Swakopmund is a pleasant, modern town...
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Swakopmund & Walvis BayNamibia's two main coastal towns lie barely 30km from one another, and yet are very different indeed. They have remarkably different histories, and are very diverse in feeling. Swakopmund generally makes a more interesting place to stay, with a much better choice of restaurants, hotels and guest houses, whilst Walvis Bay is the springboard for several super desert trips. Holidays to Namibia usually include a visit to this part of the coast.
SwakopmundConsidered by most Namibians to be the country’s only real holiday resort, this old German town spreads from the mouth of the Swakop River out into the surrounding desert plain. Climatically more temperate than the interior, the palm-lined streets, immaculate old buildings and well-kept gardens give Swakop (as the locals call it) a unique atmosphere, and make it a pleasant oasis in which to spend a few days.
Unlike much of Namibia, Swakopmund is used to tourists, and has a wide choice of places to stay and eat, and many things to do. The town has also established a name for itself as a centre for adventure travel, and attracting adventurous visitors seeking ‘adrenalin’ trips, with numerous new and highly original options, from free-fall parachuting to dune-bike riding and sandboarding. This is still too small to change the town’s character, but is enough to ensure that you’ll never be bored. On the other hand, visit on a Monday during one of the quieter months, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the town had partially closed down!
What to do in SwakopmundSwakopmund may be Namibia’s main seaside ‘resort’, but it isn’t really commercial by Western standards. We regard it as a convenient stop for a few days, with plenty of good hotels, great seafood, many historic buildings and a relaxed atmosphere. Among the shops you’ll find a fascinating museum of crystals and Africa’s best source of African artefacts and antique books.
The MoleIf the sun is out The Mole area is generally the place to gather. This was to be a harbour wall when first built, but the ocean currents continually shifted the sandbanks and effectively blocked the harbour before it was finished. The result is a protected area offering a good beach and some relatively safe swimming, although the water can be chilly. There is also a children’s playground, paddling pool and an indoor pool in the beachfront area. There are popular restaurants and cafes nearby.
Museums, galleries and libraries
Swakopmund MuseumSituated in the old customs building, next to the municipal swimming pool, the main Swakopmund Museum was founded by Dr Alfons Weber in 1951. It now has exhibits on life in the Namib Desert and the South Atlantic, huge collections of insects and birds’ eggs, an excellent section on rocks and minerals, and lots of information on the colonial German history in the region. There’s also a recreation of what old doctors’ and dentists’ surgeries must have been like.
Sam Cohen LibraryNext to the Transport Museum, the impressive collection of Africana books at the Sam Cohen Library contains about 10,000 volumes, encompassing most of the literature on Swakopmund, and a huge archive of newspapers from 1898 to the present day (some in German, some in English). There’s also a collection of old photographs and maps.
Living Desert Snake ParkThe Snake Park boasts more than 25 types of Namibian snakes, lizards, chameleons, scorpions and other creatures, which is enough to satisfy even the most inquisitive child – or adult. The animals are kept under glass in two small rooms, where snake feeding takes place on Saturdays from 10.00 to 12.30. Outside, a small but pleasant garden incorporate plants from the Namib.
Kristall GalerieThe Kristall Galerie, housed in an ultra-modern building, claims to be the largest-known crystal cluster in the world, estimated to be around 520 million years old. Displays include a scratch pit where visitors can search for semi-precious stones, a replica of the original Otjua tourmaline mine, and a craft area. There’s a shop, of course, with semi-precious stones available in many guises, and a café area with videos about crystals. It’s well worth a visit by anyone fascinated by geology.
Adventure SportsSwakopmund has become a hub for adventure sports which include sky-diving, dune-boarding and quad-biking. So if you need some adrenaline in your holiday this is a good place to head to.
Walvis BayWalvis Bay (meaning ‘whale bay’) seems larger and more spaced out than Swakopmund, though also quieter and slightly lacking in character. Perhaps Afrikaans was the dominant influence here, whereas German was clearly the driving force in shaping Swakopmund’s architecture and style.
Although a small-town feel still prevails, Walvis Bay has changed fast in recent years, reflecting the town’s expanding population and its increasing popularity with visitors keen to stay near the lagoon. Alongside lots of new development, both industrial and commercial, several new hotels, restaurants and bed and breakfasts have sprung up.
What to see and do in Walvis BayMost of the town’s activities centre around the lagoon. There are some superb birdwatching opportunities both here and in the surrounding area, and a couple of highly recommended kayak trips in the lagoon and out to Pelican Point. Boat trips from the yacht club take visitors out to see dolphins in the lagoon and beyond. Alternatively, if you have a 4x4 you can also drive out towards Pelican Point around the lagoon, past the saltworks: a desolate track lined with salt ponds that have been reclaimed from the sea, inhabited only by seabirds and just the occasional brown hyena.
