Text Marita van Rooyen | Photographs Xenia Ivanoff-Erb
| Main photo: Zeila Shipwreck, Henties Bay
A German-inspired oasis, at the edge of where the cold Atlantic meets the world’s most ancient desert, Swakopmund is renowned for its old-world charm reminiscent of an era long gone. Architecture from the German colonial era – when the town was the main port of entry – creates an almost surreal impression of the inner town. While landmark buildings such as the Kaiserliches Bezirksgericht, Woermann Haus, Altes Amtsgericht and the Evangelical Lutheran Church provide for a picturesque overview, modern-day shopping centres, restaurants, coffee shops and all the usual amenities and comforts of home conveniently flank history.
Crowned as the heart of Namibia’s premier tourism destination, Swakopmund is the base from where to explore a plethora of unique desert and ocean adventures. It offers the opportunity to get immersed in a diverse cultural heritage and it is the ideal destination for those who just want to kick off their shoes, bury their toes into the soft sand at the beach and relax with a book, or ice cold beer.
Swakopmund is the ultimate unwind-while-you-explore destination, and even when you think you’ve seen it all, there will still be more to discover.
An alternative to the usual tourist venture is the option to visit the surrounding area on an assortment of day trips. Whether you decide to head in a southerly, northerly or easterly direction, the environment will in every sense provide a refreshing change of scenery and introduce you to natural phenomena ranging from geological wonders and volcanic features, to desert-adapted fauna and flora.
CAPE CROSS: BEACON OF AN OLDEN DAY EXPLORER
The origin of Cape Cross is one of the earliest seafaring expeditions to Africa: that of Diego Cão, who planted his famous stone cross on these rocky shores in 1485. He didn’t spend long enough to explore the inland, but despite the fact that since his departure much has happened in terms of shaping the area’s rich record of events, it is his beacon that remains the key symbol of Cape Cross.
History is by no means all that you can expect from a visit to this isolated section of the coastline. Cape Fur Seals dominate the local wildlife, and the Cape Cross Seal Reserve boasts the biggest mainland-breeding colony in the world. Watch the seals splash about the waves – which is just as popular for surfing – take a stroll along the beach or grab a rod and show your knack at angling.
Other activities include outings to old shipwrecks, sensitive lichen fields, Welwitschia plains and our very own ‘Dead Sea’, or salty waterhole in the desert. On your way back from Cape Cross, make a stop at one of the unmanned salt-crystal sellers’ stands and pick up a block of truly Namibian Atlantic salt at a bargain.
…the weather will always be cool and fresh and the dunes warm and inviting…
SANDWICH HARBOUR: NATURAL CONSERVATION AT ITS FINEST
Imagine a turquoise-tinged lagoon, green with reeds and teeming with large numbers of coastal and freshwater birds, flanked by towering sands and rolling waves, and views of untouched desert landscapes for as far as the eye can see.
This otherworldly sight must have played a significant part in attracting the early traders to the former commercial fishing port of Sandwich Harbour.
These days, little remains of the earlier human footprint, and Sandwich Harbour and surrounds are instead known to be a valuable conservation area – hosting one of the most important wetlands in Southern Africa – and considered to be one of the most geomorphologically active parts of the Namibian coastline.
Don’t make the mistake of getting carried away by the natural beauty however: the harbour is only accessible during low tide and you might find yourself stuck if you linger too long.
GANAB PLAINS: FOR SILENCE AND SOLITUDE
If it’s space, silence and solitude you’re after, then the Ganab Plains should get an honorary position on your bucket list. Sure, it’s true that pretty much everywhere in this vast country you’ll be constantly reminded of your inner Zen, but the Ganab environs certainly take the possibility of inner silence a step above the rest.
With wide-open plains, dotted by groves of camel thorn trees along a dry riverbed, it is here where you’ll become aware of the endless expanse of the Namib Desert and all its subsections. The only disruption to the silence will come in the form of grazing springbok, gemsbok or zebra, and if you’re lucky, a lonesome spotted-hyena or bat-eared fox sniffing about for scraps.
SPITZKOPPE: NAMIBIA’S FAMOUS HORN
The boulder-strewn peak that goes by the nickname ‘Namibia’s Matterhorn’ is by far the most legendary mountain in the country. More famously known as the Spitzkoppe, the rocky outcrop with its sharp one-horned peak rises 1 784 meters above sea level, jutting out from the surrounding environment like a majestic force of nature.
Rich in minerals and the hub of Namibia’s semi-precious stone mines, the Spitzkoppe area provides the exceptional opportunity to acquire a collection of local crystals right from the source. Add to the shiny stones an assortment of San paintings dating back 4 000 years, and granite boulders the size of giants’ marbles, and you’ve got yourself right in the middle of any geologist’s dream.
The mountain is world-renowned for bouldering and climbing, providing options for rock-jocks of all calibres. But if you’re not of the rock-hopping variety, fear not, because there are also other ways to appreciate the beauty of the area: by foot, horseback or from a picnic spot under a shady tree.
MESSUM CRATER: A GRAND VOLCANIC FEATURE
The remnants of a massive volcanic eruption dating back to between 132 and 135 million years, the Messum crater boasts an impressive diameter of 18 kilometres. With an intriguing history as a geological wonder the crater also houses numerous shelters decorated with rock art, many of which used to be littered with stone tool artefacts (now safely stored in museums).
The surrounding area is rich in the symbols of desert life, including the Welwitschia mirabilis plant, a wide array of lichen species as well as unique wildlife. Keep an eye out to spot some ancient stone circles from the Damara nomads.
The Messum Crater is a bit further in distance than the average day trip, but is well worth a visit for its utter isolation and breathtaking views. Situated northeast of Cape Cross, it is also possible to combine a trip to both destinations within the same day.
For more info visit www.destination-swakopmund.com
GOOD TO KNOW:
- Most destinations are accessible for self-drivers, although 4×4 vehicles might be required to visit some of the more remote natural attractions.
- If you’re planning a self-drive trip, best check routes and recommendations with a tour operator first.
- Keep in mind that the addition of an experienced guide with local knowledge could turn a simple journey of self-exploration into one of the most memorable expeditions of a lifetime.
- Day trips – and guides – can be booked with various tour operators, and depart Swakopmund on a daily basis.
- Excursions take between 5–8 hours and usually include a light lunch, cold drinks and national park entry fees where applicable.
This article was first published in the Travel News Namibia Autumn 2017 issue.