If there is one place in Namibia that German colonialists left an indelible mark, that place is Swakopmund. In fact, a popular joke is that Swakopmund is even more German than Germany itself. A four hours drive from the country capital Windhoek, it is the most popular vacation destination in Namibia and draws sun, sand and sea enthusiasts from the greater southern Africa and beyond. Despite its undeniable success over the years, Swakopmund is gradually reinventing itself as the epicentre of adrenaline sports in the country.
The holiday town is a convenient launching pad for expeditions to Skeleton Coast. The road from Swakopmund to Walvis Bay provides breathtaking views of the giant dunes of the Namib Desert meeting the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean. 75 miles north of Swakopmund is Cape Cross, famous for the tens of thousands of Cape Seals that descend on it to breed between October and December each year.
Towards Swakopmund’s south east is one of the world’s driest locations where there is no rain for decades at a time. What is fascinating about the area though is the critically endangered Welwitschia plant species found nowhere else on the planet. They survive on nothing but moisture from atmospheric humidity. Despite such harsh conditions, some of the plants are more than a thousand years old.
Whether you prefer racing through the sand dunes in a quad bike or greased snowboard, skydive from a Cessna or experience Namib Desert life up close through a camel safari, there is no scarcity of adventure in Swakopmund. Coupled with the palm-lined avenues, excellent accommodation, beach-front promenades and superb weather, this is one place where the party never stops. The peak of festivities though is in December.
Of course not everyone visiting Swakopmund is looking for an adrenaline rush. If you are one of those, there are plenty of seaside cafes, restaurants, museums, art galleries, an aquarium and a snake park. The architecture of the town’s old German village is captivating and an excellent depiction of past colonial life. Most of the old colonial buildings were built between 1900 and 1910.
Notable monuments and buildings in Swakopmund include the World War II Memorial, the Marine Memorial, Hohenzollern Building, Princess Rupprecht House, Kaserne Buildings, the Swakopmund Train Station, Swakop Lighthouse and the old, derelict Swakopmund Prison.
Here are Some of the Key Attractions in Detail
- Swakopmund Museum – Built at the base of Swakop Lighthouse, this is the best place to understand the town’s past. The museum building sits on the site of a warehouse that was obliterated in 1914 during a British-German conflict. Exhibits not only include artefacts celebrating Namibian ancient culture but also descriptions on the country’s fauna and flora. Make sure you visit the Inara melon display, a fruit that was part and parcel of the ancient San’s desert life.
- National Marine Aquarium – A transparent tunnel through the aquarium allows visitors to have an up-close view of several South Atlantic marine species including rays and sharks. The climax is the feeding session that takes place every day at 3pm.
- Woermannhaus – When you approach Swakopmund from the sea, the Woermannhaus is conspicuous among the town’s buildings. It is so prominent that many first time visitors may mistake it for the town hall. Built at the start of the 20th century, it has at different points in time been a trading office, school dorm and a merchants’ hostel.
- Altes Amtsgericht – Built in 1908, Altes Amtsgericht started out as a private school, was seized by the government and became a magistrate’s court, was later converted into a dormitory and is today an office of the town council.
- Altes Gefängnis – Constructed early in the 20th century, Alte Gefangnis is a prison complex though it may be difficult to envisage that when you see it. As this is considered a sensitive state installation, photography is prohibited.
- Kaiserliches Bezirksgericht – Built in 1902 to serve as a district court, it became the vacation home of the country administrator after World War I. Today it is the residence of the country’s president.
- Old Train Station (Bahnhof) – This 1901 structure was a major train terminal though it fell into redundancy less than 10 years later when the railway was shut down. But it quickly became a key stop for the mine rail from Otavi to Swakopmund. In 1972, Bahnhof was designated a national monument – a status it retains to date despite housing a hotel complex.
- Marine Memorial – It honours the German marine corps company that helped quell the Herero armed uprising in 1904. Given the controversial nature of that conflict and the fact that many have termed it genocidal, there is a growing movement that is calling for the erection of a Herero memorial at the same location.