For a town named after one’s rear end, Swakopmund is actually a charming place. It’s huddled between the sea and the Namib desert, colonial architecture squeezed in next to rugged industry. (We did not get a group picture in front of the two-story warehouse proclaiming its manufacture of SALT in enormous capital letters. But we did think about it.) I was surprised at how much I liked it, given that it’s a tourist beach town, and December-January is the big summer holiday and the height of the tourist season. I was also surprised at the feeling of history that I felt there, when the desert erases most older traces (though the museum did suggest that there’s a surprising amount of information in the middens and refuse of trade routes, not to mention some really cool purple glass) and few buildings sport dates older than 1900. But it felt like a European city, steeped in history, an impression furthered by the large population of Europeans residents and tourists, not to mention the German spoken amidst the English and Afrikaans. It certainly didn’t feel like the Africa I’ve gotten to know in Zambia, with its broad, sunny, almost-empty streets paved in tarmac or cement tiles; the cheese in the grocery stores at halfway reasonable prices; the stretch of lawn next to the beach that was watered by a sprinkler system; the posh, modern stores catering to people with money to buy; the lack of open-air markets selling everything from mangoes to clothes to plastic containers (though there was a craft market, which, I discovered in chatting with the vendors, drew people from all the neighboring countries to sell goods); the gelato (OH MY GOODNESS, the gelato!); and around the fringes of it all, just past the edges of the back (mostly rock-and-cacti) gardens, low, rugged, scrubby plants quickly replaced by . . . nothing. Empty landscape. No people, no animals, no plants. Perhaps an occasional tangle of dry, dead branches, or the tracks of some previous wanderer or quad bike (or, more rarely, some other animal), a lone cloud briefly casting its shadow over the dunes, a gull or hawk gliding high over thermals before vanishing into blueness.
Namib literally means "Place of Emptiness." I think it's an incredibly fitting name.
(Most of the pictures are better if you click on them to get a bigger view, although they all suffer a bit because I made them smaller for ease of uploading over local internet.)
I have never in my life been anywhere like the Namib Desert. So empty, so barren, whole stretches of nothing but dirt and rock and sand rising to distant sand dunes or hunks of stone.
On the first day of this new year, a few days into our stay, when the others went to the beach (again), I decided that I was going to find the sand dunes that rose and shimmered at the edge of every vista. Armed with my water bottle, sunscreen, hat, chitenge, camera in a ziplock bag, various useful and useless things that I always carry in my bag, and a consultation with the hostel hostess to be sure that this was not a completely unreasonable idea, I set off to find adventure.
A 90-degree disconnect between my understanding of the lay of the land inside and outside the building resulted in going in the wrong direction, but as there’s desert around every edge of Swakopmund that doesn’t border the Atlantic, this was not actually a problem. I got a scenic route through a residential area that I would not otherwise have seen, discovered the source of the solar system (and thereby answered a question that had been puzzling us since we arrived), and got a first-hand acquaintance with some of the plants that cluster around one of the few sources of water.
Edit: Desert Life.
I also avoided the protected bird-nesting area that I would’ve encountered if I’d followed the “over the bridge and along the road” advice of the hostess, and found myself in something much closer to untrammeled wilderness than the footprint-strewn dunes close to the shore and the road.
I don't think that I'm managing to convey how LARGE these things are. You could fit houses in them. Gymnasiums. Office buildings. These are not merely hummocks, but small mountains of sand, mountain ranges of sand, running and meeting and melding and dropping off abruptly into steep slopes that are closer to vertical than horizontal.
I had a marvelous hike. I stood alone on ridges of sand marked by no footsteps before mine, watched the wind in the sand that blew over a sharp peak, marveled at the colors and patterns of the different weights and compositions of sand, slipped and slithered down slopes, and followed the tracks of unidentified mammals between scruffy lowland plants and along the dry streambed. Eventually I made my way back to the welcome shade of our accommodations. I was thrilled, flushed, hot, and sun-wearied, and my calves and hamstrings absolutely ached — there are very few stairs in Zambia, and my legs have not been called upon to do nearly as much work here as they were accustomed to at home. But there was something almost magical about that solitary ramble through the dunes.
