Namibia: Windhoek & Swakopmund
13th July - 29th July 2002
Now I had returned to the capital city I had one important job to do before I went anywhere else; I had to book a one-way flight back home to London. I had almost come to the end of the road for this trip, time and money had run out and my mind had begun to seriously think about plans back home. The thought of returning home to Dorset excited me, I had missed the place over the past six months. In addition, the thought of leaving this life on the road behind, that I had become so used to, saddened me. Going home would really be a mix of emotions. By the time I had returned from my desert safari on Friday it was too late in the afternoon to start wandering about the airline offices and travel agents down town. I asked around at the Cardboard Box for advice about flights to Europe. I was given the phone number of an agent in Johannesburg. A German girl I was chatting with recommended Post Street Mall, downtown, where there were a number of travel agencies, which would probably provide a cheaper deal than the airline offices.
On Saturday morning I made an early start and walked downtown, on a mission to find a flight home. I really didn't expect to find any bargains, but as I could not get hold of the company in Johannesburg, I thought it would make a good start. I walked into the first travel agent I found in Post Street Mall and sat down at the desk. Ten minutes later I was booked on a British Airways flight on the 29th July flying back to London via Johannesburg; total cost of the flight was GB£276. I walked back out onto the street and returned to the Cardboard Box, clutching my ticket the whole way, a tear in the corner of my eye at the thought that this trip would now definitely end in nine days time. Back at the Box I drew up plans for my final few days in Africa. I would spend this weekend in Windhoek and explore the city; something that I had not had the chance to do yet, even though this was my second time in the city. On Sunday night I would take the overnight train to Swakopmund on the coast and spend the week there relaxing before returning to Windhoek in time to catch my flight.
Windhoek is in the geographical centre of the country and is a major road and rail crossroads. The city sits high on the Central Plateau at an altitude of 1,660m surrounded by low rocky hills. This gives the city a pleasant climate for it's diverse population of 160,000 made up of many different tribes as well as Europeans. The city has only been in existence for just over a century. During the German colonial period it served as the capital of German South-West Africa. This only lasted for about ten years until the outbreak of the First World War when the German colony surrendered to South African forces fighting on the side of the allies. Despite the passage of time the city still maintains a German flavour with many historic buildings and churches from the colonial period around the city. Even the modern buildings have been built in a hybrid neo-Bavarian style, drawing inspiration from the German colonial architecture.
I decided to take myself on a walking tour of the city, to orientate myself and to see some of the sites. I scribbled down directions of a walking tour on my map of the city from another guidebook and set off. The main commercial street is Independence Avenue, which runs north to south through the centre of the city. Off this avenue, to the west, is Post Street Mall, the commercial heart of the city. This pedestrian street is packed with shops, where you can buy almost anything. Outside, street vendors selling souvenirs and curios to tourists, had set up their stalls, or carefully laid out their goods on the pavement. About half way along the street is an interesting display of thirty-three meteorites from the Gibeon meteor shower, which dropped about 21 tonnes of material around Gibeon in the south of the country. The meteors had been mounted on steel poles giving the impression that they were still hurtling through space. These alien boulders are made of mostly ferrous material; they were icy cold to touch. Running parallel about two blocks to the west of Independence Avenue is the railway line. This central area of the city lies in a shallow valley, the low hills rising from the west of the railway line and the east of Independence Avenue.
I walked from the Cardboard Box along John Meinert Strasse over the railway line turning south on Independence Avenue and past Post Street Mall to Peter Muller Strasse, where I turned east and walked up the hill to Christuskirche. This distinctive looking church has to be one of the most famous buildings in Namibia. Gottlieb Redecker built it in 1907 out of local sandstone in an unusual neogothic, art nouveau style. A couple of hundred yards east of Christuskirche is the Tintenpalast, which serves as the country's Parliament building. This building was also designed by Gottlieb Redecker and built between 1912-1913; it served as the administrative headquarters of German South-West Africa. From here I walked north along Robert Mugabe Avenue, past the State House. The residence of the German colonial governor once occupied the site of the State House, until it was razed in 1958 to make way for the present day building. After independence this building became the Namibian president's official residence. From here I continued to Sinclair Street from where there is a good viewpoint looking west over the city.
