Exploring the pretty coastal town of Swakopmund – between the great Atlantic Ocean and the dramatic Namib desert

04 April 2013

“Welcome to my home town, Flat Kathy!” said Reggie, beaming at me excitedly. We had just pulled off onto the roadverge, so that Richard could take a photograph of us standing in front of the large and colourfully decorated ‘Welcome to Swakopmund’ sign.

In the distance towards the south, I could see a belt of orange-red dunes, with a line of houses and palm trees in front of it. Towards the north, I could see the tower of a little airport.

“That is the Swakopmund airport,” confirmed Reggie. “When I was little, it used to be faaaar outside the city, but now I see that the city has expanded so much into the desert, that the airport is very close. It’s used primarily for small aircraft, and it’s the base for the Swakopmund skydiving club; they also offer tandem skydiving.”

Welcome to Swakopmund by the Atlantic Ocean
Welcome to Swakopmund by the Atlantic Ocean

Between us and the outskirts of the town lay a level gravel plain.

“Swakopmund is situated right on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, and with its back to the Namib desert,” Reggie told me, as we climbed back into the car. “It was founded in about 1892 as a harbour for the German colonialists – as a result of its history, you’ll notice that much of the original architecture is in a German colonial style, and in fact, many people still speak German.”

We had just rejoined the traffic driving into Swakopmund, when we passed a building on our left. On the top it said, “Martin Luther Museum”.

“What is that about?” I asked, completely bewildered. “Why is there a museum to Martin Luther here in the desert?”

My companions chuckled.

“There’s an old steam tractor housed inside the museum,” explained Aunty Lissi. “It dates back to the end of the 19th century; it was imported from Germany in 1896, with the intention that it would be used to transport goods along the new railway line from Swakopmund on the coast to Windhoek in the interior of the country.”

The Martin Luther museum outside the town houses the historic old steam tractor
The Martin Luther museum outside the town houses the historic old steam tractor

“Unfortunately it didn’t make it very far,” continued Reggie. “As you can see, we are right on the edge of the desert here, and when the wind blows, the sand covers the roads, the railway line, pretty much everything. That’s what happened to the little steam tractor too: it soon became bogged down in the sand, and they couldn’t move it.”

“There’s an urban legend that, during a bit of a drinking session at a local hotel, one of the locals remarked that the little stream tractor would henceforth be called Martin Luther, after Luther’s famous statement, when he had to face a religious tribunal at Worms in 1521 to defend himself, ‘Here I stand, may God help me, I can go no further.’ Or something like that. Actually, I’m not sure that Martin Luther ever made such a statement, but the townsfolk clearly had a sense of humour!”

“When we were little, we used to climb all over the tractor,” said Reggie. “It was just standing here in the desert. At some stage, it was put on a pedestal, then it was removed for reconstruction a couple of years ago, and finally they built a museum around it to preserve it. It’s a national monument now – and I don’t think you can climb all over it any more!”

So there you have it, dear friends – the strange story behind the Martin Luther Museum outside Swakopmund!

The town is hidden in dense mist
The town is hidden in dense mist

As we continued along the main road into Swakopmund, I realised that we were driving straight into a very damp and cold bank of mist. It was so dense in parts, that we could just about see the buildings on either side of the road. It was quite eerie, particularly because of the striking contrast to the brilliantly blue and clear skies just outside the town.

Aunty Lissi followed some handwritten instructions to an apartment building in the suburb of Vineta, to the north of the old town centre. A friend of hers had given us permission to stay in their holiday apartment. Reggie, who hadn’t been to Swakopmund in a couple of years, was gazing around open-mouthed, peering at street signs in the thick mist and glancing intermittently at the map on her lap to orient herself.

“What’s the matter?” I asked her.

“Flat Kathy, when I was little, this place was a village, where everyone knew everyone else,” she said, softly. “Now… well… it’s grown so much that I don’t know half of these new roads and suburbs. It still feels familiar, but … so different… This road, for instance, which is called the Henties Bay Road, because it goes north to the little fishing village of Henties Bay – it used to be far on the outskirts of the town… and there was nothing on either side. Vineta was a newly built neighbourhood in those days – now I see it’s expanded even further northwards, and there’s a new suburb further north called Vogelstrand, and it’s almost merged with Mile 4, which used to be just a little fishing and camping spot!”

