Ever paid a visit to the Apartheid museum? The site of the concentration camps in Bethulie? Robben Island? Or the District Six Museum? Then you can, to some degree, describe yourself as a dark tourist.
Defining Dark Tourism
No, it is not heading to tourist destinations in the dark. Dark tourism is a particular type of tourism that focuses on visiting places associated with death and suffering, or the seemingly macabre.
As you can imagine, there are a few different categories to Dark Tourism, as it comes in a variety of different forms. With some of the categories the connection to ‘death and disaster’ can be very direct, whilst in other instances it is much more subdued.
Categories include grave tourism, Holocaust tourism, genocide tourism, prison and persecution site tourism, communism tourism, cult-of-personality tourism, Cold War & Iron Curtain tourism, nuclear tourism and disaster area tourism.
While the concept of dark tourism may seem foreign to some, it can be very appealing to others. The theory is that the very nature of dark tourism is a product of modern media. The attraction of death and disaster is romanticised by modern media and the assumption is that without it certain travel destinations wouldn’t even attract visitors.
When you think about it, this is nothing new. The fact that the popularity of horror movies has only increased in the last few years is testament to our fascination with death and despair. A lot has been written on the subject; and while some theorise that it is our own fear of death that drives the fascination, other attribute it to schadenfreude, which is the pleasure we take in the misfortune of others.
Furthermore, it also forces us to confront our nightmares. What would you do when faced with a natural disaster, or if you lived during WWII or if you were to live next to a serial killer? Lastly, it can also be seen as an educational experience. Confronted with the mistakes of the past, we are bound to (hopefully) reflect on the present.
So what counts as dark tourism experiences?
Like previously mentioned it can be something very direct such as a display of the bodies of communist leaders (Lenin’s embalmed body in Moscow to be precise), volcanic or other natural disaster sites, former death camps, war museums and more.
Netflix recently released the docu-series Dark Tourist where David Ferrier tackle dark tourist destinations by continent. Visiting Latin America, Japan, the US, the Stans, Europe, Africa and more, Ferrier faces some seriously ‘dark’ situations. With a lot of these destinations being in countries that do not allow outsiders, countries ravaged by nuclear experiments, visiting the homes of serial killers, and voodoo festivals, it opens up a world of dark tourism unknown to most.
What about local dark tourist destinations?
Believe it or not, there is a site dedicated to dark tourists everywhere. Aptly named dark-tourism.com, this site gives a list of all the dark tourist destinations across the globe, and it contains a section solely for South Africa. Here, they list Robben Island, the District Six Museum, the Holocaust Centre, and also Apartheid-themed township tours.
Here’s where it gets a bit murky for Saffers. The website goes on to list the Kruger Park, Sabi-Sabi, and Hermanus (for whale watching) as dark tourist sites. We can only presume that this is a result of foreigners’ limited understanding of safaris and other wildlife experiences.
For a real dark tourist experience, we would recommend visiting Robben Island, the Apartheid Museum, the District Six Museum and the Holocaust Centre. You can also visit the Anglo Boer War death camps (in Bethulie, for example), and the Anglo Boer War Museum located in Bloemfontein, where you will also be able to see the monument dedicated to the women and children that died in these camps.
Around three hours from Oudtshoorn, you’ll find the Swartberg Pass that leads into the Gamkaskloof. There you’ll find the area known as ‘The Hell’. In 1830, farmers wandered into the valley with its fertile soil and abundance of water. They decided to farm and live in comparative isolation for about 130 years.
In 1958 the first car was brought into the valley and that caused the younger generation to seek fortune elsewhere and the older had no choice but to follow. By 1991 the last permanent resident left. In 1998, Annetjie Joubert returned to Gamkaskloof and opened a guesthouse where you can visit this historic site today and see how they lived in isolation.
What about just across the border?
Close to the small harbour town of Luderitz in Namibia, lies the ghost town of Kolmanskop. During the diamond boom of the 1900’s, the area produced one million carats or 11.7 per cent of the world’s total diamond production.
Because of the immense wealth that the inhabitants accumulated through their excavations, they could afford several luxuries and the town was built with no expense spared. For example, a German expert was brought in to design and supervise the building of a magnificent hall known for its impressive acoustics.
Fresh water was brought in by railway from 120 kilometres away and was used to water the lush gardens that were kept in the middle of the desert. Elaborate homes were built to accommodate the town’s architect, teacher, doctors and mining managers.
By the 1930s, the area started declining as a slow depletion of the deposits started occurring. When more diamonds were discovered to the south near the Orange River, many of the town’s inhabitants joined the rush to the south, leaving their homes and possessions behind. The last three families left in 1956, leaving the remains to be taken over by the desert.
Today, you can visit the ghost town and marvel in the wonder of a town forgotten. They have daily tours that take you through the little town and show you the most important sites, the ice plant and some of the houses.
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Do you have any dark tourism activities you can recommend? Pop them in the comments section below.