I sat down for a while and rested, enjoying the view. The weather in Windhoek was perfect, deep blue skies and warm temperatures; the walk had made me quite hot, sweat dripping from my brow. It was good to feel the warmth of the sun again after spending the past few weeks in South Africa in the middle of their winter. After resting a while, I walked down to the railway station, a Cape Dutch style building dating back to 1912, to enquire about trains to Swakopmund. An overnight train left on Sunday, but I would have to return to purchase a ticket on Sunday afternoon, which I did.
On the Sunday evening the owners of the Cardboard Box had arranged a BBQ for all of the guests who were staying. A selection of meats were put on a spit down by the bar outside and roasted. It all took longer than expected to cook. I had to quickly eat my dinner and finish off my beer before walking briskly down to the station to catch my train, which was due to depart at 20.00. I said farewell to everyone at the bar and told them I would be back next weekend. The walk to the station only took ten minutes where I found my train waiting at the platform. It was not quite what I was expecting; my train was only one carriage long. I had a business class seat booked, which were the seats at the front of the carriage; there appeared to be little difference between the business and economy seats. This small carriage was fairly packed, a television hung from the ceiling and showed a rather worn out video of an eighties film I had so far managed to avoid watching. I settled into my seat next to a window and soon our little carriage was being shunted around the station sidings. After quarter of an hour or so we finally rolled out of Windhoek, now attached to a long goods train for our ride through the night across the desert to the coast.
I soon fell asleep as the train slowly bumped and rattled its way down the tracks. Later during the night I became aware that the train had stopped and that people were moving about; I was too tired to open my eyes and stayed curled up in my seat. Soon it became quiet; that is when I suddenly remembered that this train was due to arrive in Swakopmund in the early hours of the morning. I opened my eyes and looked around, the carriage was almost empty. I looked out of the window; in the darkness and gloom a sign stared back at me saying, Swakopmund. Panic ensued; I had arrived at my destination. I grabbed my luggage and stumbled off the train and into the night. I stood on the short platform staring out at the darkness, I couldn't see far; the town, wherever it was, was cloaked in fog. Most of the passengers had disappeared along the road, which ran parallel to the railway line, the orange streetlights soon disappearing as they marched off onto the fog. I couldn't see any sign of buildings, just what looked like a salt depot across the road. I checked the time; it was just coming up to 05.00. I decided to wait at the station until daybreak before walking into town and finding the Alternative Space guesthouse, where I planned to stay.
There was a tiny waiting room building on the platform, not much bigger than a garden shed. The door was open, inside one other passenger had made himself at home waiting for daybreak. I lay down on one of the benches and fell asleep for a couple of hours. I woke around 07.00 to the sound of traffic on the road beside the station. I peered out of the window and saw that the darkness had now turned to gloom as the thick fog continued to shroud the town. The other passenger was also preparing to walk into town. I asked him which way the town was, he pointed down the road in the direction the train had been travelling last night. I said goodbye and walked off into the fog, armed with my street map of Swakopmund in my guidebook. It soon became apparent roughly where I was, as I picked up a street name at a junction a short distance from the station. I could now see buildings looming out of the fog as I walked south looking for Brucken Strasse. It didn't help my confidence much that some of the street names on my map didn't match what was on the ground; it appeared that someone had embarked on a renaming exercise in this town.
I found Brucken Strasse and turned left, walking east away from the downtown area for almost a kilometre to the Alternative Space, which was located, literally on the edge of town; beyond it was only sand and dunes. It was 07.30 when I rang the doorbell; I hoped I wasn't too early. The door soon opened and the owner welcomed me. Even though I had just arrived I was shown to the kitchen where a help yourself breakfast was laid out for the guests. I quickly made myself at home with a large pot of tea. It wasn't long until the other guests began to stir and come down to the kitchen. One of the faces looked familiar, it was Katherine, the German girl I had been chatting to at the Cardboard Box in Windhoek about flights to Europe a few days ago. It had turned out she had hired a car and driven down from Windhoek yesterday; I told her about my adventures on the train arriving here in the middle of the night.