Boat tripsA few companies run excellent boat trips from the harbour around the lagoon and out to Pelican Point and Bird Island, with catamaran trips an additional option. Trips usually start from the yacht club at around 08.30, and vary from short cruises in the lagoon to longer cruises round the harbour and out to Pelican Point, or birdwatching trips further out to sea. Many operators include elaborate snacks that may include oysters or a seafood platter, with sparkling wine.
In October and November, whales frequent these waters, with possible sightings of humpback, southern right, Minke and even killer whales, while from then until April there is the chance of seeing the leatherback turtle. Dolphins – both the bottlenose and the endemic Benguela (heavysides) – are present all year round, as are Cape fur seals, which may often cavort around the boats.
Kayaking in Walvis BayKayaking is a superb way to get close to birdlife and marine mammals. You might expect a muscle-bound, juvenile guide, but instead you will be guided by the delightful Jeanne Meintjes – a relaxed, mature local woman whose hobby is now a small business. Jeanne’s trips run in the early morning, when the water is flat. No kayaking experience is necessary, and you don’t need to be athletic: just meet Jeanne in Walvis Bay, and she will supply all the equipment: warm jackets, waterproof shoes and dry bags for cameras. Participants have a choice between a single or double kayak.
Trips start with a 4WD drive through working saltpans to launch the kayaks beside the seal colony, at Pelican Point. The kayaking is usually gentle, lasting two to three hours before you pause on the beach for sandwiches and a drink. On the water, inquisitive seals often come close, playing and splashing around, whilst further out you’ve a chance of spotting dolphins and whales. This is a blissful way to spend a morning.
Around the towns
ActivitiesSwakopmund has become a lively centre for adventure-sports, attracting those in search of action and extra adrenalin. It is already a stop on the route of the overland companies, which supply a constant flow of people in search of thrills.
Action in the dunes
New activities in the dunes are constantly being dreamed up to add to the existing range,and others dropped as they prove less of a draw. Some, such as quadbiking, skydiving and sandboarding, may be combined in one trip. Current options include:
SandboardingTypically, trips leave from Swakopmund in the morning, collecting you from your accommodation. Participants are supplied with a large flat piece of masonite/hardboard, plus safety hats, elbow guards and gloves. The idea is to push off the top of a dune, and lie on the board as it slides down. Speeds easily reach 70km/h or more, though first you’ll do a few training rides on lower dunes, where you won’t go much faster than 40km/h. Finally, they take you to a couple of the larger dunes, for longer, faster runs, before lunch in the desert, and the return drive to Swakopmund. As a spin-off from sandboarding, offered by local operators, stand-up boarding, also known as dune-boarding, uses a modified snowboard. Participants stand on a small surfboard, which shoots down the side of dunes – rather like skiing, only on sand. It may have more finesse, and certainly requires more skill.
Quad-bikingRiding four-wheel motorcycles through the dunes is organised by a number of companies. Manual, semi-automatic and automatic bikes are available, with helmets, goggles and gloves provided.
Action in the air
With clear air and a starkly beautiful coastline, Swakopmund is a natural space to learn to fly or even skydive; tandem skydives for novices are available. After a basic safety chat and a scenic flight over Swakopmund and the surrounding area, you are strapped to an experienced instructor to throw yourselves out of a plane at 10,000ft. Your free-fall lasts for about half a minute before, hopefully, your parachute opens and there’s a further five-minute ‘canopy ride’ before landing. There is no age limit, but for safety reasons, participants are limited to those who are physically large enough to fit the equipment . For a further adrenalin rush you can take an aerobatic flight and experience loops, rolls and the classic Cuban 8 manoeuvre. The two-seater Chinese-built CJ6 aircraft has a sliding canopy for that 'wind-in-your-hair' feeling and there is an intercom for communication with the pilot, who will warn you before each manoeuvre. Should you become faint hearted part way through, the pilot will stop the death-defying plunges and take you on a sedate scenic flight instead. For a more leisurely aerial experience, try a champagne breakfast balloon flight over the desert. The breathtakingly early 05.00 pick-up time is offset by flights over areas such as Rössing Mountain and the ocean dunes. The more intrepid can try their hand at the 1,100m flying fox at Rössing Mountain, a trip which includes a 4x4 journey to the top through spectacular mountain scenery. Booking is essential; you cannot just turn up.
Scenic flights can be organised through a number of operators, as well as trips up to the Skeleton Coast. Prices fluctuate in line with exchange rates, because the cost of fuel is linked to the US dollar. It’s worth booking in advance, since that gives companies the chance to fill flights, thus keeping the costs down to a level similar to those quoted here.
Action at sea
FishingLong popular all along this coastline with South African visitors, fishing is good all year round, although the best times are October to April. The turn of the year is particularly busy, with anglers arriving in search of big-game fish such as copper sharks and other similar species, which can weigh as much as 180kg. Other species that may be caught include kabeljou, steenbras, barber, galjoen and garrick.
