From sunny Windhoek in the central highlands to misty Swakopmund at the edge of the coastal desert

03 April 2013

Today, we drove from Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia, to the pretty town of Swakopmund on the coast. Reggie tucked me in behind the cooler bag on the backseat, so that I would be nice and secure, and so that I had a clear view of the passing scenery.

“We are driving along the B2,” said Reggie. “which is part of the Trans-Kalahari Highway. It goes from Walvis Bay on the west coast of Namibia, roughly east to Windhoek, and then south-east via Botswana to Johannesburg and Pretoria in South Africa.”

The scenery changed dramatically, the closer we got to the coast. Between Windhoek and its nearest neighbouring city, Okahandja, the landscape was interesting and varied, with hills and mountains on either side of the road, thorn trees covered in green shoots, and knee-high grass along the verges.

Welcome to Okahandja - a small city about 70km north of Windhoek
Welcome to Okahandja – a small city about 70km north of Windhoek

“Okahandja, which is located about 70km north of Windhoek, is also known as the Garden Town of Namibia,” Reggie continued. “The Von Bach Dam on the outskirts of the town, supplies water to the capital. There is a big curio market just as one drives into the town, where you can buy all kinds of things – wood carvings, sculptures, metal things, etc.”

“We will stop in Okahandja on the way back home,” proposed Aunty Lissi from the passenger seat. “There’s a beautiful lodge, where we can have something cool to drink when we return to Windhoek on Saturday.”

Between Okahandja and the next town of Karibib, we stopped at the Wilhelmstal Farmstall, parking under a shady tree, and finding ourselves a table inside.

The farmstall looks very rustic and quaint from the outside
The Wilhelmstal farmstall between Okahandja and Karibib is very rustic and quaint from the outside and quirky and delightful on the inside

Aunty Lissi, who has clearly been here before, went over to the fridge to have a look at their cakes, and returned to announce, “They make the best Apple Crumble in Namibia; shall we order two slices to share with some tea and coffee?”

“An excellent idea,” we agreed. And indeed – it was the best Apple Crumble we had ever eaten!

“They also sell really excellent biltong and sausages,” added Aunty Lissi. “But unfortunately, the owner just told me that they are all sold out after the Easter weekend. And they’ll be closed on Saturday morning, when we return to Windhoek.”

Suitably refreshed after our pitstop, we continued onwards to Karibib, which lies about halfway between Windhoek and Swakopmund. The bushveld had become a bit more sparse. We slowed down as we entered the town along the main street.

This sign welcomes us to the small town of Karibib, half-way between Windhoek and Swakopmund on the B2, or Trans-Kalahari Highway
This sign welcomes us to the small town of Karibib, half-way between Windhoek and Swakopmund on the B2, or Trans-Kalahari Highway

“Karibib has a large marble quarry,” said Reggie, “which produces very hard and high-quality marble. We’ll be passing the marble factory on our way out on the other side of the town. There is also an open-cast gold mine here, and a lot of small-scale mining for all kinds of gemstones – such as amethysts, tourmaline, aquamarines, quartz, citrine and garnets.”

“But the town itself is quite small and there isn’t that much to see, although there are a couple of historic buildings dating back to the early 1900s. The Henckert Tourist Centre on the main street is a good source of information.”

The next settlement along the B2 westwards was Usakos, some 147 km east of Swakopmund. The road descended into a valley, in which the small town was nestled.

The next settlement we drive through is Usakos, some 140 km east of Swakopmund
The next settlement we drive through is Usakos, some 147 km east of Swakopmund

“Usakos used to be the centre of the country’s railway industry,” said Reggie, pointing to an old train engine that stood on some rusted tracks next to the main street; I could see a few more carriages a little further along.

“There isn’t much to do in Usakos nowadays,” she continued, as we drove slowly through the small town. “It is a little run-down, and I don’t think there has been much economic development here for a while. In summer, when we drove through Usakos on our way to or from Swakopmund, we would always notice that it was much hotter here in the valley than in the desert beyond.”

As the road ascended out of the valley on the other side of town, I noticed that there were 360 degrees of almost flat horizon all the way around. I felt sooo insignificant and small. It was a relief when, some 25 kilometres further, a jagged mountain range appeared on the far northwestern horizon.

About 20-30 km outside Usakos, we stop in the middle of nowhere, so that I can see the mountains in the distance
About 20-30 km outside Usakos, we stop in the middle of nowhere, so that I can see the mountains in the distance

“What is that mountain called?” I asked, pointing towards the distant mountains. Richard pulled off onto the road verge so that I could get a closer look.

“Flat Kathy, that is the Spitzkoppe,” Reggie replied. “Some people humorously call it the Matterhorn of Africa, after a high mountain that stands on the border between Switzerland and Italy, and which it supposedly resembles. The highest peak is about 1784 metres high, rising about 700 metres from the floor of the desert. I read somewhere that it was formed about 130 million years ago, when the ancient continent of Gondwana separated to form the continents of Africa and South America.”

“Over the centuries, the rock has been weathered into all kinds of interesting rock formations there, and you can also find Bushman paintings,” explained Reggie, “though – frustratingly – almost all of them have been vandalised.”

