If sand and stone could speak of romance and adventure, what tales the walls of Namibia’s Duwisib Castle could tell. Visit this pint-sized castle some 70 kilometres from Maltahöhe in southern Namibia and maybe you’ll fall under its spell like I did.
Referred to by many as ‘the baron and his bride’ during the early 1900s, the couple lived in bizarre European splendour amid the harsh landscape of what was then a German colony. Duwisib (which means ‘place of the rainbow’), their castle in the boondocks, was renowned as an oasis of hospitality.
A bold and adventurous character, he lost little time in marrying Jayta and by mid-1907 had swept her across the seas to a new life halfway across the world.
They bought land among the rugged hills south-west of Maltahöhe and set about stocking their farm with cattle, sheep and horses. A passionate horseman and successful show rider, Hans-Heinrich’s plan was to import bloodstock from Europe so he could breed
horses to supply the Schutztruppe. According to one theory, the ‘wild’ horses of the Garub region of the Namib Desert today may well be descendants of his mares and stallions.
Building a castle in the desert
And it's as true of the home he built as it is of his personality. To create a home for his new bride, he commissioned architect Wilhelm Sander to design a 900 square-metre neo-romantic castle of local red sandstone. More than 100 years later it still stands as a monument to their love.
Complete with battlements and even a tower, Duwisib has 22 rooms arranged around a small internal courtyard, and wide, cool verandahs. The double-volume Knight’s Hall is a triumph of high ceilings and large windows. Overlooking it is a minstrel’s gallery and ‘gentlemen’s room’ extravagantly decorated with trompe-l’oeil pillars – even a ceiling painting of a Zeppelin, which was hot new technology at the time. Sadly, some of the plasterwork is crumbling, taking the frescoes with it.
Here’s the most amazing part. Apart from sandstone quarried from a site nearby, most building materials were imported from Germany. Craftsmen, too, were hired in Europe – stonemasons from Italy and carpenters from Sweden.
Richly decorated with stylish furniture, embellished fireplaces, equestrian paintings and ornamental weapons brought from Europe, the castle is rumoured to have cost an impressive DM 250 000 by the time it was completed in 1909. Transporting all the building materials and furniture was a massive undertaking that involved long journeys by ox-wagon across the Namib Desert from Lüderitz more than 300 kilometres away.
Sadly, unlike most fairy tales, the Von Wolfs’ desert-edge idyll had an unhappy ending. In 1914, just five years after the castle was completed, they were travelling to England to buy fresh bloodstock for their stud when World War I broke out. Their ship was diverted to South America where they were briefly interned, although Hans-Heinrich soon used his contacts to get them released. They boarded a neutral ship bound for Europe, and Jayta hid her German husband under her cabin bed whenever they touched at English or French ports. He left the ship somewhere in neutral Sweden or Denmark and made his way to Germany to report for military duty.
Two years later, in September 1916, he died at the Battle of the Somme in France.
Jayta never returned to Duwisib. She lived in Germany and Switzerland until after World War II, when she returned to her parents’ home in New Jersey. She she died there in the early 1960s. Although she outlived her high-spirited husband by many decades, she never remarried.
For many years, Duwisib castle was a museum containing many original furnishings and fittings, as well as some paintings by Adolph Jentsch, who lived and painted there before World War II. Sadly, it was a little worse for wear, but still one of my favourite places in Namibia, not least because of the romantic story surrounding its creation.
Today it is run by Namibian Wildlife Resorts as a lodge with five rooms (and campsite nearby), but you can still buy a ticket to visit the museum.
[Update 2023: Sadly, Duwisib is closed again as a lodge, in need of repair. It may reopen once funding is secured and the repairs carried out.]
From Maltahöhe in Namibia, travel southwest on the C14 for 38km then turn right onto the D824. After 12km, turn left onto the D831 for 16km, then right onto the D826. Duwisib is 15km along this road (72km from Maltahöhe).
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