by Ron Swilling
Sitting in the spacious and gleaming reception hall of the Swakopmund Hotel and Entertainment Centre (the former Swakopmund Railway Station), I read up on the history of the railway in Namibia.
I imagine passengers moving through the large room of the first enterprise and buildings of the new desert town, Swakopmund, established in 1892.
The last hundred years swirl around me. The receptionist of the 90-room hotel tells me how she used to buy train tickets here as a child, of playing in the garden and being naughty, and of being chased away by the German caretaker.
The grand railway station building was erected in 1901. It was an important place for a large country surrounded by desert and sea.
Swakopmund was an essential harbour for bringing in supplies from Germany for the fledgeling German protectorate. However, to transport the goods inland was a daunting task, as there wasn’t sufficient water and grazing for the oxen. Under favourable conditions a trip inland could take 14–21 days on an ox wagon, often longer, the oxen needing to recover before the next trip west.
The country’s dependence on oxen, and the vulnerable transport system they provided became critical in the rinderpest outbreak in 1897 when certain areas lost 90 per cent of their animals and transportation came to a standstill.
First railway line
Initially, a railway line of only 80 kilometres was planned from Swakopmund to the interior, following the shortest route through the desert to the first area where grazing was available.
The first members of the Military Railway Brigade arrived in September 1897 to begin construction, and in 1899 the first scheduled goods-train service came into operation. The extended line to Windhoek was completed in June 1902, the first passengers reaching the town in time for the agricultural show.
The railway authorities informed the passengers that they would have to undertake the last section of the maiden voyage from Okahandja at their own risk.
The impact of the railway was enormous, with settlements springing up along the line to be close to the transport system. A telegraph line, essential for railway operations, was established, improving communication between settlements. The railway became the main artery of South West Africa.
A hundred years later TransNamib built a new Swakopmund railway station at a different location, making the former railway house property available for development as a hotel complex to promote tourism in Namibia. The restored building opened in 1994, as the Swakopmund Hotel and Entertainment Centre.
Birth of the Hansa
A long history may also be felt in the deep sleep and dreams of those guests staying in the luxurious Hansa Hotel, which also has a hundred-year-old history. In 1905, the master hairdresser, Paul Miersch, moved his business to a new double-storey building.
The double-storey had so many rooms that Paul rented some of them out to travellers, and the Hansa Hotel was born. The history of the hotel is obscure until 1954 when the Rummel couple renovated and expanded the building, initiating the high standards of which the Hansa is still proud today.
Swakopmund’s history is evident throughout the town with its old German architecture. The mole, a tidal breakwater, and the jetty jutting out into the sea are evidence of the labour that went into creating a working harbour in the wild Atlantic Ocean.
It’s not too difficult to imagine life a hundred years ago, as people struggled with establishing a small town in the desert on a desolate coastline. But with perseverance, a town grows, and history is created as the stories of people’s lives unfold. Politics and wars are resolved, and generations pass, the buildings often remaining long after their creators, their stories built into the mortar and character of the various establishments, restored and renovated by people with new vision.
They each hold their own story, with all the trials and tribulations, successes and celebrations that are an intrinsic part of human life.
This article appeared in the Feb/March ‘08 edition of Travel News Namibia.