State house with lighthouse = Clive Cowley

Oasis on a desert shore

Swakopmund is a town with an air of enchantment about it, as if the ornate buildings of the old quarter and the lush greenery of the seafront were somehow spirited away from their proper setting, only to be left without rhyme or reason in an African desert. Beyond the last row of houses the desert is devoid of vegetation except for low bushes.

On a slight rise above the seashore, the town is exposed to both the Atlantic and the Namib, a gravel plain to the north and east. It stands on the north bank of a rivercourse that is nearly always dry. A narrow belt of sand dunes, outriders of the Great Sand Sea to the south, comes to a halt on the opposite bank.

When foreign explorers first set eyes on the Swakop in 1793, desert dunes had not yet advanced so far north. A riverine forest grew right to the river mouth. In it they encountered and hunted elephant, rhinoceros, gemsbok, springbok and other wildlife.

Nowadays it is necessary to follow the rivercourse inland for some distance in order to find stands of large trees. Game animals are long gone from the valley.

Heavy surf prevented the explorers from landing anywhere near the Swakop mouth when they arrived from Walfisch Bay in a longboat. The next day a shore party trudged up the coast to the river, but still they were unable to identify a landing place. The coast is mostly open to the ocean and surf buffets its beaches without let or hindrance.

A bare plain beside a rough sea and dry river is hardly a prime position for a holiday resort. In fact the town was never meant to be a resort, but became one against all the odds. It was established as a harbour town.

Imperial Germany at the time already had a port at Lüderitzbucht in the south, but wanted another in a central location as an entrepôt for its colony. It chose the Swakop mouth for want of anything better, as the best site -- at Walfisch Bay -- already belonged to Britain. Swakopmund had its beginnings as a landing station in 1892 when the Imperial Navy erected beacons on the site. Initially cargo and passengers were rowed ashore in surfboats from steamers anchored offshore. Once a concrete Mole or breakwater had been built it became possible to use tugs and barges instead.

Unfortunately the 375m breakwater, built between 1899 and 1903, began to silt up almost immediately. Within three years, it became defunct. In order to maintain cargo services it was replaced with a wooden jetty as a temporary measure.

Work started on an iron jetty in 1912, but had to stop -- less than half done, never to be resumed -- when World War 1 broke out and South Africa took over the country. Walvis Bay was to be developed as the one and only port on the central coast.

Deprived of its port status, Swakopmund went into decline. Notwithstanding a railway line to Windhoek, built between 1897 and 1903, it mouldered in isolation for the next half a century. Its architectural character -- German colonial, late 19th century -- thus remained largely intact, at least in the inner town.

Swakopmund prospered once again after an asphalt road was built between Windhoek and the coast. A journey that formerly could take days was now completed in a matter of hours. The town was set to develop as a holiday resort.

Even the symbols of its failure as a port -- the Mole and the iron jetty -- became popular attractions for holidaymakers, along with the groves of palm trees, lush lawns and flower beds that were planted to beautify and soften the stark seashore.

The town

Damara Tower (Woermann Haus), the end of the Mole, dunes across the Swakop River.


Abenteuer Afrika Safari
P O Box 1490, Swakopmund, Namibia
tel +264-(0)64-40 4030
cell +264-(0)81 128 4030
fax +264- (0)64-46 4038
bushtrac@abenteuer afrika.com

State House
Originally the Kaiserliches Bezirksgericht (Imperial District Court), a name it bore long after the demise of German rule, it was built in 1902 and enlarged in 1905 when a clock tower was added. The wooden tower on the western side was built in 1945. The building is used as a residence for the Namibian president when government goes into summer recess. It is not open to the public. In Am Zoll Street.

Woermann House and Damara Tower = Clive CowleyWoermann House
It was built in 1905 to provide office space and living quarters for the Damara and Namaqua Trading Co, later renamed Woermann, Brock & Co, a retail company that still trades in Swakopmund and elsewhere in Namibia. The tower was incorporated as a lookout for ships at sea and ox-wagon trains from the interior. Known as the Damara Tower, it is open to the public. Woermann House accommodates a public library and art gallery. In upper Bismarck Street.

Old Railway Station It is unlikely that a station quite like the Alte Bahnhof ever existed anywhere else in the world outside Imperial Germany. Built in 1901 for the Kaiserliche Eisenbahn Verwaltung, or Imperial Railway Authority, it looks like it was meant for a fairy princess rather than a stationmaster. Alas and alack, it houses neither. The original facade, a confection in the Wilhelminische tradition, survives as part of a hotel. In Bahnhof Street.

The Kaserne
Known in all languages -- not only German -- as the Kaserne, the fort-like barracks were erected in 1906 to house the Second Railway Company, while they were constructing a harbour jetty. Paintings in the entrance hall below the main tower depict the state emblems of the countries that united in 1871 to form the German nation state. The barracks now serve as a youth hostel. In lower Bismarck Street.

