Meet the Couple Who Built a German Castle in Namibia
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This sandstone schloss is a testament to the love of an adventurous German officer and his wealthy American bride.
By Nick Dall
Hansheinrich von Wolf and his young American bride, Jayta, were roughing it in a tent nearby while an army of workers built their magnificent, romantic home — a 22-room medieval-style fortress they would call Duwisib, set in the hills bordering the Namib Desert.
Not all newlyweds would welcome wilderness hardship, but Jayta was a fine sportswoman, well-matched to her adventurous military husband. When it came to hunting, though, she was a rookie. One crisp desert morning in March 1908, she and her husband set off in search of game. Jayta downed the first large bird she saw and took it back to camp, grilling it like a partridge. When her husband returned — dusty and hungry — she served him the bird with rice and beans. To her shock, von Wolf nearly choked on his first mouthful. He threw the grilled crow to his dogs — but even they were “too disgusted to eat the carrion-eater,” says Harald Nestroy, the former German ambassador to Namibia and author of Duwisib: A German castle in Namibia and its master Hansheinrich von Wolf.
On more than one occasion, the captain entertained patrons in the hotel bar by drawing his revolver and blasting bottles off the shelves.
The couple got past that early misstep and completed their stone castle just over a year later — thanks in no small part to Jayta’s considerable family wealth, says Nestroy. The next five years were the happiest the couple would know, living in splendid isolation and raising horses and sheep amid the thorn-tree-covered hills at the edge of the desert.
Born in Dresden in 1873, von Wolf was the son of a distinguished soldier but not — as is often stated — a baron. At age 17, he enlisted in the Royal Saxon Army, where he rose swiftly through the ranks to captain. In early 1905 he sailed to South West Africa (modern-day Namibia) to defend the German colony there during the Herero uprising, earning two medals for valor. The following year, von Wolf was wounded and received permission to return to Germany, where he wooed young Jayta Humphreys, stepdaughter of the American consul general in Dresden.
Von Wolf told her of South West Africa’s “great potential,” says Nestroy, and the adventurous Miss Humphreys — she was an “accomplished horse rider” — took very little convincing. Barely a fortnight into their marriage, they sailed for the German colony, where they began petitioning authorities for permission to buy vast tracts of land.
After purchasing the farm at Duwisib, they commissioned Wilhelm Sander, an architect who designed the three castles in Windhoek, the colony’s main settlement, to create a home for them that was grand, comfortable and defensible — no small consideration in a region where just three years earlier von Wolf and other German soldiers had brutally suppressed a rebellion.
The castle’s red sandstone was quarried two kilometers from the construction site, but everything else was shipped from Germany to the port of Lüderitz: plumbing, girders, fixtures, furnishings and furniture, including some gargantuan 18th-century pieces. From Lüderitz, the material was sent east by rail to Aus, where teamsters using 20 ox-drawn wagons spent two full years hauling this freight to the castle some 215 kilometers north, according to an account in The Namibian. With the help of Italian stonemasons and Swedish carpenters, the castle was — remarkably — completed in less than two years, along with stables, a dressage arena and farriers’ workshops.
The castle’s location, though remote, was practical, says Nestroy. Von Wolf knew that the area was devoid of the fly-borne “horse-killing disease” that plagued stables near Windhoek to the north, and he established a stud farm that grew to around 350 horses in just two years. He was also a pioneer of farming karakul sheep — the highly prized lamb pelts now known as “black gold.” By 1911, he had more than 8,500 animals in his flock.
When he needed a break from ranching and farming, von Wolf jumped in a six-horse carriage and headed to the village of Maltahöhe, according to Roger Webster in The Illustrated Fireside: True Southern African Stories. On more than one occasion, the captain entertained patrons in the hotel bar by drawing his revolver and blasting five bottles off the shelves, “with the sixth shot reserved for the lamp.” A man of deep principles, he “cheerfully” paid for the damages, writes Webster.
The African idyll ended when Kaiser Wilhelm II mobilized the German army in July 1914. The von Wolfs left Duwisib — furniture, livestock and all — in the care of a friend and set sail for Hamburg. They never saw their castle again. Von Wolf was awarded the Iron Cross in 1914 for single-handedly capturing seven British soldiers in the Battle of Ypres, but his luck ran out during the Battle of the Somme, when he succumbed to shrapnel wounds on Sept. 4, 1916, at age 43.
The widow von Wolf married a German diplomat, but the relationship didn’t last long. In the 1930s, when the fascist regime in Germany became too oppressive, she relocated to Switzerland and then to Summit, New Jersey, where she died in 1963.
After World War I, the castle and its contents were auctioned to a Swedish family who, after a series of misfortunes, sold it following World War II. In 1979, the castle was declared a national monument. These days the von Wolfs’ retreat operates as a government-run guesthouse, while the owner of the surrounding Duwisib Guest Farm offers comfortable accommodation in the castle’s outbuildings.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the method of transporting the building supplies and the end product of karakul farming.
- Nick Dall, OZY Author Contact Nick Dall