Endangered bird species in NamibiaDecember 28, 2016
Back to the futureDecember 30, 2016
Text and photographs Ron Swilling
BETWEEN DESERT AND SEA LIES ONE OF THE MOST UNUSUAL AND FASCINATING TOWNS SOUTH OF THE EQUATOR…
The town of Swakopmund is beyond time, as if it has slipped in between the centuries like a joker in a pack of cards. With its old German flavour and extreme desert location, it is a charming anomaly. Yet its incongruence is its attraction. With a dash of old-fashioned flavour and a sprinkle of Africa, it remains an out-of-the ordinary destination and a prime spot for respite from the road.
W hat do you do in Swakop (as the locals call it) if you have the good fortune of spending three days there? Well, after visiting regularly over the years, I’d say REST – that juicy and often elusive R&R (rest and relaxation), especially for the first day or two. After long days of travelling, it’s always a pleasure to park your dusty vehicle and walk. And Swakop is the place to do just that. Pedestrian-friendly, the town’s centre is an easy and interesting place to explore. With a bevy of coffee and curio shops, bakeries, book shops and restaurants, it’s a place to stretch legs and inhale some of the fresh, cool sea air so generously on offer.
WHIZZING ALONG THE TRANS-KALAHARI HIGHWAY
The excitement already starts to build up on the road from the interior when your heart starts beating a bit faster as you pass the Spitzkoppe massif and crystal market near Usakos, and then watch in amazement as the landscape quickly transforms into the Namib Desert. The vehicle seems to swallow the last hundred kilometres in a big gulp, as if an enormous magnet is drawing you to the coast, turning geography on its head. Twenty kilometres from the town, as you spot the emerald vegetation of the ephemeral Swakop River snaking to the sea – accentuated against the tawny colours of the desert – and see the inevitable layer of mist hanging heavily on the horizon, you have the comforting sensation of a traveller returning home.
LOCAL DELICACIES & TRADITIONS
Swakop is a town that grows on you and calls you back again and again. First thing to do in the morning, in true Swakopmund fashion, is to pop into the Backerei and Konditorei Przybylski on Daniël Tjongarero Street for brötchen/bread rolls straight out of the oven. One of the few bakeries to open its doors at 6 a.m., it buzzes non-stop until 11 with people queuing for coffee, brötchen (made with various fillings including schnitzel, and toppings like Rohhack – a German delicacy of raw minced beef fillet – and egg mayonnaise). Another indulgence (for later in the day), which has become a Swakopmunder tradition over the years, is black forest cake from Café Anton, an old haunt, fondly remembered by residents since childhood days. Culinary delights of more recent origin include ice cream from Ice & Spice and the homemade variety from Cordes & Co. Coffee Shop. The Swakopmund Brewing Company in the Strand Hotel is a new and modern meeting place, where craft beer is brewed on site and a short tour with tasting is offered. Sipping beer (brewed according to the old Reinheitsgebot) on a cold day next to a blazing fire, is a pastime that could very well become another Swakop tradition.
- A walk up the Woermann Tower for the best view of Swakopmund (key available from African Desk)
- Strolling on the jetty …
- Fresh Swakop River greens sold outside Photo Behrens, Tobias Hainyeko Street, on Tuesday & Thursday morning
FISH, FLOTSAM & CRYSTAL CAVES
Some other traditions, which are slowly becoming ingrained, include a visit to the small aquarium, where the surprise of finding sharks swimming overhead is nearly as much fun as watching the children’s expressions of wonder. Old favourites are the Kristall Galerie, home to the largest crystal cluster (on display) in the world, and a visit to the Swakopmund museum. It is difficult not to spend hours in its grasp, enraptured by the People of Namibia exhibition, the flotsam and jetsam from the many ships wrecked along the treacherous coastline and the fascinating titbits of history. It gives a better understanding of the early days of the town when passengers had to be lifted from their boats onto the jetty in a wicker basket. With the only deep-water harbour in the country claimed by the British in Walvis Bay, the German settlers of the late 19th century had little option but to make do with what they had. They first built the Mole, a tidal breakwater, that was used for two years until a sand bank developed causing them to construct a wooden jetty.