Lutheran Church
A neo-baroque church with a copper-clad dome that has been the place of worship for German-speaking Lutherans in Swakopmund since 1912. In Post Street.

Haus Hohenzollern
Built as a hotel in 1906, its embellishments include a frieze of angels with a garland of flowers, a corner pediment with a lion on either side and Atlas with a globe on his shoulders. A durable story has it that it was a brothel in German times. It is now a perfectly respectable block of flats. Corner of Moltke and Brücken streets.

"Here I stand"
A steam tractor purchased in 1896 to haul freight, the Martin Luther stands outside town on the road to Windhoek. It was meant to replace ox-wagons on the transport route between the port and the interior, but constantly got stuck in the sand and consumed more water than it could carry.
The tractor is a national monument.

After it broke down in the desert, never to be repaired again, it was named after the leader of the German Reformation in an irreverent allusion to his historical declaration to the Diet of Worms in 1521, when he was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. "Here I stand," the real Martin Luther said. "God help me, I cannot do otherwise."

Archaeology, ethnology, fauna, flora, history and mineralogy.
Open daily, 10:00-13:00, 14:00-17:00.
The museum is next to the Mole.

Life on an inshore reef
The aquarium primarily depicts marine life on an inshore reef in Namibian waters. A large tank with a walk-in glass tunnel through it holds eight species of edible fish that inhabit such reefs. They are the Atlantic spotted grunter, baardman, blacktail or dassie, dusky kob or kabeljou, galjoen, silver kob, West Coast steenbras and white barbel.

They share the tank with trawl fish as well as ragged tooth and spotted gully sharks. In addition 17 smaller tanks mainly hold marine invertebrates such as rock lobsters, crabs, sea urchins, starfishes and sea anemones.

Dry displays show the birds that breed on the Namibian coast, a cross section of the South Atlantic with the life forms found at various depths, the Benguela Current System and other aspects of the marine environment.

In Strand Street. Open daily, Tuesday to Sunday, 10:00-16:00. The fish are hand-fed at 15:00. A diver goes into the tank at the same hour on Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays to feed the ragged-tooth sharks.

The Mole
In the lee of a breakwater promenade, the Mole is the best beach for sunbathing, although it is small and usually crowded. The breakwater not only shelters the sandy beach from rough surf and backwash, but from the southerly winds that blow for much of summer. The beach is a short walk from the centre of town.

A 50m indoor swimming pool, with heated water and saunas, is located at the Mole. It is open from 07:00 to 19:00 on weekdays and 10:00 to 18:00 on weekends and public holidays. The other facilities are a water slide, paddle pool, playground and mini-golf course, as well as changing rooms, showers and toilets.

Visitors are welcome to join conducted tours of the Karakulia workshop in Rakotoka Street, Swakopmund, where handcrafted Namibian carpets, rugs and wall hangings are woven from pure karakul wool. The ancient craft of carding, spinning, dyeing and weaving is demonstrated and explained.

The proprietor Jenny Carvill says: "It is always a pleasure to show the creative process and the finished products in the beautiful colours the dyer produces. There is practically no motif we cannot weave, whether it is Namibian ethnic, compositions of Namibian fauna, flora and landscapes, modern impressionistic or geometric abstract.

"Apart from our own diverse range of carpets, rugs and wall hangings, we accept orders for custom-made products, woven to personal specifications in respect of design, size and colour combination. We despatch parcels to customers anywhere in the world."

Karakulia was established in 1979. It trains its own weavers, designers, office staff and supervisors. In doing so it not only creates jobs for Namibians, but crafts beautiful and durable products for export.

P O Box 1258, Swakopmund, Namibia
tel +264-(0)64-46 1415
fax +264- (0)64-46 1041

The coast

Seal colony
The biggest seal colony on the Namibian coast, with some 270 000 Cape fur seals, lives and breeds in the Cape Cross Seal Reserve.

It was at Cape Cross in 1486 that the Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão, the first European to set foot on Namibian soil, found a landfall and erected a padrão or limestone cross at the behest of his king. Replicas of the padrão now stand near the spot. The original was sent to a museum in Germany in 1893.

Situated 120km north of Swakopmund, on route C34, a "salt" road suitable for sedan cars.
Open daily, 10:00-17:00.
Entry permits obtainable upon arrival.

Lichens grow profusely on the Namib coast. Look for them on the roadside along route C34, especially between Wlotzkasbaken and Henties Bay.

The desert

A permit is required for excursions into the Namib-Naukluft Park, but not for transit on route C28 between the coast and the interior. Gravel roads in the park are good enough for sedan cars, but a 4x4 is necessary on sandy tracks to off-road sites.

