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Namibia'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.
Swakopmund was of major importance as a harbour during the German colonial era even though the water at the coast is actually too shallow and the bay is unprotected. But Luederitz was too far away and provided no drinking water, and the seaport of Walvis Bay was in British possession in those days. In August 1892, the German gunship "Hyäne" under the command of Captain Curt von François, staked out a wharf north of the Swakop River mouth. A year later, 40 settlers from Germany and 120 members of the Schutztruppe were taken ashore in rowing boats, an adventurous undertaking. The 325 metre long wooden jetty was only completed in 1905 and it was later replaced by a more solid iron construction. Swakopmund became the gateway to South-West Africa and the entire supply for the colony was wound up through this little town. The narrow-rail train to Windhoek started operations in 1902 while at the same time, the station in the Wilhelminian style (equivalent to Victorian style) was built. It was completely restored some years ago and has become an entertainment centre, a casino and a luxury hotel nowadays.
Most 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.
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.
Walvis 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.