To get to Swakopmund as an overseas visitor, you first have to fly into the country’s capital Windhoek, located at an elevation of 1800m on the southwest corner of the African continent in one of the most isolated and little known parts of the world, and then travel by road some 380km, including a 150km desert crossing.
This beautiful seaside town was founded in August 1892, two years later than Windhoek, by Captain Curt von Francois, as the main harbour of German South West Africa, a former colony ruled by Germany. Its name was changed to Namibia in 1968.
Increased traffic between Germany and its colonial outpost necessitated establishing a port since Walvis Bay, located 33km south, was a British possession. The choice fell on Swakopmund, where water could be found and because other sites checked were unsuitable. Records show that in 1894 there were only 19 inhabitants.
The name in essence means “the mouth of the Swakop River” and is believed to originate from the Nama word ‘Tsoakhaub,’ which can be translated as ''excrement opening'', an accurate description of the waters of the Swakop River in times of flood when it carries tonnes of clay and sand, along with piles of vegetation and the odd animal corpse.
Despite its name, this beautiful little town on the west coast of Namibia has a rich past, reflected in the many old but well-preserved colonial buildings. The facades, arches, towers, and ornamentation reflect architectural themes which dominated Europe at that time.
Swakopmund retains something of 19th century Germany with traditions like Küsten-Karneval, Oktoberfest and the Christmas Market still celebrated. Many of the restaurants offer typical German dishes. For example, the Black Forest cake and the daily fresh baked Apfelstrudel served at Café Anton are famous beyond the borders of the country. In addition, the 24-hour German Language Radio station the ‘Allgemeine Zeitung’ reports daily on important and not-so-important issues. On Mondays, it announces the result of the German Bundesliga results. A sizeable part of Swakopmund’s population is still today German-speaking.
The city’s colonial landmarks include the:
• Swakopmund Lighthouse, the first 11m were erected in 1902 and a further 10m added in 1910.
• State House (Kaiserliche Bezirksgericht), built in 1906
• Mole, an old sea wall and now the main beach next to the Swakopmund Museum which documents Namibian history.
• Woermann Haus, built in 1906 with a prominent tower, now a public library.
• Hohenzollern Haus, built in 1906 as a hotel.
• Prinzessin Ruprecht Heim, the original Military Hospital, built in 1902, now a senior residency
• Kaserne, completed in 1906 served as the military barrack
• Antonius Residenz, opened in March 1908 and which, until a few years ago, was a hospital
• The Lutheran Church, with bells imported from Germany, which was consecrated in January 1912
• The elegant Swakopmund Railway Station, now a hotel
• Altes Gefängnis, the prison, built in 1909
• German School, completed October 1913, which hosted both the government and municipal secondary schools
As the disembarkation of settlers and troops on surf boats was a life-threatening undertaking, an artificial harbour was built at very high cost. Unfortunately, the Mole sea wall was a brave but ultimately unsuccessful attempt. Although some 375m of pier was completed in 1900, by winter 1906 it had silted up and a sandbank blocked it completely, leading to the construction of a 325m long wooden jetty in 1902, which was replaced by an iron one in 1912.
The remains of this jetty still serve as a pedestrian walkway and, since 2010, host an oyster bar at the far end. Today the Mole serves as the main beach and attracts locals and tourists alike. Swimmers can have close encounters with dolphins who visit regularly and a small colony of seals that enjoy drying their fur on the nearby rocks.
In 1894, regular freight traffic began, led by the Woermann-Linie, a shipping company based in Hamburg, Germany. Thus Swakopmund quickly became the main port for imports and exports for the whole territory, and was one of six towns which received municipal status in 1909. Many government offices for German South-West Africa had offices in Swakopmund. When the jetty opened, the newspaper ‘Deutsche Südwestafrikanische Zeitung’ stated that there were 1,433 inhabitants of the town.
After German South-West Africa was taken over by the Union of South Africa in 1915, all harbour activities were transferred from Swakopmund to Walvis Bay. Many of the Central Government services ceased. Businesses closed down, the number of inhabitants diminished, and the town became less prosperous.
Although the discovery of uranium at Rössing, 70 km outside the town dates back to 1928, exploration and extraction only started in 1976. This led to the development of the world's largest open cast uranium mine. In 2005, it produced 3,711 ton of uranium oxide, becoming the fifth-largest uranium mine, with eight per cent of global output. This had an enormous impact on all facets of life in Swakopmund and necessitated expansion of the infrastructure of the town, making it into one of the most modern in Namibia.
Outside of the city, the Rossmund Desert Golf Course is one of only five all-grass desert golf courses in the world. The well maintained fairways not only attract golf enthusiasts but also animals like springboks and ostriches from the adjacent Namib Desert plains. Over the last 50 years, the potential of Swakopmund as a holiday resort has been recognized and developed. Today, tourism-related services form an important part of the town's economy.
The number of hotels and restaurants has increased as more and more international tourists visit Swakopmund while touring the huge country with the second lowest population density in the world, after Mongolia.
Surrounded by the Namib Desert on three sides and the cold Atlantic waters to the west, Swakopmund enjoys a mild desert climate. The atmospheric conditions caused by dense banks of coastal fog that hang over the ocean on many mornings dissipate as the sun rises high in the sky. With only around 20mm falling per year, rain is a rather rare event.
While the African sun is very intense, a fresh breeze from the southwest coming up later in the afternoon does have a cooling effect. Due to the cold and marine-life-rich Benguela current, seawater temperatures rarely reach over 20 °C.
Many South African and Namibian pensioners take up residence in Swakopmund and the German language can be heard everywhere. Although many of prominent streets were renamed after independence, some still bear names from the colonial days. Today, Swakopmund is the capital of the Erongo Region and has about 34,000 inhabitants.