Swakopmund – The quirky remnants of a colonial past

Normally, we can stay in African cities/towns for a day or two, after which we are glad that we are on the road again to a wilder destination. Some of the African cities are just too big, with cars everywhere and so many people! Others are too small and simply boring, even mind numbing (both in activities and appearance). In Swakopmund, however, we felt at peace.

It is a quirky town, in more than one way; not too big, but it still populates enough people to facilitate a cinema, restaurants, shops, etcetera. Perhaps the weirdest thing about Swakopmund is that it is riddled with “old” German style colonial buildings; think of apres-ski in the desert and you’ll get the picture. The thing is, however, that it kinda fits; like when a thing is so ugly or misplaced that it becomes something you can actually appreciate.

This might be because the Swakopmundian (?) climate is probably more similar to a German summer than any Namibian season (doesn’t matter which one, all the same). What makes it so German is the thick layer of fog and “cold” winds that are blown towards Swakopmund by the Antarctic current every day. The fog and the wind can only travel inland for maximum 60 km’s, after which they lose the battle from the heat and drought. Most of the time, only a few kilometres inland from Swakopmund, it will become scorching hot with a bright blue sky and blazing sun, while in Swakopmund you have to wear long pants and sweaters… Really strange huh?!

On the day of our arrival we were really looking forward to do something you can only do in a city. Can you guess what? Going to a cinema! We parked the car on a camping at the edge of town and after a warm shower we started walking towards the cinema, while playing Pokemon on our phones of course. We decided to go to the new DC movie, Justice League.

We payed for the movie and popcorn, when we were confronted with a dazzling array of flavours to put on our popcorn. Apparently, Africans need more than just sweet and salt (in the Netherlands you’re considered a rebel when you even mix sweet and salt). But here you can choose chutney, salt and vinegar, pepper and cheese and onion (probably forgot a few). And as if picking one isn’t hard enough, you also have to decide how much you put on your popcorn. For us it was just too much choice, so we let the guy behind the counter decide. Big mistake! The amount of cheese and onion that he put on the popcorn was just too much for our taste buds!

Except for the popcorn we didn’t have anything to eat that evening and we were craving for “not our own cooked food”. So, we went to a Chinese restaurant… Not the best idea, as it was probably the least tasty fish I ever ate! In our defence, it was positioned next to the cinema.

The next day, however, we decided to make up for the Chinese experience by going to a proper fish restaurant. We changed accommodation that day from the camping to a really cool backpackers, called Desert Sky Backpackers. The lady at reception advised us to go to the Tug. I didn’t really understood why you would call your fish restaurant the Tug, until we arrived there. Apparently, the restaurant is made out of an old towing ship, called the Tug. We had such a good evening there! Our table was positioned next to the captain’s steering wheel, so it really felt like we were inside a ship. In addition, the service was good, the location of the restaurant great (at the start of the pier) and the food was awesome. We had the seafood extravaganza (the actual name of the dish), which we shared.

After eating veggies and a little bit of meat for about three months, it was exactly what we needed! There were two types of fish on it, calamari, big ass prawns and something called John Dory Goujons. So good! To finish it off, Kellie had probably the best dessert ever; thé chocolate fondant (you know, with the molten chocolate core). Overall, it cost us only €50, which made the experience only better! While rolling back to the backpackers, I can say that we were completely satisfied.

The next 5 nights we stayed at this same Backpackers. This is definitely a personal record for us; staying at one accommodation willingly in one city for a period of time while travelling! You may applaud. This feat was made possible by our full agenda; we had lots to do on the computer, made some really good friends at the backpackers, visited two head offices of awesome projects, cleaned the car, serviced the car, did some shopping and decided to spent some serious cash on local activities. I am not going to bore you with the car/shopping/laptop stuff, so just lets fastforward to the first activity we participated in: Tommy’s Living Desert Tour.

The main purpose of this tour is to get a deeper understanding and respect for the desert and its inhabitants by going to the Namib desert in a big 4×4 from the 70’s (they only drive on the same paths to minimize the damage to the environment). Tommy, our tour guide, turned out to be a real comedian and at the same time a passionate talker about the desert and all its mysteries. He taught us that the desert is an extremely vulnerable ecosystem with animals that are very well adapted to these harsh conditions.

With his tracker, they found sidewinding snakes that move with a sideways motion limiting contact between its body and the hot sand, a horned viper which can belly dance itself just below the sandy surface, a web-footed gecko that is translucent (can actually see some of its organs!) and can dig like crazy, a namibian sand spider which is the most lethal spider in the world (well according to Africans, not Ozzies would tell you else), and a namaqua chameleon which is just the best creature ever! How cool to be able to see these animals in their natural surroundings! It got even cooler when, on the way back, we drove over some big sand dunes which stretched all the way to the ocean. After this beautiful drive across the dunes, we entered the highway again to take us back to Swakop. Amazing experience!

The other activity we did was ocean kayaking! The main attraction here was another big fur seal colony at Walvisbaai. The beauty of kayaking with fur seals is that they don’t see you as a threat when you’re in the water (they apparently do not have natural enemies in the water), unlike the mainland, where jackals and brown hyena’s try to eat their pups. This makes them really playful, enthusiastic and inquisitive which resulted in witnessing them throwing a dead fish over and over and fur seals basically jumping in our kayak! So much fun!

On the route to the colony we also saw flamingo’s and jackals. We didn’t have the luck to see dolphins or whales, but who cares. Told you Swakop area is cool! Other activities you can do are skydiving, sand boarding on the dunes, racing on quads, riding on camels (yes, camels), fishing trips and probably a lot more, but we didn’t want to spent that much more money.

