Swakopmund, Namibia’s second biggest town and traditional “summer capital”, is one of the most surreal and unique destinations in the country, a sort of central Europe meets the African desert next to the ocean kind of place.
It’s often the place to get some rest and recreation after a dusty trip to the desert dunes of Sossusvlei or the Namib-Naukluft Park – there’s plenty to do and great places to stay.
Approaching the town through the haunting beauty of the Namib Desert, one of the world’s largest wilderness areas, you are greeted by the boom of the surf on the notorious Skeleton Coast, an ever-present reminder of the treacherous and icy Atlantic beyond the desert. Bavarian spires and palm trees rise into view through the coastal mist (it is almost always misty in the morning and late afternoon) and friendly, bustling Swakopmund is revealed.
Just outside Swakopmund, a section of towering dunes have been set aside for all sorts of adventure activities – sand boarding and skiing, quad biking, camel rides and off-road driving.
Swakopmund also offers a host of other attractions, including boat trips to see dolphins and seals, shore-based angling, skin diving, surfing or just simply lazing on the beach.
And, of course, the town is surrounded by the Namib-Naukluft Park, one of the most bewitching desert wilderness areas in Africa, for one day trips or longer safaris for the ultimate desert camping experience.
Scenic flights are very much part of the Swakopmund scene and are easy to arrange. They can last from an hour to a whole day exploring the region with dramatic swoops over places like the Skeleton Coast, Sossusvlei and the Fish River Canyon.
Swakopmund exudes romance and history; a rich cultural melting pot of old and new. The town is an eclectic mixture of Bohemian and Bavarian, home to artists, hippies, strait-laced descendants of German settlers, stately Herero women in Victorian dress, and hard-bitten miners, game rangers, safari operators and fishermen.
But once you’ve got over the surprise of being in a little corner of old Bavaria plonked onto the African coast, the enticing desert beckons.
Just outside town is the extraordinary Moon Landscape, a seemingly never-ending series of bizarre, barren hills resembling the lunar Sea of Tranquillity. It is best visited at sunrise or sunset.
Botanists are lured to the Khan River and the oasis of Goanikontes in search of what have been called “living fossils”, the giant Welwitschia mirabilis. These extraordinary trees never grow more than two metres above the ground, but the bigger specimens have underground stems which are up to four metres wide.
The tree has just two leaves, usually tattered and torn, which droop in opposite directions. If one of the leaves dies, the entire plant dies. The oldest living specimen has been dated at 2,000 years old, while the average age of the youngsters is between 500 and 600 years old.