A three-hour drive off route C28, the Welwitschia Nature Drive, starts 17 km from Swakopmund. Numbered beacons indicate features of interest at points along the route. A map issued with the permit contains the relevant information.

Moon landscape
Granite mountains once stood in the place where the so-called moon landscape is situated. They were formed when two cratons, building blocks of the future African continent, collided in a primitive sea 500-460 million years ago. In time erosion levelled the mountains and later the Swakop River -- over a period of two million years -- reduced the basement of the mountain to a badland. The bare landscape with its sharp ravines and tortuous ridges is visible from beacons 4 and 6.

Dolerite dykes
Bands of black rock as old as Africa snake across the grey hills. Like all dolerite dykes in Namibia they were formed when lava from magma chambers inside the earth penetrated fissures in granite rocks higher up and solidified before it got to the surface. Eventually the granite crumbled, but the harder dolerite remained intact, exposed as a dark ridge in some places. A dolerite dyke is visible from beacon 8 and the road skirts another one at beacon 9. They are 125 million years old.

Linear oasis
The wooded banks of the ephemeral Swakop River provide respite from the desert sun at beacon 10. Trees that grow in the vicinity include the camel thorn (Acacia erioloba), wild tamarisk (Tamarix usneoides) and ana (Faidherbia albida). The alien mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) is also found here.

Some 30 bird species frequent the Swakop valley. The commonest are African redeyed bulbuls (Pycnonotus nigricans), dusky sunbirds (Nectarinia fusca), grey louries (Corythaixoides concolor), laughing doves (Streptopelia senegalensis), palewinged starlings (Onychognathus nabouroup) and redbilled francolins (Francolinus adspersus).

Welwitschia Plain
Welwitschia trees, dwarf conifers found only in the Namib and on its fringes, sprawl across the plain. Male and female plants, identifiable as such from their distinctive cones, grow together at beacon 11. The biggest welwitschia on the plain, estimated to be 1 500 years old, is fenced off for protection at beacon 12.

Tinkas Plain lies in the desert east of Swakopmund along route C28. The plain supports perennial shrubs and seasonal grasses. Small mammals such as ground squirrels (Xerus inauris), meerkats or suricates (Suricata suricatta) and banded mongooses (Mungos mungo) are relatively common. So are canids like black-backed jackals and bat-eared foxes (Otocyon megalotis). Gemsbok and springbok are sometimes seen.

Scenic sites suitable for picnics are demarcated along route C28. Bloedkoppie, a granite inselberg 110km from Swakopmund, is one of them. A trail with unusual rock formations, the Rock Sculpture Trail, is located a short distance to the east.


Tourist information
namib i, cor Sam Nujoma Avenue & Roon Street
P O Box 829, Swakopmund
Tel & fax +264 (0)64 40 4827

Swakopmund is located on the central coast of Namibia, 360km from Windhoek on tarred roads (B1and B2 via Okahandja). The gravel-surfaced route C28 over the Khomas Hochland and down the Bosua Pass into the desert is 45km shorter and scenically superior. No fuel is available on the Khomas Hochland route.

The nearest towns are Walvis Bay (35km) and Henties Bay (76km), both located along the coast on roads that are suitable for sedan cars.

Transport to Swakopmund
By air, motor coach and rail from Windhoek.
Motor-vehicles are available for hire.

Water temperatures average 16-17°C in summer and 14-15°C in winter.
The recognised beaches -- the Mole and Long Beach, 11km south of the town -- are safe for bathing. Caution needs to be exercised elsewhere. Vineta Beach is only safe at low tide and when the sea is exceptionally calm.

Inside the town limits, the popular spots for board surfing are Vineta Point and Nordstrand (known as "Thick Lip"), just north of the Mole.

The temperate climate lends itself to long walks for pleasure or exercise. Walk to the end of the Mole or breakwater; along the Arnold Schad Promenade, through a garden, from the Mole to the jetty; on the beach from the jetty to the Swakop River mouth; or in the older parts of town to view historical buildings.

The average rainfall is only 8mm per annum. It typically rains less than 10 times a year between October and March. One day out of three is likely to start with fog, but it generally lifts later in the morning. The foggiest time is from May to August.

Winds usually blow from the south and south-west with average velocities of about 22-32km/h and 11-22km/h respectively. They are generally cool. Hot winds laden with sand occasionally blow out of the desert in winter. One day out of four is calm, often just before or after an east wind.

Absolute temperatures seldom rise above 35° C. The average maximum is 20°C in mid-summer and 17°C in midwinter. The average minimum is 9°C in July.

Tourism is the major industry. Uranium ore is mined and beneficiated in the district. Salt is produced in evaporation pans just outside town.Beer is brewed. Oysters and mussels are cultured. Asparagus is grown in the Swakop valley. The estimated population is some 33 000.

Walvis Bay .....

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