The main street in Swakopmund - Sam Nujoma Avenue, previously Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse - Café Putensen is a well-known landmark
The main street in Swakopmund – Sam Nujoma Avenue, previously Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse – Café Putensen (now known as Café Treffpunkt) is a well-known landmark

With some difficulty, because of the thick mist, we located our apartment, where we unloaded all our luggage from the car. Then Reggie guided us the quickest route into the heart of the city, where we had arranged to meet her Aunty Renate at the Village Café in the main street. I was struck by the colourfully painted buildings – what a nice contrast against the dense grey mist!

I also noticed that some of the roads were tarred, while others were elaborately paved with interlocking bricks, and yet others seemed to made of another road surface that resembled the dark-grey tarred roads, but had an odd white sheen to it.

“Many of the roads in Swakopmund and along the coast are salt roads,” explained Reggie. “I’m not sure exactly how they make them, but I suppose it’s basically hard-packed sand or gravel roads that are covered with a layer of diluted salt water to make them harder and more resilient. The salt, of course, is not good for vehicles – it tends to rust them from underneath. And when it’s wet, the roads become very slick and slippery – and on the rare occasions when it properly rains, as it did on the Easter weekend, they become mudpits!”

We meet Aunty Renate for some nibblies at the rustic Village Café
We meet Aunty Renate for some nibblies at the rustic Village Café

By now, we made our way into the main street, where we located a most delightful little café called the Village Café. There was one big colourfully painted room in the front, and several smaller rooms towards the back, where customers could tuck themselves away too. There was also an indoor courtyard, which was open to the sky above. The decor was quirky, laid-back and village-y in character – I could imagine spending many happy hours here, chatting with the friendly locals!

Aunty Renate arrived mere moments after we had found a table near the front window, and Reggie quickly introduced her to me – and to the twins. She politely shook my hand and said, “It is lovely to meet you, Flat Kathy. I received your postcard a few days ago.”

We had a wonderful chat over scones, muffins and pancakes with drinks, and I was sorry when the time had come to go our separate ways again. Aunty Renate graciously posed for a group photo outside the Village Café, and then waved godbye to us.

Afterwards, Reggie gave us a guided tour of this lovely little town on the shore of the turbulent Atlantic Ocean, where she had spent many happy days of her childhood. We posed for photographs in front of many of the places she remembered – her kindergarten, the various houses where her family lived, the Hansa Brewery that was founded by her family, and a whole lot of other landmarks and interesting historic buildings around the town. We continued our exploration of Swakopmund the next day, walking around the beautiful old centre of town on foot. Oh, it was wonderful to visit all these places and to listen to all the stories, getting to know the place a bit through her eyes.

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


9 thoughts on “Exploring the pretty coastal town of Swakopmund – between the great Atlantic Ocean and the dramatic Namib desert

  1. Reggie
    I think you did a great job showing Kathy all these wonderful spots in Swakopmund
    I must admit we all had a wonderful time in Swakop. Just as always tooo short.
    In german the nice saying : “In der Kürze liegt die Würze” –
    Regards
    Lissi

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    1. Thank you so much for leaving a comment, Aunty Lissi. Yes, I loved visiting Swakopmund. I didn’t expect that there would be so much to see and do in Namibia. I particularly enjoyed having such excellent tour guides! 🙂

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  2. I enjoyed reading about Reggie’s hometown and see so many photos of this charming German village between the Atlantic ocean and the Namibian desert. It looks so neat and well organized, yet also warm and inviting.

    My cousin is also named Renate. She lives in Germany, but loves the warmer climate, so would likely feel quite at home here.

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    1. Swakopmund felt like an oasis in the desert to me, Amy-Lynn. Yes, I’m sure your cousin would feel quite at home in Namibia; but apparently it does get quite cold and damp on the coast, particularly in winter, so perhaps she would prefer Windhoek.

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