Swakopmund is a fairly small coastal town (even though it’s actually one of the larger towns in Namibia) on the west coast of Namibia. For Namibians it’s a bit of a resort town; basically somewhere to escape from the heat of pretty much everywhere else in Namibia – in fact on some mornings the fog rolls in to town and you don’t feel like you’re in Africa at all. Twin that with the fact that it’s sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Namib Desert and it’s a perfect recipe for a town dominated by adventure and adrenaline activities. It’s also a great place to get a fix of German cuisine; it was founded in the late 1800’s as the main port for German South-West Africa. So you should find plenty of opportunities for a good schnitzel (not intended to be any form of innuendo) whist you can stroll along the seaside promenade taking in the German architecture and influences. All-in-all, Swakopmund is a bit of mish-mash of cultures and cuisines. It’s also a place worth staying for a couple of days as a stopover on the way from Sossusvlei to Damaraland or the Skeleton Coast.
Visitors to Swakopmund are typically arriving from Windhoek, Sossusvlei (if you’re on a self-drive tour around the country heading clockwise) or Damaraland (if you’re self-driving on the anti-clockwise circuit). If you’re driving then I won’t spend any time explaining how you’ll get there (as I think / hope you’d have a pretty good idea of your own route). If you’re coming from Windhoek but don’t fancy self-driving then there are a few options. The most interesting (in my opinion) is the Starline Trans-Namib railway which stops in Swakopmund on its way from Windhoek to Walvis Bay. There’s something romantically adventurous about rail travel in Africa that makes this appealing (although don’t let me unwittingly convince you that the romance extends to the service being luxury!). I’ve included a link to the Starline website (which also has the latest schedules) in the additional resources section. The other alternative is to take the short flight from Windhoek’s domestic airport. Unfortunately the flight will take you to Walvis Bay rather than Swakopmund; but at least the drive from Walvis to Swakopmund is fairly quick at only 35 minutes on a fairly scenic coastal road. The final option that I’d recommend is the InterCape bus service; which is easy, cheap and comfortable (it’s also a great option for travel in Southern Africa more generally). Again, I’ve included the link to the website in the additional resources section.
The dry season in Namibia is from April to October (with prime game viewing being from mid-May onwards). As a result, most international travelers tend to be in Swakopmund during that same period. Of course, when there are more people then prices typically go up and things get booked further in advance (supply and demand economics always haunts us travelers!) . This isn’t necessarily a problem; and in fact I’ve been to Swakopmund a few times at different points in the year (including the peak of the dry season) and it’s never felt over-crowded. However, what you will notice is the need to book activities in advance; if you try and book when you arrive you’ll then it’s highly likely that some of the more popular activities will be fully booked (such as sea kayaking with seals). Restaurants also become a lot busier and the more popular ‘brauhaus’’ can be booked up nights ahead of time. The simple remedy is to do your homework and if anything is an absolute ‘must’ on your itinerary then make sure you go ahead and book before you get there.
Adventure Sports: Swakopmund is definitely the capital city for adventure sports in Namibia. Given the abundance of dunes right on the doorstep one of the most popular activities is sandboarding. My one piece of advice on sandboarding is to not be fooled by anyone that sandboarding is easier (or the landing softer) than snowboarding; I swear I nearly cracked my head straight open like a ripe coconut! There are a whole host of extreme activity companies operating in the area and a simple google search reveals a plethora from whom you can book in advance. Other sports you might want to give a go are sand dune quad biking, land yachting, surfing, wind surfing, paragliding and sky diving.
Desert Safaris: Not quite your typical Big 5 safari, but it does provide you with an opportunity to get up close and personal with the ‘Little 5’ of the desert (Namaqua Chameleon, Sidewinder Snake, Shovel-Snouted Lizard, Cartwheeling Spider and Palmato Gecko). These tours are typically really informative 4×4 safaris in to the desert (but if you aren’t exactly fond of snakes and spiders then you might want to give it a miss). One of the more frequently recommended companies is ‘Living Desert Safaris’ and I’ve provided a link to their website in the additional resources section.
Sea Safaris: For me, this is the better option if you want to get a wildlife fix. Your first option is to head out on a boat for dolphin and seal watching (the latter of which is invited up on to the boat for a snack). This is typically the more relaxed and luxurious option as you’ll be sipping champagne and chowing down on hors d’oeuvres before you even leave the port. The more active (and immersive) option is sea kayaking. This might be more work but you’ll be right in the middle of the action as the seals swim around the kayak. If you’re willing to travel the extra distance to Walvis Bay then you may also want to visit the flamingos in the lagoon.
Cape Cross Fur Seal Colony: Not strictly in Swakopmund, the Cape Fur Seal Colony (I’ve provided a link to the brochure in the additional resources section) is about 1.5 hours north towards the Skeleton Coast (so if you don’t have a car you’ll need to arrange a tour). It’s noisy and smelly; take a handkerchief soaked in perfume was the advice we were given and you might want a shower after as the smell permeates everything – but the chance to see around 250,000 seals is worth it. If you happen to be in Swakopmund in November or December then you’ll be there for mating season, when the males (bulls) can reach up to 800lbs. There is small permit charge to visit which is payable at the reception area where you can also get more information on the colony.
Shipwrecks: The Skeleton Coast is famed for its shipwrecks; which provide a fantastic photo opportunity. There are a number dotted along the coast including between Swakopmund and Cape Cross (for example, we visited one at mile marker 68 which was visible from the road and had a small parking area for vehicles). Be sure to check with locals what the current closest one is as they have a habit of being dismantled and sold for scrap (you don’t want to drive all that way only to find the ship is gone!). Some of the more spectacular shipwrecks are way north and would require a fly-in to the Skeleton Coast to reach, but those fairly close to Swakopmund are probably good enough to quench the thirst of the average shipwreck hunter.
Culinary Delights: As I mentioned above, Swakopmund is a heavily German-influenced town. As a result it’s dotted with German restaurants and brauhaus’ where you can get your fill of schnitzels, pork knuckles, bratwurst and eisbein. You’ll also find some fairly decent seafood restaurants (the Tug being the best reviewed of the bunch).
Craft Markets and Shopping: If you’re a fan of leather goods then you’ll find a fair few places selling high quality ostrich, kudu and buffalo leather products. For those looking for local crafts then head down to the artisan market near to the lighthouse. It’s a semi-permanent market where you’ll find a mixture of handmade wooden products and jewelry (and some which don’t appear so handmade…).
Trans-Namib Railway Website: http://www.transnamib.com.na/services/passenger-service/
Intercape Bus Website: http://www.intercape.co.za/
Living Desert Safaris Website: http://www.livingdesertnamibia.com/