BETWEEN Windhoek and Swakopmund
Text and photographs Ron Swilling
Text and photographs Ron Swilling
Carvings from the Kavango and further afield fill the stalls at Okahandja Woodcarvers Market
The quintessential Namibian gift: a keyring carved from the heart of the makalani fruit
A display of mokoro lines the roadside at the woodcarvers market in Okahandja
T he journey from Windhoek to Swakopmund is an exciting road trip. Besides having a choice of places to stop at for a break, without too much mileage in between, it’s a mind-boggling route for its remarkable changes in scenery. From the hilly, tree-filled expanse of Windhoek, it transforms entirely as it takes you into the Namib Desert. Intriguing? Absolutely. Enjoyable? For sure. Stops? Many.
Your first stop to the north, across the Swakop River, is Okahandja, just 70 km from the mother city. Veer to the right at the first turn-off to the town. There is a choice of pit-stops here, depending on your taste and available time. Fill up with fuel, buy some biltong at the Savannah Biltong Shop and enjoy a cup of coffee and a light meal in Brewed Awakenings’ sunny courtyard. German favourites like schnitzel and bratwurst are served, as well as a selection of toasted tramezzinis. Okahandja is a well-known stop for its roadside woodcarvers’ market. Craftsmen, mostly from the Kavango region (an area known for its fine woodwork), have set up shop under the camelthorn trees, selling their handcrafted items. Among the many wooden giraffes, masks and bowls you’ll find an assortment of southern African goods. Take a stroll through the stalls and feel the spirit of Africa.
Okahandja is one of the places where you are likely to be approached by makalani carvers. Makalani palm trees are abundant in the northern reaches of the country and provide rural people with many gifts. The fronds are woven into baskets and the trees produce a hard fruit. While the thin outer layer is eaten, the large kernel – referred to as vegetable ivory – is carved into keyring pendants, usually etched with animal motifs. Most carvers offer to whittle your name onto the makalani nut while you wait. Makalanis are the quintessential Namibian craft and are small enough to fit easily into your baggage – the perfect gift for family and friends.
Culinary treats larger than life: the giant mushrooms or ‘omajowa’ sprout enthusiastically from the base of termite hills in the rainy season
Make a stop at the Uiba-Oas Crystal Market for a glittering choice of Namibian gems
Visit renowned artist Anita Steyn at her gallery in Karibib for a fine selection of ceramics and evocative drawings of Namibian landscapes
From Okahandja, the B2 – the Trans-Kalahari Highway – leads westwards to Swakopmund and the coast. Along this 290 km stretch, make a turn at Wilhemstal farm stall for padstal fare: jams, preserves, chutneys, juicy Swakop olives and olive oil, biltong, droëwors and homemade health bread. The farm stall offers breakfast, coffee, sandwiches and their speciality, apfelstreusel – apple crumble!
After the rains at the beginning of the year, this is the area to purchase omajowas, the gargantuan mushrooms which sprout like small umbrellas from the base of termite mounds. Omajowa sellers stand alongside the road around Wilhelmstal, proffering their strange fungal ware.
Karibib, charcterised by mountains and hills speckled with trees, is the site of a marble mine. It is also the place to find Anita Steyn’s Art Gallery on the main road. A talented watercolour painter, Anita is also a multimedia and ceramics maestro and sells creatively decorated and uniquely designed tiles, soap dishes and ceramic wash basins. Make some space in your car for some true Namibian art.
The small town of Usakos follows shortly afterwards. A popular stop on the far side of town is Namib Oasis Farmstall and Deli. Looking around the shop at their jars of preserves, plaasbrood (farm bread) and pies, I asked the shop-assistant what people like to purchase most. Instantly she replied: “Biltong!” It is also the perfect place to buy toasted sandwiches for the road or enjoy a leisurely lunch in the recently-extended outdoor area.
Keep your eyes peeled. Twenty kilometres after Usakos you will begin to spot the Spitzkoppe Massif, the fairy-tale granite enclave that looks as if it has just materialised from a Tolkien novel. If you have time to explore, it’s a 30 km drive on the gravel. It’s also a good overnight stop if you appreciate a rustic campsite, giant granite boulders that turn gold in the late afternoon sunshine and a twinkling star-studded sky.
The turnoff towards Spitzkoppe and Henties Bay is the site of the Ûiba-Ôas Crystal Market. The Damara words mean ‘Looking for the Life’ or ‘Seeking a livelihood’. Here, a glittering assortment of stones from Spitzkoppe, Brandberg and the Erongo mountains are for sale. The market provides a livelihood for many of the area’s inhabitants, who also appreciate any extra food supplies from passing travellers. Don’t miss this excellent selection of Namibian stones, displayed against the backdrop of Spitzkoppe.
Spitzkoppe is a magnificent sight to behold during the summer rains. Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk
From Usakos the landscape and vegetation begin to change dramatically. The trees become smaller until only small resilient shrubs dot the arid landscape, and then even the shrubs become sparse. Soon, it is a landscape of sand. Welcome to the Namib Desert!
The turn-off to Goanikontes appears 40 km before Swakopmund for those who want to veer off for tea and cake in the desert oasis, one of the early farmsteads established along the Swakop River. It’s an 18 km drive to Goanikontes from the B2, with the option to continue to the coast on the D1991 and C28 via the moon landscape.
Twenty kilometres before you reach the desert town, you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of this unearthly moon landscape in the distance on your left-hand side. What is most visible, however, is the verdant vein of trees that follows an underground watercourse, running like a bright emerald ribbon through the desert to the coast. This is the ephemeral Swakop River, where produce like olives and asparagus thrive on the brackish river water. If you happen to be driving past on a Saturday morning, then it’s worth turning onto the Swakop River Road, ten kilometres from the town, to purchase some greens at Shalom Farm and to visit some of the other markets along this road that are popping up like flowers in the springtime. If it’s a bit later in the day, Desert Hills, further along the Swakop River road, offers a Saturday lunch in the desert and a range of !nara products from their deli.
Looking ahead to the horizon, you will (more often than not) notice a huge bank of cloud above the sea, shrouding the town in a heavy cloak of mist. You might also find yourself hastily closing the windows to keep the chilly air out of the car. You have reached the auspicious place where the Namib Desert meets the icy Atlantic in a celebration of desert and sea.
So, don a jersey and set off to explore one of the most unusual towns to be found along the southern African coast.
Jewels from the earth: intersection of B2 and D1918 to Spitzkoppe/ Henties Bay!
This article was first published in the 2015/ 2016 issue of Travel News Namibia