in the Kalahari many years ago on a Sunday and it was, obviously, closed for business. But it got me to wandering: who built this little stand-alone school in the middle of nowhere, with its crude little outhouse nearby? How many children attend? Who painted the dancing dwarves on the walls? One day I will return to this place. I must just make sure it’s a weekday, out of holiday season…

man-made desert
Who knows about the Kalkwerf Primary School deep in the Kalahari?
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