Later that morning the two of us decided to go for a drive to Walvis Bay, 30km south of Swakopmund. I had hardly arrived after my journey from Windhoek when I was on the move again. Walvis Bay has long been a strategically important port and during the South African mandate over Namibia, Walvis Bay was administered as part of the Cape Province. Even after Namibian independence in 1990, South Africa still held on to this enclave on the coast. Only after further negotiations between the two governments did Walvis Bay finally become part of Namibia on the 28th February 1994. The road from Swakopmund followed the coast, the dunes from the desert almost spilling across the road and into the sea. It didn't take long to reach Walvis Bay from where we decided to drive down to the Walvis Bay Lagoon, just to the south of the town.
The lagoon covers an area of 45,000 hectares and together with the adjoining salt works and their saltpans and the artificial pools at the nearby Bird Paradise form the most important coastal wetland in Southern Africa for migratory birds. The star attractions at the lagoon are the flamingos. The lagoon attracts half the flamingo population of Southern Africa as well as other birds like chestnut banded plovers, pelicans and many more waders and migratory birds. We drove past the salt works where a mountain of salt was being loaded onto trucks; these saltpans supply about 90% of South Africa's salt. We continued driving out towards the coast, the saltpans to our south and the lagoon to our north. The lagoon stretched as far as the eye could see and dotted across it where pink flamingos, thousands of them. Some were standing in the water next to the road; others were in large flocks in the distance forming a pink haze on the surface of the water.
We stopped along the way to take some photos. Once out of the car the lagoon felt like a very desolate place; all around us we could see nothing but the calm lagoon and the saltpans, the water reflecting the grey, misty sky. Of course the flamingos near the road didn't hang around long and either flew away or marched through the water to a safer distance from us before we could take any good photos. One flamingo I carefully approached, trying not to frighten it, stood fairly close to the road. Just as I double-checked my exposure and focusing it saw me and took flight; I cursed my luck and panned the camera around trying to catch the flamingo in flight. I doubted it would be a good photo, considering I was using a manual camera; I was pleasantly surprised though a few weeks later when I developed the film and saw that I had taken one of my best wildlife shots on this whole African trip. Eventually we reached the beach and the ocean, a stark contrast to the calm lagoon. The wind still blew strongly and the ocean looked angry as the waves crashed onto the sandy beach. We turned around and drove back towards Walvis Bay.
It was nearing lunchtime and we decided to look for a bar/restaurant for a bite to eat and a cold beer. We didn't find much in Walvis Bay and Katherine suggested we return to Swakopmund and go to the Lighthouse Pub & Cafe. A short drive later we were sitting in the bar, a cold beer in hand and a wonderful view looking out across the ocean where dolphins were playing in the surf. Our 'lunch' went on well into the afternoon, the beer kept on flowing and time just seemed to slip by unnoticed. Katherine was due to meet a friend here at 17.00; it had now gone 15.00 and it seemed pointless returning to the Alternative Space, just to come back here in two hours time. We ordered some more beer instead and spent the rest of the afternoon in the bar, eventually watching the sun set over the ocean. In the late afternoon Katherine's friend arrived to find us a little worse for wear after we had lost count how many beers we had drunk. When her friend finally managed to drag us away from the bar we stopped for dinner at a local pizza place and eventually returned to the Alternative Space around 22.00; a very long lunch indeed.
The next day Katherine drove back to Windhoek; she had a flight to catch back to Germany in a couple of days. Meanwhile I went off to explore Swakopmund; I had been in the town for over a day now and had only seen the inside of a bar. The town had a holiday feel to it, being set on the coast with palm lined streets and many bars and restaurants dotted around the centre. The desert surrounded the town, the dunes just a short walk from the Alternative Space. Just out in the desert to the east of town is the strangest national monument I had ever seen, The Martin Luther. It is a steam tractor engine weighing 14,000 kg, which was imported from Germany in 1896. It was designed to replace the ox-wagons, which until then had been used to transport goods inland from Swakopmund. Unfortunately it consumed vast amounts of water to create steam, a commodity in very short supply in the middle of a desert. It only made a couple of short trips before breaking down at its present spot in the desert and then abandoned. It was named The Martin Luther after the reformer who made a speech to the Diet of Reichstag in 1521 saying, 'Here I stand. May God help me, I cannot do otherwise'. Like many other Namibian towns, Swakopmund too reflected the countries German heritage in its architecture. There are many impressive buildings dating from the early part of the 20th century. One of the most ornate is the railway station built in 1901. It no longer serves as a station and now houses the Swakopmund Hotel, the smartest hotel in town. This is where I expected to arrive on the train from Windhoek in the early hours of the previous morning, rather than a tiny concrete platform on the edge of the desert; my map still showed the railway line going into the centre of town.