The area is good for crayfish, too, though the catch is limited to a maximum of seven per person, or 14 per vehicle. Permits are required for all types of fishing. Several local tour operators specialise in fishing, either from the beach or by boat, but watch out for operators who may be less environmentally aware.
WatersportsWalvis Bay is the place to head for to try out watersports that include kitesurfing and windsurfing. Tuition is mainly one-to-one, and is tailored to the individual client - and the weather.
Exploring the coastMost visitors come to Namibia for its wild areas, not its towns, but both Swakopmund and Walvis Bay make ideal bases from which to explore little-visited parts of this coastal desert. You can drive yourself to some, but to access the best and to really learn about them, spend a day with an expert guide. Several operators run tours of the towns, as well as speciality excursions, focusing for example on gems, or up the coast to the seal colony at Cape Cross. There’s also one company taking visitors into the townships.
Swakopmund is home to some of Namibia’s best guides who have a wealth of in-depth knowledge on the area’s flora, fauna and geology. Join a small group, typically no more than eight people, to explore by 4WD and on foot – on trips that can bring Namibia’s coastal desert alive for you.
The Sandwich Harbour trip is by far the most popular, and includes historic sites in the Kuiseb Delta, bird-rich lagoons at Walvis Bay and Sandwich Harbour (tide permitting), and some of the desert’s more unusual flora and fauna.
The Welwitschia Drive is a route through the desert with numbered beacons at points of interest, culminating in one of the country’s oldest welwitschia plants. Part of the drive is the ‘moon landscape’, or ‘moonscape’ – a rolling, barren area of rocky desert formed by the valleys around the course of the Swakop River. It’s a spectacular sight, often spoken of, and best viewed by the slanting light of mid morning or late afternoon.
The Namib trip explores the Swakop and Khan River valleys, including some historical sites from World War I, considerable desert wildlife and the Moon Landscape – with Welwitchia plants.
Both trips start at about 8.30am at your hotel, and end around 5pm; a delicious lunch is included, usually served at a magnificent spot in the desert. Private trips, tailored to guests’ interests, are easily arranged.
Birdwatching and other wildlife
There is some excellent birdlife in the vicinity, starting on the southwest side of Walvis Bay, around the lagoon. The flock of feeding flamingos and pelicans that can often be found there usually allows one to get much closer than to others seen in the area. Birdwatchers might also want to stop at one of the guano platforms in the sea between Walvis and Swakopmund.
Bird sanctuary Just outside Walvis Bay there is a series of freshwater pools, albeit often close to dried up. Sit here with binoculars for a few minutes and you’ll often be able to spot some of the pelicans, flamingos, avocets and other assorted waders that attract birdwatchers to Walvis Bay. Enthusiasts may wish to check what’s here as well as scanning the main lagoon itself.
Swakop River Delta Here small tidal lagoons surrounded by reeds are very good for birding. Expect whimbrels, curlews, the odd flamingo and pelican, white-breasted cormorants, Cape cormorants, black-winged stilts, avocets, and more.
The remains of the old railway bridge lie here, washed down in 1934 when the Swakop River performed its flood-of-the-century stunt. On the pillars there are often crowned and bank cormorants, while along the riverbed, between the tamarisk trees, kestrels swoop around catching mice.
The local Wildlife Society has laid out a pleasant 4km trail starting next to the cemetery. This takes you downstream into the river mouth, and back to the beach. Walkers should beware of quad-bikes that move pretty fast through this area.
Kuiseb DeltaThis fascinating area is criss-crossed by a labyrinth of tracks in which even experienced guides sometimes get lost. Various unmarked archaeological sites dot the area, where pottery shards, beads, shell middens and stone tools can be seen. The wildlife found here includes springbok, ostrich, jackal and brown hyena, and many birds including the endemic dune lark.
Look out for the nara bushes, Acanthosicyos horrida – their spiky green (and hence photosynthesising) stems have allowed them to dispense with leaves completely. This is an advantage given the propensity of leaves to lose water. Naras are perhaps not truly desert plants for their roots go down many metres to reach underground water, which they need in order to survive. From February to April and August to September the local Topnaar people harvest nara melons here.
Sandwich Harbour This small area about 45km south of Walvis Bay contains a large saltwater lagoon, extensive tidal mudflats, and a band of reed-lined pools fed by freshwater springs – which together form one of the most important refuges for birdlife in southern Africa. Typically you’ll find about 30 species of birds at Sandwich at any given time. It offers food and shelter to countless thousands of migrants every year and some of the most spectacular scenery in the country – for those visitors lucky enough to see it. Where else can you walk alone along a pelican-covered beach while pink flamingos glide above the sand dunes?