Text and photographs Ron Swilling
The coastal town of Swakopmund has an aura entirely of its own. Surrounded by desert and edged by a chilly ocean, the town with its palm trees, wide streets and old German architecture seems to be out of place and out of time. Yet, imbued with mystique and individuality, it provides a holiday hub for overseas visitors as well as for Namibian locals who flock to its cooler climes in the summer heat.
C lear skies and sunshine are never guaranteed here where the icy Atlantic merges with the Namib Desert in an embrace of opposites, anointing it with a layer of mist that sometimes lifts later in the day. After the hot east winds that blow in the winter, the spring months are often misty. The mist provides essential (and often, the only) moisture for much of the flora and fauna in the area and is a pivotal and life-giving part of the desert ecosystem. Misty days don’t detract from the appeal of the town but rather add to the unusual and interesting visit, providing a balance of a cool coastal desert experience to the clear blue skies and landscapes of long yellow grass that cover the interior of the country like a thick spread of butter.
Swakop, as the locals call it, offers rest and restaurants for those needing to put up their feet after an exhausting safari, while for those raring to go, it is the ‘adventure sport capital’ of Namibia, rivaling Vic Falls for high-adrenaline activities. It also, thankfully, has a range of gentle desert journeys that are perfect for fun, adventure and a taste of the Namib Desert without necessitating a leap out of a plane or catapulting down a sandy slope. Actually, there is so much to do in, around or from Swakopmund – using it as a base or springboard for exciting day trips – that the visitor is spoilt for choice.
Central Swakop is ideal for walking and exploring; for the coffee-and-cake seekers, the craft shoppers and the culture crew who will find many an interesting Namibian book at Die Muschel and Swakopmunder Buchhandlung and artwork in several art galleries dotted around the town. The Swakopmund Museum in its prime position next to the Mole’s popular swimming beach and just below the candy-striped lighthouse, is a treasure trove of interesting information and memorabilia. With a fascinating People of Namibia exhibit, gemstones, fossils, stone tools, pieces of eight, shipwreck finds and a woven vessel that once carried ship passengers to the safety of the jetty, hours can easily fly by.
For treasures of a different sort, Kristall Galerie has a collection of gigantic crystal masterpieces to dazzle the eye, including the world’s largest crystal cluster on display weighing over 14 000 kilograms, and a crystal shop. The Living Desert Snake Park on Sam Nujoma Avenue, located at the old terminus of the Otavi Railway, is worth the walk to view examples of Namibia’s venomous snakes, scorpions, a leguan that receives neck scratches and is lovingly taken outside for sunbaths, and a collection of large chameleons. Feeding takes place on Saturday mornings, and later in the week, when tummies are filled, the brave can have photographs taken with Dodo, the Southern rock python, or some of the other species. Next door is the Save the Rhino office for information on the important work the trust is doing with the desert-roaming black rhino. The aquarium on the beachfront provides you with the chance to view the southern hemisphere’s aquatic jewels.
Meet the local groups of Namibia and taste local Oshiwambo cuisine, including mopane worms, when available, and a grainy mahangu porridge, on Hata Angu’s cultural tour to Mondesa on the outskirts of the town.
Many operators depart from Swakopmund, picking up guests at their accommodation establishments, for Living Desert Tours, Dolphin/Seal trips in Walvis Bay, trips into the Namib-Naukluft Park, star-gazing desert evenings and excursions to the Moon Landscape. Further afield, the seal colony of Cape Cross can be visited and the mountain kingdom of Spitzkoppe explored (with sparkling semi-precious stones sold at the Ûiba-Ôas crystal market en- route).
Ballooning over the Namib Desert, fishing and kayaking in the Walvis Bay Lagoon are gentler activities, while adventure junkies can begin with sand-boarding and quad-biking and end off with the ultimate adventure of sky-diving. For those with two hours to spare (and weather permitting), treat yourself to a scenic flight for a view of the gods over this beautiful strip of land with its undulating sienna dunes fringing a deep blue sea.
Even if Swakop is enveloped in mist at the time of your visit, this is usually a moisture-laden curtain hanging over a pocket of the coast, while in areas a short distance inland and in Walvis Bay (although often windier), the sun often retains its supremacy. Self-drivers can take a scenic drive out to Walvis Bay Lagoon, a Ramsar Site with a profusion of coastal and wetland birds, flamingos and pelicans often visible, and to the charming Walvis Bay Waterfront, or out to the Swakop River, ten kilometres to the east.
On Saturday mornings, fresh vegetables, especially Swakop specialties – asparagus and olives – can be bought at the Shalom farm and further down the Swakop River road, Desert Hills serves scrumptious lunches and has a deli stocked with desert produce such as !nara oil, hand-pressed from the seeds of the prickly desert plant. For a longer drive out into the desert, the small oasis of Goanikontes makes a good tea-and-cake spot, and a chance to experience Namib scenery.
Cinemas, the casino and spa at the Swakopmund Hotel and Entertainment Centre and a relaxing massage at Health and Aroma in the Brauhaus Arcade, provide further entertainment and an opportunity for much-needed self-indulgence.
These are Swakopmund pleasures offered generously by this unusual town that is so often enveloped in mist, a place that fills in all the gaps you may have from a jam-packed journey through the intriguing country of Namibia. With delectable food, German cuisine such as Eisbein (pig hock), schnitzel and black forest cake, restaurants with sea views, a plethora of activities and excursions to satisfy every taste and budget – all in the neighbourhood of the Namib Desert – Swakopmund’s misty days are days to look forward to.
PS Bring a sweater!