The weather at this time of year followed a predictable pattern. Each morning the town would be shrouded in fog, rolling off the cold ocean and up to 30km inland. This fog provides essential moisture for the plants and animals, which battle to survive in this harsh environment. Usually between midday and 14.00 the fog would lift and the temperature would rise as the town basked in the bright sunshine under a clear, deep blue sky. Once the sun had set the whole pattern would repeat itself again as the bank of fog once again rolled in off the ocean.
My remaining few days of this trip drifted by as I relaxed and unwound in the pleasant and friendly surroundings of the Alternative Space Backpackers. Each day people I had met over the past few weeks arrived in town. Firstly two Israeli girls who were at the Box in Windhoek arrived and stayed at the Space. One morning Julian popped in who I had last met in Windhoek before he drove to Etosha and I left on a desert safari, he stayed at Karen's Attic nearer the centre of the town. Ben and Vicky turned up at the Space too and stayed for a few nights; I had last seen them in the bar at Sossusvlei while on my desert safari. We all got together one evening in the middle of the week for dinner and quite a few beers at the Lighthouse Pub and Cafe; this pub began to feel like my local.
As Ben and Vicky had a 4WD I took the opportunity to join them on a day out driving north along the salt road, following the coast to Cape Cross, 115km from Swakopmund. Along the way we passed the ecologically sensitive lichen fields; the gravel plains in this desert support the world's most extensive fields of foliose lichens. The lichens create a carpet of grey and black, punctuated with splashes of orange across the plains and help provide stability for the loose soil. They grow extremely slowly, gathering the moisture that they need from the fog that rolls in off the ocean. Once damaged it can take up to fifty years for any regeneration to become apparent. These basic life forms, which are neither a plant nor an animal but in fact an alga and a fungus growing together, just added to the alien feel of this desert environment. Along the road north we also passed a couple of small settlements, Wlotzkasbaken and Henties Bay, the buildings in these settlements painted bright colours in stark contrast to the surrounding desert.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to land at Cape Cross in 1486. They erected a cross on this barren, rocky cape in honour of John I of Portugal, which was used as a navigational aid. No settlement was ever established here. Cape Cross is also home to a huge breeding colony of Cape fur seals numbering in there thousands; the population fluctuates between 80,000 and 100,000. We arrived at the small visitors centre and purchased a permit before continuing along a track to the cape. We had heard stories before we had arrived here of the stench created by all these seals, but nothing could of prepared ourselves for the smell that hit us as we stepped out of the 4WD. The smell was strong enough to literally make you gag.
We walked to the low stonewall, which divides the seals from the humans, and gazed out across the rocks, covered with seals and pups. The sea was full of seals playing in the surf as the huge waves of the ocean crashed onto the rocks. It looked like a precarious business trying to get back on the rocks from the rough swell, but the seals managed it with ease, true masters in their aquatic world. On dry land though, the seals moved about laboriously, almost dragging their bodies over the rocks. The females, or cows, weigh on average 75kg and make up all of this colony together with their pups. The males, or bulls, only visit once a year during the breeding season and seldom visit the colony during the rest of the year. At the start of the breeding season the bulls can weigh up to 360kg, after spending months at sea accumulating food reserves in the form of blubber. A lot of this weight is lost by the end of the breeding season as the bulls expend energy establishing and defending their territory and herding cows. The main predators of the young seal pups are the black-backed jackal and the brown hyena. Many well worn animal trails lead away from the cape and into the desert; keeping at a safe distant away from the visitors we could see the jackals.
The last week flew by in Swakopmund and I soon found myself making plans to return to Windhoek in time to catch my flight back to London on Sunday. I decided to travel back to the city on Saturday morning because on Friday nights the owners of the Space cook a fabulous fish BBQ for all the guests; an occasion I didn't want to miss after staying there for almost a week.
Continue reading this journey: End of a long journey