Driving from Walvis Bay Airport with nothing on either side of the road but sand, I suddenly understand the term “living desert”, because I know that while the word “Namib” means vast and empty, this desert has a complex and vibrant ecosystem of creatures and plants. There is sand as far as the eye can see (it’s a 700km stretch from Oranjemund to Swakopmund), and it’s a beautiful landscape. The colours shift constantly. It’s not as red as the desert in other parts of the country; this sand is golden with flecks of beige and swirls of caramel. The world’s oldest desert, it’s coastal location means that cool air from the west coast’s Benguela current blows a thick fog across the sand up to 300 nights of the year. Locals call this fog “the lifeblood of the desert” and it makes the Namib one of the most humid places in the world, despite it also being the driest.
We take a detour into Walvis Bay, home to a thriving fishing industry and a port that closely rivals Durban in terms of traffic. It serves as the key logistics hub into southern Africa’s landlocked countries and I expect an industrial area, but am pleasantly surprised. The town is remarkably clean, the streets wide and the houses modern and well-kept.
The tide is exceptionally low that day and the shallow waters are alive with flamingos, herons, pelicans and teals enjoying their lunch. This is one of the best places in the world to see flamingos. The lagoon is the perfect environment for the long-legged birds to feed and perform their ritualistic nuptial displays, before taking off in a blur of pink and white towards Etosha Pan, their choice of nesting and breeding location.
We spot six boats on the water in front of the Yacht Club, their passengers watching dolphins surfing the small waves. A group of tourists is ready to board a catamaran departing from Pelican Point for a cruise, while the active set grab kayaks for a leisurely paddle.
We leave Walvis Bay and take the road towards Swakopmund, 35 km away. As we near the town, a seemingly endless row of palm trees on either side of the road stands out. A family planted them in memory of their son who died in a car accident on this road, and they pay to water and maintain the trees. It’s a sobering reminder of how many lives are claimed on Namibia’s often dangerous roads each year and I’m relieved that we opted for an experienced transfer and not a self-drive.
Our driver is Georg Erb, who has lived in Swakopmund all his life. A sought-after tour guide due to his impressive knowledge of the area and its history, he speaks fondly of the town and passionately about the desert.
“I was lucky to be brought up in nature. Rather than chairs and tables, I preferred to be surrounded by vast skies, to be on the ground, among trees, in caves. From at least since my great-grandparents arrival here 120 years ago, a great and vivid curiosity about all things natural has been running in my family,” he says.
Keen to share their knowledge and introduce us to other passionate locals, Georg and his wife Xenia have generously offered their time to help us explore their town. Georg runs his successful Swakop Tour Company, but takes us on an unplanned tour, regaling us with stories about the shipwrecks along the notoriously dangerous coastline, the 200m deep canyons that are found inland, the purple hues of garnet sand and the salt roads, which can be traced back to the ’40s when heavy trucks carried salt blocks from the salt mines north of the town to Walvis Bay.
Swakopmund, along with Sossusvlei and Etosha Pan, is one of Namibia’s key tourist hubs. Around 800 tourists pass through Swakop (as the locals call it) every day, but it doesn’t get quite the same level of attention the other hubs do and tends to attract “stop-over” guests.
“I felt that this little paradise was really hidden from the world,” says Xenia of her new home, to which she relocated from Johannesburg four years ago. “Swakop’s character is unique in that she is African in nature but has very Eurocentric traits. When I first got here I realised that media relating to the town was dated and simply didn’t do the town any justice. It’s not really promoted as a destination and has become, over the years, merely a stop-over between Sossusvlei and Etosha, which are the two main Namibian tourism ‘cash cows’. So I took it on myself to share my photographs online on I Love Swakopmund (www.facebook.com/iloveswakopmund).”
Her idea has since grown, with the launch of the marketing arm Destination Swakopmund in January.
Swakop is a town of extreme landscapes, with the desert on its doorstep – literally – and the ocean marking the other boundary. We arrive on a Sunday and not many of the shops and restaurants in the town centre are open. The Mole, however, is buzzing. A historic site surrounded by the ocean on three sides (“mole” means sea wall), it provides a typical seaside setting, with its pier, lighthouse, museum, ice-cream parlour, bars and cafes. The modern Strand Hotel, which opened in 2015, has undoubtedly added a new social element to the Mole. With its three trendy restaurants – Ocean Cellar, Farmhouse Deli and Brewer & Butcher – all with sea views and outdoor seating areas, it’s a huge attraction for those in search of a good meal with an atmosphere and a view. After a delicious meal of fresh seafood and sushi, washed down with a cold local beer at Ocean Cellar, we drag ourselves away from the buzz of the waterfront to check into our hotel.
Our accommodation for the next two nights is the delightful Desert Breeze, a funky villa-style lodge perched atop a marble ridge overlooking a sea of dunes. It feels as though its trapped in a time warp – in a totally cool way. The brightly painted luxury chalets have spacious rooms, each with a fireplace, deck and large basalt sculptures standing guard. I sleep with my curtains open, hoping to enjoy the sunrise from my bed, but instead wake to find the dunes have been swallowed by a silvery mist. By the time I have my caffeine fix, the sun is peeping through and we take a walk across the dunes, which are criss-crossed with tiny spoor from nocturnal visitors.
These dunes are a source of entertainment for many an adventurer. And Swakop, which is considered Namibia’s adventure capital, has no shortage of activities, including quad-biking, fat-wheel biking, walking desert tours, hiking, camel rides, sandboarding, kayaking, fishing and skydiving. Seventy kilometres down the drag is the coastal town of Henties Bay. With only 15 000 permanent residents, it’s a quiet spot during the year, but come the holiday season, the surfers and fishermen descend and the seaside village comes to life.
It’s this ebb and flow, these contrasts, that stand out for me: the beautiful beaches framed by wild seas, the harshness of the desert juxtaposed by the fragility of its eco-system, the chilled seaside lifestyle supporting an industry of extreme adventure sports.
SAA flies direct to Windhoek twice daily seven days a week. Connect with partner airline Airlink to Swakopmund. You can also self-drive, taking the B2 from Windhoek, which takes four to five hours.
Photographs: Xenia Erb