It’s along Namibia’s CENTRAL COAST that visitors can make the most of what the country has to offer, from exploring desert and marine wildlife to visiting former townships and rural communities, and from road trips through dramatic coastal landscapes to a host of adrenaline-pumping adventure sports. All of these activities can be enjoyed from the colonial-era towns of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay.
Around 350km west of Windhoek, the pretty seaside resort of Swakopmund, with its German colonial architecture and moderate coastal climate, has long been the holiday playground of Namibia’s white population. Boasting comfortable accommodation, excellent cafés and restaurants and a relaxed vibe, it has more recently acquired a reputation as a centre for adventure activities. In contrast, Walvis Bay, a thirty-minute drive down the road, is Namibia’s main port, home to a vibrant fishing industry, though its wildlife-rich lagoon is now the focus of a burgeoning tourist scene.
Both towns are surrounded by stunning dune scenery – some of which lies within the northern section of the Namib-Naukluft National Park and the contiguous, newly formed Dorob National Park – which can be explored in any number of ways: on the back of a camel, a horse or a quad-bike, or from the air, in a balloon or a plane. Popular destinations include the fabulously isolated dune-enclosed Sandwich Harbour, an avian paradise south of Walvis Bay, or the popular Welwitschia Drive, just outside Swakopmund, which takes in a variety of desert landscapes, as well as one of the planet’s oldest specimens of the eponymous plant. Further north, the mythical Skeleton Coast stretches almost 700km to the Angolan border. Most visitors only go as far as Namibia’s largest seal colony at Cape Cross, 120km north of Swakopmund, but with your own wheels and a permit, you can follow the coast road another 200km to experience the desolate desert landscapes of the Skeleton Coast National Park.
Though archeological evidence shows that the semi-nomadic Khoikhoi inhabited central coastal zones from stone-age times, formal permanent coastal settlements did not occur until traders and whalers started to arrive in Sandwich Harbour and Walvis Bay (“Whale Bay” in Afrikaans) in the late seventeenth century. Later, as the Scramble for Africa gained momentum, the various competing imperial powers began to recognize Walvis Bay’s strategic importance as the only decent-sized natural harbour on the coast. After briefly being bagged by the Dutch in 1793, the port was soon seized by the British – keen to safeguard their ships round the Cape – before eventually being annexed to the Cape Colony in 1878.
Thus, when Germany staked its colonial claim to present-day Namibia in 1884, it needed to establish an alternative port. A site at the mouth of the Swakop River was selected, mainly on account of the presence of fresh water, rather than because it afforded any protection to boats, and Swakopmund (mund meaning mouth in German) was established. As with Lüderitz, much of the town’s development – construction of the railway, protective sea wall (the Mole) and harbour, as well as the unloading of goods – was achieved by the forced labour from Herero and Nama prisoners in the Swakopmund concentration camp. The new port initially flourished, but the town’s fortunes slumped following German surrender in 1915, and once the protectorate eventually fell under South African control. Then, all maritime trade was transferred to Walvis Bay, and the Swakopmund harbour silted up.
Walvis Bay continued to thrive, especially once its international fishing industry took off in the 1950s. Such was the strategic and economic importance of the port, however, that South Africa attempted to cling onto it even after Namibian independence, until they were forced to relinquish sovereignty in 1994. In contrast, Swakopmund had to wait until the 1970s, and the start of operations at the Rössing uranium mine, around 70km inland, before economic prospects for the town began to improve.