THE GRAND DAMES OF SWAKOPMUND
The wide Swakopmund streets, the surprising use of historical names like Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm, and several grand old buildings from the turn of the 20th century are testament to the European influence. Haus Hohenzollern is the most impressive and decorative with corner pediments of lions and Atlas struggling with the weight of the world. Once an illustrious hotel, it is said to have been closed due to excessive gambling – and prostitution! Other fine buildings of the time include the Old Fort (now a youth hostel), Hotel Prinzessin Rupprecht (once a military hospital), Woermannhaus (the former headquarters of the Damara and Namaqua Trading Company) and the Swakopmund Hotel (once the stately old railway station).
PERSEVERANCE & TENACITY
It is astonishing to imagine the tenacity of the first 40 intrepid settlers, and 120 Schutztruppe (German colonial soldiers), who landed on the bleak and barren shore in 1892. The riches of the desert and sea soon became apparent: salt, guano (bird droppings, highly prized in Europe as a fertiliser) and seal pelts. The settlers arrived with the idea of creating a harbour for the fledgling German protectorate and to create a route inland to transport goods. With a crashing ocean and a limited water supply this was a feat that would take utmost perseverance and stamina. At first oxen were used for the arduous journey into the interior, a journey that took 14 to 21 days. Transportation came to a standstill when countless cattle died in the rinderpest outbreak in 1897. The railway line built in 1902 provided the solution, enabling the town to finally spread its wings.
SIP ON A GOOD CUP OF COFFEE AT:
- Village Café
- Cordes & Co, Coffee & Food
- Café Anton
- Slowtown Coffee Roasters
SAVOUR SUPPER AT:
- The Tug
- Jetty 1905
- Secret Garden (for pizza & pasta)
- The Brauhaus (for German fare)
- Ocean Cellar
- Brewer & Butcher
- Farmhouse Deli
- Garnish (for Indian cuisine)
- Platform One
CRUISING AROUND …
Back to the present. When you do feel like taking a leisurely drive, two short and easy routes have become firm favourites. The 30 km drive southwards to Walvis Bay between desert dunes and icy sea is always awe-inspiring no matter how many times you have done it. It combines pleasantly with a stop for lunch at the small Walvis Bay waterfront behind the yacht club and a drive out past the lagoon to the salt works where flamingos gather in their hundreds in the drier times of the year. Return inland behind the range of dunes, marked by the popular Dune 7.
The next is a drive to the moon landscape and Goanikontes, via the C28 to the Namib Naukluft Park, on the outskirts of the town. Goanikontes, a small oasis in the desert, is the original farm that supplied the town with fresh vegetables more than a century ago. This easy drive, suitable for all vehicles, offers superb desert scenery with a chance to enter the earthy moonscape as you dip down into the valley to reach Goanikontes, breaking the trip for a bite to eat.
An extra weekend special: if you happen to find yourself in town on Saturday morning, the Shalom Farm along the Swakop River is a great place for a cup of coffee and a snack, and to purchase fresh Swakop greens, including asparagus that thrives on the salty underground water.
SPOILT FOR CHOICE
And, what about activities? Swakop is the adventure hub of Namibia after all! Keep day 3 free. The choice is endless and if you have always dreamt of paragliding, this is your opportunity. Top of my list: paddling among the seals in the Walvis Bay lagoon, a boat trip, a living desert tour and a day trip to Sandwich Harbour.
Make supper reservations before you head out. If time and weather allow, leave space at the end of the day. Stroll along the jetty to where the waves roll in and where you have the best view of the sun setting into the sea, often accompanied by a flock of flamingos flying elegantly past.
This is Swakop at its best and time well spent, before you continue exploring the extraordinary country of Namibia.
This article was first published in the Travel News Namibia Summer 16/17 issue.