Swakopmund always has something new to discover.
by Elisabeth Braun
At one time there was sand and a protected harbour. Two hundred years later there is still sand, a silted-up harbour and, odds against odds, a thriving resort and retirement town with a host of year-round activities – this is Namibia’s prime coastal hot-spot – Swakopmund.
Named to acknowledge its location at the mouth of the Swakop River, Swakopmund is a coastal settlement that has progressively grown in substance as a coastal resort, especially following Namibia’s independence in 1990.
Whether during the cold and wet months of winter or during the gentle breezes of summer, in its current glory the town bears testimony to the hard work of innumerable people who, inch by inch and over time, wrested living space from large tracts of uninhabitable desert and thus left behind ever larger footprints in the sand.
Irrespective of season, most people approach Swakopmund on a four-hour drive from Windhoek on the B1, turning left onto the B2 at Okahandja. It is a tiring drive with uninterrupted vistas toward the horizons, few scenic interruptions and lots of time to think or listen to music.
For the last half century the B2 has been the only direct connection between the capital Windhoek and Swakopmund on the coast. Frequently travelled, this mostly two-lane highway cuts through the land like a well-sharpened knife, circumventing bizarrely shaped mountains such as the Spitzkoppe to the north.
Noonday temperatures can be merciless inland, and it is therefore with great anticipation, about two-thirds into the journey, that one looks for the first sign of a wispy layer of clouds on the western horizon.
This is where the cool air of the Atlantic assaults the inland heat and mingles to give the traveller a cooler respite for the rest of the way. I remember this first point of relief as the bridge one crosses behind Usakos.
This change in temperature must have been a welcome relief for a group of motorcyclists I once saw riding in convoy toward the coast. Mummified in leather gear and helmets, their bare, sunburnt hands and wrists were the only body parts visible.
The excitement surrounding their journey was palpable as they passed me on the right, rode together for a while, then fanned out across the empty road ahead and later returned to ride together and disappear into the distance.
Heading toward Swakopmund, the road traverses through harsh yet beautiful country. In musical terms, this is a landscape that gives of itself haltingly and in deliberate, sometimes atonal melodies. I like to think of it as a contemporary piano concerto with alternating slow and fast movements rather than as a heavy-metal score blasting from an air-conditioned vehicle speeding by.
On past visits, Martin Luther, the little German locomotive that during colonial times could only go so far in the desert, was a welcome sign at the entrance to Swakopmund, since it meant one had almost arrived. It was not there this time, almost as if its historical significance of a short distance travelled against all odds had been undermined by steadily expanding suburbia.
Like Windhoek, Swakopmund is bursting at its seams, and Kramersdorf in the south, and the stretch north of Vineta, are growing in all directions by leaps and bounds. From a low-flying plane Kramersdorf, as well as the rest of Swakopmund, looks like an over-sized sandbox that has been divided into neat regular plots with houses placed in the middle and walls or fences for keeping the desert sand out.
Swakopmunders are proud of their gardens. They use watering cans and garden hoses as they cannot rely on moisture other than in the form of coastal fog, and their often elaborate gardens attest to the temporary triumph of man over nature.
Much in the town has remained the same. For example, German colonial images are still in evidence, and the careful restoration of slowly decaying buildings has done much to present a well-tended image of the town.
The Swakopmunder Buchhandlung on Sam Nujoma Avenue (the former Kaiser Wilhelm Street) in the centre of town has always been a meeting place for locals to buy their newspapers and the latest publications.
It is especially a treasure trove for people interested in Namibian history. The section on Namibia’s natural history is impressive too, which suggests that this land so rich in natural wonders has become the focus of national and international research. More than one author has been known to stop by to make sure that his or her work is prominently displayed.
The place to truly investigate Namibia’s and Swakopmund’s past history is the Swakopmund Museum close to the Promenade along the ocean. While I have always been aware that Namibia is a country of diverse people and traditions, here at the Museum previously free-floating snippets of information fall into a cohesive narrative display.
All the 11 official population groups of Namibia, from the San to the Herero and Rehoboth Basters, are described and illustrated comprehensively. It reminds the visitor that Namibia may have one official language – English – but that its people speak many other tongues too.
It is only a short distance from the Museum to Café Anton across from the Lighthouse. Anton’s coffee and cake are still excellent and provide just the right amount of energy to tackle the long walk north on the refurbished ocean promenade. If one is so inclined, one might well hear the rolling waves whisper stories of shipwrecks and rescue attempts of eons ago as the evening mist rolls in from the sea and envelops the shore in a hazy blanket.
During each visit to Swakopmund over the years there has always been something new to discover and, as usual, when leaving Swakopmund early one morning, I took some of the sand from the Namib Desert back with me to America, the kind that doesn’t come in a bottle or souvenir bag, but gathers in the far recesses of my boots and cannot be removed by even the finest brush. In America this is my footprint in the Namibia sand.
This article appeared in the July/Aug ‘04 edition of Travel News Namibia.