Swakopmund, Namibia

I had enough time before my flight back to Cape Town to squeeze in a two-night trip to Swakopmund, a peculiar little city near the southern end of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.  “It’s more German than Germany,” I kept hearing – a trippy Teutonic outpost in the African desert.  Swakopmund is also touted as Namibia’s most popular holiday destination, although, to be fair, there’s not much competition for that title.

Giacomo, the 16-year-old Italian exchange student who’d been on my Etosha and Sossusvlei tour, had told me that he and a school friend might be going to Swakopmund too, and sure enough – when the public bus pulled up the two of them were already on board.  The distance from Windhoek to Swakopmund, only about 160 miles, could have easily been covered in three hours, but with delays and stops the bus took twice that long.

The scenery along the way reminded me of Nevada.  The closer we got to Swakopmund, the more it looked like the type of land a country would use as ground zero for nuclear weapons tests.  By then I’d seen enough of Namibia to understand why Europe’s colonial powers initially ignored it.  In Diamonds, Gold, and War, a history of South Africa from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, Martin Meredith writes that in 1884 the British government characterized Namibia (called south-west Africa at the time) as, “A barren and worthless enclave ‘a long way from everywhere.’”

I said a quick goodbye to Giacomo at the Swakopmund bus stop, assuming that in such a small city I’d see him again, but our paths never crossed.  I spent the afternoon just looking around.  The German influence was every bit as pervasive as I’d been told – the architecture, the food, the people, the language.  I heard more German being spoken than Afrikaans or English.


Scenes from Swakopmund


Like a DJ mashing up multiple songs into something new and different, Swakopmund blended German, Namibian, and South African culture into its own unique identity.  And I found it slightly disturbing.  Something felt a little off.  The disproportionately wide streets gave even the central downtown area a ghost-town atmosphere, especially in the evening, when there were more seagulls than people.  The faces of the locals looked subdued and preoccupied.  People smiled with their mouths but not their eyes.  It wasn’t much of a stretch to channel Stephen King and imagine that the entire population was collectively engaged in some kind of mysterious, sinister business.

For me sand dunes were Swakopmund’s biggest attraction.  A large dune field began just south of the city.  Low clouds made the light bad for photography that first afternoon, but I scouted some locations and planned to be perched on top of a dune, camera in hand, when the sun rose the next morning.

I woke at 5:30am to the sound of rain.  With a flat gray sky there was no point in taking photographs, so I went back to sleep.  Not until mid-day did the clouds partially clear.  The sun broke through intermittently as I hiked out to the dunes, and for a few hours I had interesting light.


Swakopmund Dunescape


Dunefield and Clouds


Selective Light on Swakopmund Dunes


Swakopmund Skyline from the Dunes


Swakopmund Dune Pattern


Many of the dunes were covered with quad bike tracks.  Thankfully a large area had been set aside as a protected breeding ground for the endangered Damara tern, and the sand there was pristine.  In some places the fence marking the off-limits area completely vanished into the side of a dune.


Fence Around the Dunes


Sand Dunes Near Swakopmund


Dune Fence


Swakopmund Dunes


Swakopmund Dune Fence


On the way back to town I passed a small lagoon where a single flamingo stood preening itself fastidiously.  One of the flamingo’s wings appeared to be badly injured, which, I assumed, prevented it from following the rest of the flock.  The flamingo seemed lonely and out of place, much like Swakopmund itself.


Flamingo in Swakopmund Lagoon


At my hotel I met a Namibian who was visiting from Windhoek.  He said that when he was in high school he went to the dunes on a skills-building field trip.  He and his classmates were dropped off on one side of the dune field and had to navigate themselves over the sand until they found the spot where their camping equipment had been buried.  Once they’d located and dug up their gear they cooked dinner over a fire and slept in tents by the beach.

“How cool is that?” I said.  “You must have had a great time.”

He frowned.  “Actually it was quite miserable.  I hated it.”  To each his own.

Early the next morning I took a shuttle back to Windhoek.  Driving through the desert it started to sink in that not only was I about to leave Namibia, a place I’d truly enjoyed, but I’d soon be leaving Africa. It seemed like a long time ago that I’d landed in Nairobi, and I felt extraordinarily fortunate to have had so many memorable experiences since arriving on the continent.  But I’d hardly even scratched Africa’s surface.  There was so much more I wanted to see.  As with most of the places I’ve visited on this trip, I hadn’t even left yet and I was already wondering when I could return.

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