Swakopmund, Namibia, is a small beach town with a funny name, a quaint and quirky character and a temperamental climate, but if you visit with an open mind you’re sure to be pleasantly surprised.
Swakop, as it’s known locally, was founded in 1892 as the main harbor for what was then German South-West Africa, as the deep sea harbor at nearby Walvis Bay belonged to the British. Today, fewer than 50,000 residents, mostly German speaking, live here, many of whom are “pensioners.” The name of the town came from the Nama word Tsoakhaub (excrement opening) describing the Swakop River’s tendency to carry items in its riverbed, including dead animals, into the Atlantic Ocean during floods. Later, the Germans chanced it to Swakopmund (German for Mouth of the Swakop).
Today, locals visit to escape the heat of the interior desert and scrubland. During school holidays, you’ll find it packed with families and vacationers and the weather might be good enough to lay on the beach and swim in the cold ocean. Other times of year, it can be as foggy and grey as an English seaside resort and you might need a sweater to keep warm on strolls along the beach.
Swakop can be reached by paved road from Windhoek, but flying in offers a great perspective on the area. Inhospitable deserts and dunes go for miles, dotted only with the occasional rock formation or abandoned mining shack. My favorite approach is flying north from Sossusvlei. Here, you see huge red dunes—the tallest in the world—give way to blinding white sand and rock which flows into the ocean, creating treacherous sand banks which have caused numerous ships to run aground. Flying along the coast provides the chance to see shipwrecks such as the Eduard Bohlen at Conception Bay, which ran aground September 5, 1909 and lies partially buried but clearly visible. On my own recent flight along the coast, I stared at the sea, looking for whales and flamingos, and imagined being on such a ship, jumping out only to realize the desert was too vast and inhospitable to survive, then sitting down to die of dehydration or starvation. But then as our Cessna 210 carried on, the docks and train lines of Walvis Bay appeared, followed by a small green oasis seemingly plucked out of Bavaria—Swakop.
The town offers numerous mom & pop craft shops, German-style bakeries, and restaurants, giving safari goers a chance to stretch their legs while they stroll the few square blocks that make up downtown. On of my travel mates had a pizza he deemed one of the best he’s ever had. There are numerous small hotels – such as the Hansa Hotel and Hotel Zum Kaiser – and guesthouses available at reasonable prices. Numerous brew houses, bars and pubs offer a friendly atmosphere to try local beers such as Windhoek and Tafel. And the people are very friendly. Arriving at the tiny airport I found myself without a transfer to my hotel in town. Upon learning of my predicament, and with no taxis awaiting, the young lady working the desk insisted upon driving me herself. She had lived in Swakop her whole life and said she would never leave.
For visitors, Swakop offers access to the cold, dark Atlantic ocean and visitors can enjoy a boat cruise, fishing, windsurfing, and swimming. Spend any time here and you’re likely to see cape fur seals and other marine life. The coastal strip offers a number of activities for adventure lovers, from quadbiking, ocean cruises, paragliding, sea kayaking, skydiving and sand boarding, Visitors can explore the Namib Desert on the back of a camel or horse. In short, it’s a great place to get a taste of what the Skeleton Coast National Park is like without having to spend the time and money to reach that remote region.
Next stop, the uber-remote Kunene region.
Photo Courtesy of Albatros