Swakopmund is trying very hard to make itself one of the adrenaline capitals of the world. Chris went skydiving, Matt went surfing, and even Alison rented a wetsuit. I contented myself with a brief tumble — I can’t really call it a swim — in the rough and gritty ocean, which was a bit like playing with a very large cat that may or may not really understand how fragile you are. I’m told that the actual swimming beach was rather more subdued and gentle, but I’m not all that much of a beach person, so I confined myself to a few treks down that direction, a marvelous bit of watching dolphins playing in the breakers, and a game of frisbee with a gang of German (?) highschoolers (?) — and the ache in my arms afterwards informed me that I’m out of practice with that, too.
What I did do is go on a boat trip, along with Chris and Alison. The morning trip was full, so we went on the afternoon trip, which was shorter (didn’t go to Bird Island, which was mildly disappointing, but on the whole I felt like I had as much fun on two and a half hours of boat trip as I would’ve on four hours of boat trip), cheaper, and just had complimentary drinks instead of complimentary drinks and lunch, including fresh oysters. And the drinks included the really excellent fruit juice that they have here, which pleased me very much, since I didn’t really feel like paying extra so everyone else could drink as much alcohol as they wanted. (In the States, ‘complimentary drinks’ would mean ‘one per person.’ One of the groups who went on the morning trip told us that when their group ran out of alcohol (twice), they just pulled up next to one of the other boats and resupplied. And you probably wouldn’t take children on your boat trip with complimentary alcoholic drinks.)
The seagulls would take fish right out of his hand, too, but I didn't get my camera out soon enough for that.
It was the wrong season for whales, and we didn’t see leatherback turtles or penguins (though none of us had any clue if it was the right season for those, either. The other group said that they didn’t see turtles, either). But we DID go out to the Creche, the seal “kindergarten,” where thousands (literally thousands. The fellow feeding the fish in the above picture estimated 50,000) of seals congregate on the beach, and the pups learn how to swim and hunt and do other important seal things.
One of the things I love about seals is that they know how to have fun. That's what it looks like to me, anyway.
A number of the male seals have figured out that if they climb up the steps at the back of the boats, they get fed fish. Some of them are chill and comfortable enough with humans to be petted. I’ve now petted and hand-fed a wild seal. The guide also told us that when seals balance things on their noses for tricks, they aren’t actually balancing them: they’re holding them with their whiskers, which are large and thick and cane be raised forward or squished back against the sides of the face.
This is Saki. "How do you tell them apart?" I asked the guide, because Saki looked just the same as the younger, more skittish male we'd had on the on board a few minutes before. "He's the one as shakes hands. A few have scars or markings that you can distinguish, but Saki's the one that shakes hands."
AND we saw dolphins. I know that seeing dolphins isn't unusual, but I love it anyway. I like dolphins even more than seals.
Usually I'm pretty blasé about seagulls, but I had more fondness for them in Namibia than I normally do.
We also went for a hike as a group out to the sanddunes, on the "Along the road and over the bridge" route, which featured this excellent sign.
For scale. And that was a SMALL dune, one of the ones close to the sea. That slope is probably about 70 degrees, too. I "walked" down it by standing still and just alternately lifting my feet one after the other, and letting the sand carry me down. Alison said it looked like I was floating down the hill.
Are you tired of vistas of sand yet?
I'm modeling Use #12 of a Chitenge: Desert Ranger Sand Cape, and Alison is sporting a somewhat dilapidated version of Use #13: Indian-Style Head Scarf, authentically learned in India (but not with a chitenge). Matt is doing Desert Bandit Fusion, and Chris is showing off Even Better Ways to Get Sunburned. If you're curious, use #11 is Beach Towel.
Unlike the rest of Namibia, the west coast gets cool weather from the ocean, and Swakopmund generally has sun between approximately 10 hours and 15 hours, before and after which it's cloudy and may be cold, even in summer (I slept in my sleeping bag every night). However, on our last day, there was enough of a break in the clouds that we had a partial sunset for our beach supper picnic.
There are more stories from this trip. It’s possible that I’ll post them here, but I probably won’t. Suffice it to say that we did get home again, safe and sound, despite a very typical timing misadventure due to our bus home leaving Lusaka a day late (and subsequently leaving Namibia a day late) and adventures with my visa. (N.B. When you’re asking for days, you need to count both endpoint days, not just how many days away the departure date is. And if you’re traveling by bus, the day the bus departs may not be the day you leave the country. And you should just ask for at least an extra half-week, anyway. The exit immigration gave me a bit of a hard time, but it could’ve been worse. It’s very difficult to effectively lecture someone when you won’t talk loudly enough for her to hear you through the glass window.)