They are known as the Spitzkoppe and are an ancient granite outcrop, with the highest peak over 1700 metres high
They are known as the Spitzkoppe and are an ancient granite outcrop, with the highest peak over 1700 metres high

As we continued driving southwest towards the Atlantic Ocean, the bushveld disappeared behind us; on either side of the road stretched vast gravel plains. I was relieved to be inside the car, with access to plenty of water and nibblies – I found it hard to imagine what it must have been like for people in the distant past to cross these vast plains.

About 70 km or so outside Swakopmund, Richard stopped the car on the roadverge again. Another mountain range had appeared on the north-western horizon.

“Those are the Rössing mountains,” explained Reggie, as we clambered out of the car to find a good spot for a photograph. An eerily howling wind was blowing across the desert, making my plaits flutter; it felt utterly desolate here. I did not want to be abandoned here on my own!

Reggie poses with me on some rocks, with the Rössing mountains in the distance behind us
Reggie poses with me on some rocks, with the Rössing mountains in the distance behind us

A little further along, a sign pointed to a settlement called ‘Arandis’, to the right of the B2.

“Arandis is a mining town,” said Reggie, “it provides housing for the workers at the Rössing Uranium Mine, which is on the left of the B2. The mine one of the largest open pit uranium mines in the world. The uranium deposits were discovered around 1928, and the mine started operations in 1976. As a result of this mine, Namibia is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of uranium.”

“Have you ever been to the mine?” I inquired.

“I visited the mine on a tour once, many years ago,” replied Reggie. ” I can still remember how awe-inspiring it was to look down into that humungous hole in the earth, and to see these massive trucks that drove up and down, transporting the ore. From a distance, they looked like toy-cars, but up close, they were gigantic.”

The wind is whistling through my hair
The wind is whistling through my hair

She added: “Local residents from Swakopmund and particularly the farmers along the Swakop river are afraid that the mine is polluting the groundwater and other water sources. The mine is situated very close to the river valley – not that these flow much above the surface, but there is water beneath the sand. Also, residents say that the East wind, the hot wind from the desert that is common in winter, is blowing airborne toxins from the mine towards them. I wrote a blogpost about the dreaded Ostwind once. So, although mining plays an important role in the country’s economy, it is a contentious issue.”

“In recent years, I believe, a few more mines have opened up along this stretch of the desert, and more are planned,” she said, sadly. “Conservationists and ecologists are justifiably concerned that certain rare species of plants and animals will be threatened and wiped out because of these mining activities; and there are archeologically sensitive sites that have yet to be explored and properly protected. But as always, money and power and politics and big business talk louder. So, Flat Kathy, enjoy this desert while you can, as it may look different the next time you visit.”

A train is chugging across the gravel plain
A train is chugging across the gravel plain

As we drove southwest towards Swakopmund, I noticed that, to the left of the B2, the gravel plain seemed to be interrupted by a line of jagged dark shapes.

“That’s the valley of the Swakop and the Khan rivers,” indicated Reggie. “The Khan river meets the Swakop river at a beautiful little farm called Palmenhorst. My family often visited the people who used to live there. The terrain on either side of the river is very rough and desolate, and so it is also called the Mondlandschaft, or Moon Landscape, which it resembles.”

“But it’s not as lifeless as it seems. There is lots of fauna and flora, all very well adapted to living in these inhospitable and unimaginably harsh conditions. The famous Weltwitschia mirabilis grows there – a most peculiar plant that grows very, very slowly, living for 1000 to 2000 years! They have large leaves that trail on the ground, and that are often tattered and torn by the wind. There are separate male and female plants, with insects responsible for transferring the pollen and fertilisation.”

Finally, some 280 km west of Windhoek, we reach the coastal city of Swakopmund
Finally, some 280 km west of Windhoek, we reach the coastal city of Swakopmund

“There are numerous farms along the river valley; although there isn’t often water flowing on the surface, unless there has been very heavy rainfall inland, water is available underground.”

Finally, our long drive was at an end. We stopped at a big colourful sign that welcomed us to the pretty coastal town of Swakopmund, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Namib desert. We were going to stay here for a couple of days, and I was eagerly looking forward to doing some exploring!

I shall show you some more pictures of Swakopmund in my next post.

Click on any of the photos below to access a slideshow of images with captions.


6 thoughts on “From sunny Windhoek in the central highlands to misty Swakopmund at the edge of the coastal desert

    1. It was awe-inspiring, Sybil. I felt so small and insignificant out there in the vast open plain; I can’t imagine how hard it must be – for animals and for humans – to survive out there. We were lucky it wasn’t the middle of summer – I think the temperatures can rise into the high 30s and even 40s then.

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  1. Thank you for sharing this, Flat Kathy. Just wanted to tell you that we got our postcard from you yesterday. It was a special treat to open the mailbox and find it! It took three weeks to get from you to us. Are you back at home with Reggie now?

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  2. There is something about deserts that I find very enticing. I hope the mining companies are kind to it.

    My hometown, Sudbury, is a mining town that was once used as a test setting for Apollo astronauts due to the fact that it is the second largest impact crater in the world. Its moon-like landscape is also legendary.

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    1. I didn’t know about Sudbury, Amy-Lynn; it sounds like a fascinating place.

      Reggie said: I don’t think mining companies are kind to any landscape, whether desert or mountain or anything inbetween. Do you know, for instance, that our government has approved fracking licences in the beautiful vast Karoo Desert? I am so upset. As the mining companies have done everywhere else, they’re going to pollute all our underground water (we are a very dry country, so we need to protect our precious and rare water reserves).

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