Tsumeb is the capital city of the Oshikoto region in northern Namibia. Tsumeb is seen as “gateway to the north” of Namibia. It is the closest town to the Etosha National Park, and has a population of 20,000 inhabitants.
The name Tsumeb is not a derivative of German, Afrikaans, or English. It has been suggested that it comes from Nama and means either “Place of the moss” or “Place of the frog”. Perhaps this old name had something to do with the huge natural hill of green, oxidized copper ore that existed there before it was destroyed by mining.
The town was founded in 1905 by the German colonial power and celebrated its 100th year of existence in 2005.
Tsumeb is notable for the huge mineralized pipe that lead to its foundation. The origin of the pipe has been hotly debated. The pipe penetrates more or less vertically through the Precambrian Otavi dolomite for at least 1300 m. One possibility is that the pipe was actually a gigantic ancient cave system and that the rock filling it is sand that seeped in from above. If the pipe is volcanic, as some have suggested, then the rock filling it (the “pseudo-aplite”) is peculiar in the extreme. The pipe was mined in prehistoric times but those ancient workers barely scratched the surface. Most of the ore was removed in the 20th century by cut-and-fill methods. The ore was polymetallic and from it copper, lead, silver, gold, arsenic and germanium were won. There was also a fair amount of zinc present but the recovery of this metal was always difficult for technical reasons. The pipe was famous for its richness. Many millions of tonnes of ore of spectacular grade were removed. A good percentage of the ore (called “direct smelting ore”) was so rich that it was sent straight to the smelter situated near the town without first having to be processed through the mineral enrichment plant. The Tsumeb mine is also renowned amongst mineral collectors.
It is noted for 243 valid minerals and is the type location for 56 mineral species. Some of the germanium minerals are only found in this mine.
Tsumeb, since its founding, has 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 kilometer 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 other notable feature of the town is the metal smelter, also owned by Ongopolo Mining.
When South Africa invaded Namibia (then German Southwest Africa) in 1914, the retreating German forces eventually threw all of their weaponry and supplies into the deep waters of Otjikoto. Some of the material has been recovered for display in museums.
One of the largest and deepest underground lakes in the world lies a little to the east of Tsumeb, on a farm called Harasib. To reach the water in the cave one has either to abseil or to descend an ancient, hand-forged ladder that hangs free of the vertical dolomite walls of the cave for over 50 m. Here, too, Scuba divers have descended as deep as they have dared (80 m) in the crystal-clear waters and have reported nothing but deep blue below them from one ledge of dolomite to the next until nothing further could be discerned in the indigo depths.
The largest meteorite in the world, called Hoba, lies in a field about forty minutes drive to the east of Tsumeb, at Hoba west. It is a nickel-iron meteorite of about 60 tonnes.