Arriving in Swakopmund is something of a soul-eroding experience. The perimeter comprises grey squat buildings, many half-finished with rebar sticking out of concrete foundations like bone pipes from a half-eaten carcass. But like a changeling disguised as a tax accountant, so has Swakopmund wrapped itself in banality to hide its inner glamour. Breach the exterior and you’ll find a perfectly quaint little German town, hiding away in this desolate desert landscape, full of adventure for those who seek it.
It is easy to forget that one is in Africa when perambulating the streets of Swakopmund. The architecture is distinctly German with painted wooden beams and old German styled lettering over the doors. Every menu features five different kind of schnitzel and wherever you go, you hear old white people speak German. It is also oddly cold. 17 degrees Celsius in the summer is not what I expected from Africa, but there is constant cold wind blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean.
Unlike Windhoek, Swakopmund is walkable. It is, after all, much smaller, and apart from dining, there isn’t much to do. The only real ‘thing’ I did in town was to visit the Snake Park, where a German man delights in freaking people out. Or rather, he just does stuff that freaks people out, such as releasing a black widow and her brood of 50 killing machines into the garden (the same garden where we walked around with sandals) and petting a black mamba. No, it had not been de-venomed, and yes, they are highly venomous. But apparently, it was “friendly” and “didn’t bite”. It also gets let out into the garden from time to time. Anyway, there were plenty of snakes to admire in there, as well as spiders and scorpions.
But Swakopmund is more famous for the things you can do outside the city than inside. It is self-styled as the adventure capital of Namibia. You can go paragliding, skydiving, dolphin tracking, whale watching and much more. I did three things: sandwich harbour, sandboarding and quad biking.
Let’s start with the very best! Sandwich harbour is a natural harbour south of Swakopmund. It was never made into a commercial harbour since it is nearly impossible to get to, surrounded as it is by massively tall sand dunes. You need a 4×4 drive jeep to get there, and you must drive between the Atlantic Ocean and the sand dunes. Time it wrong and you can wave goodbye to your car as the tide drags it out to the ocean and then walk home.
Obviously, you need a guide for this, and I got the very best in the world, Burger. Yep, Burger. A library disguised as a big jolly fella. He knew absolutely everything about the dunes. The dunes are made from the bottom of the sea, being blown back up on land and making its way slowly (very slowly) across the land. He knew how the eco-system of the dunes works. (It starts with a little beetle breathing moisture from the sea air.) He knew how to dive after sand-diving geckos. And most importantly, he knew how to dig out a stuck jeep.
The lagoon at the end of the drive is absolutely stunning. The climb up the border-dunes is tough, but well worth the climb. Inland, you have the endless dune fields stretching out to the horizon. Opposite, the endless sea. And in between, this clear blue calm lagoon, full of birds. And as you stare at this beauty, your eyeballs are being sandblasted by the relentless wind and sand and you don’t even care.
To get back again, you need the mother of all 4×4 jeeps, and a Burger to drive it, as the way back goes over the dunes. This was a proper adrenaline rush! The incline up a dune 30 degrees, and you need to step on the gas to make it up the soft sand, but must stop in time before you drop off the edge of the other side. Well, at least until you’ve had time to check that it is not going into a sink hole. Once you know that, you do drop of the edge! The decline of a dune is 60 degrees! As Burger said, “Hold on to your lunch!” This is experts-only driving, and even experts get stuck. Yep, we got stuck. We had to dig out the jeep and push and heave to get back on the … ‘road’.
I cannot recommend this enough. And if you go, you should go with Burger! The tour company is Turnstone Tours, and they also do bespoke camping trips all around Namibia, all out of Swakopmund.
Swakopmund is surrounded by a field of sand dunes, and I highly recommend spending a morning sandboarding. It’s like snowboarding, but down the side of dune. I’m a good skier, but the one time I tried snowboarding, I failed spectacularly and I quickly gave up. Sandboarding was surprisingly easier to learn than snowboarding. The sand is more forgiving than snow. Taking a tumble hurts a whole lot less, and the sand is also a slower medium to board through, so you have time to react to mistakes and correct them. The drawback though is that you have to carry your board back up the dune, which means you only have time with a few runs. I managed five rides, and during one of them, I tried a jump! OK, not a graceful landing, but a jump nonetheless!
The other thing you can do is lie-down sandboarding. This takes no skill what so ever, apart from holding on to a sheet of cardboard and scream ‘yee-haa’! Gravity does the rest. While stand-up sandboarding was a fun challenge, the lie-down sandboarding was a thrilling ride at 71 km/h with your face a decimetre from the ground.
Quad Biking (on dunes)
I had had about enough of trekking over dunes at this point, so the next time I went out there, I did so on a quad bike. I had been warned that they can be dangerous and that people flipped over with them, but I have a hard time seeing how. My maximum speed was 50 km/h, hardly hair rising. In fact, I was mildly disappointed with it. I had expected adventure but got a pleasant scenic drive around the dunes. Beautiful to be sure, but not what I had expected. There was some excitement when we played around in the ‘carousels’, whereby you drive up, along and down the side of the dunes, but I never felt a proper rush of adrenaline.