In between all the nice activities we also visited the HQ’s of Save the Rhino Trust (which we met in Palmwag) and Elephant Human Relation Aid (EHRA). Read about those experiences here and here respectively. The funny thing was that a day after we visited the HQ of EHRA a volunteering group of theirs stayed at our backpackers. From that group we especially bonded with Josh, ein German who was fortunate enough to be able to volunteer at various NGO’s (as you might know volunteering is not for free). Josh already knew Tim (a Dutchy, like us) from a previous visit to the backpackers.

Tim practically lives at the Desert Sky Backpackers while “finishing” his Master thesis (he is in no hurry) on a German genocide that took place at the beginning of the 20ste century. Let’s just say the Germans practised their former traits in Namibia first. As a true historian he was genuinely a joy to listen to though! Tim had something on his bucketlist since arriving in Swakop, he just needed some victims to join him. He had the splendid idea of visiting the most posh and expensive hotels in Swakop for an alcoholic beverage. Next to his interest in their beers, he also wanted to visit these buildings because of their colonial past (one hotel was even used as the HQ by the Germans during the genocide).

Of course, any person could see that we did not belong in these fancy hotels, so it was our strategy to act as sophisticated as possible. It was our believe that this was the only way that we could get our hands on them German beers. Before every hotel we entered, we straightened our faces and backs and walked in like undercover agents. It made sure that every beer tasted like victory.

After a few hotels (we managed to successfully infiltrate them all) we ended up at the farewell dinner of the EHRA volunteer group. After twelve days in the field with EHRA, most  of the volunteers go back home (except for Josh). We were not really invited to the dinner, but we were experienced in going undercover so no one would notice it anyway (plus we already befriended the boss of EHRA).

Luckily, everyone accepted us and we had a blast with all the volunteers (also had some fish and beer). After dinner we went to a bar/club of which I forgot the name. It was one of those places where no one dances, but the music is really loud (strange concept). Talked a lot though, which I regretted the next day, and had some shots, which I regretted a second after that, but overall it was a good night =).

Ooww yes, and we ended up at a KFC were I had a cold chicken burger (couldn’t find the strength to complain about it, so I ate it in silence → Kellie: not really silence, just complaining big time to us, and not to the KFC staff).

The next morning we were a few friends richer. In the afternoon, we learned there was some sort of festival thingy going on near our previous campsite. We decided to go with Tim and Josh, but we never really found out what it was all about. Something with bikes and white people. The clue is however, that on our way back to the backpackers we stumbled on fishermen who were cleaning their fish before selling it to shops.

I remember that a lightbulb lit up in my head and I approached a person that seemed to be in charge. He offered me a snoek of at least a meter long (beheaded, gutted and cleaned) for 100 Namibian Dollar (about €6!) I was like “what”? Hell yeah! We even got a braaiing recipe for free. With pride probably written all over my face (Kellie: yup, and a lot of disbelieve), we walked back to the backpackers where we started prepping for the evening braai.

We first marinated the fish in a lemon and parsley mayonnaise and started on building a fire. The fish was complemented with two tasty and colourful salads. That moment when we put the fish on the braai was magic and tasting it for the first time even better!

At the same time five South Koreans were also “grilling” something next to use. Instead of waiting for the fire wood to turn into searing hot coals (so that you can just put your meat on the grill), they put aluminium foil over the open fire, covered it with oil and started cooking their meat. This probably didn’t really work out the way they envisioned it because (with all the additional fat from the meat) the oil on the foil caught flame several times. I can tell you that it is quite funny to see five South Koreans frantically trying to put down a fire to protect their meal! They had enough meat though (I seriously think they ate, or burned, half a pig), so it didn’t really matter for them.

At the end of our meal we got joined by a strange, and already drunk, Namibian guy (probably in his forties and a bit shabby). He had an even stranger request; he asked if one of us could bring him to the local shebeen (liquor shop) for some booze, because he was too drunk to drive. First we were like, mmwwaahh… Not really. But when we finished eating I took him there, with his car. He had a manual Toyota, which normally wouldn’t be a problem, but we were in a former British colony so the steering wheel was on the wrong side. This meant that I also had to shift gears with my left hand, which was some getting used to.

While driving he told me too much about his job (selling and maintaining air conditioners, mainly in mining), car, wife, children, drugs, etc. Even offered me a tour through Swakopmund. I had to drive though. Kindly rejected. Arriving at the shebeen, he told me to talk with and touch no one, okay… Most of the people there looked friendly so I didn’t know what the fuzz was about. But still, I kept a low profile. This was mostly because the shebeen didn’t look really welcoming, liqour shops in Africa are quite similar to banks in Europe; the liquor, money and employees are separated from the drunk people by a thick metal bar. Luckily we we’e in and out, and back at the backpackers in a jiffy (still not sure how he could tell me so much about himself in such a short amount of time).

The rest of the evening we talked around the campfire. The Namibian guy obviously talked the most, cracking one after the other offensive joke. Kellie, Tim and Josh soon left the campfire because of him after which he started showing me some of the worst photos and movies I have ever seen. Won’t go in detail, it was just too much. Fortunately, he noticed that I didn’t like it and he decided to go to bed. Kellie and I followed his example soon after, we had to leave Swakopmund the next morning for Sossusvlei.

Tim and Josh though, went out for a drink with some Americans which apparently (they told us everything about it in the morning) escalated really bad. One of the American girls had something of a mental breakdown (might have been a psychosis). According to Josh and Tim, the girl “escaped” from the backpackers without a key (3 PM or so = not safe), so they decided to run after her, bring her back and calm her down. It took them all night! Allegedly, she shouted things about being possessed and wanting to walk into the ocean. We slept through all of it?

After that story and our morning tea, we thanked the guys for the wonderful time in Swakop and drove off in the direction of the desert. Back to the warmth and more adventures! Read about the surrealistic Sossusvlei in our next blog!

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