If you’ve ever remotely considered making a trip to the south African country of Namibia, the town of Swakopmund (or “Swakop”) probably came up in your research. Known as the adventure-travel capital of Namibia, Swakop is sandwiched between the desert and the Atlantic Ocean and is the starting point for many high-adrenaline activities.
Germany’s colonial influence on the country is particularly obvious in Swakop, where many of the architectural elements are straight out of Europe. Streets and stores have German names and owners, and there is no shortage of sauerkraut and weissebier.
The city is extremely multicultural and filled with all sorts of travelers. Everyone in the city speaks English, German and Afrikaans, while those of native African descent additionally speak tribal languages. Whites and blacks mix with ease, though most of the blue collar jobs fall to blacks and it’s uncommon to see local blacks socializing with white tourists or residents at evening watering holes.
Swakopmund is also a city that is heavily geared towards tourism. Signs advertising quad bike trips can be seen on the sides of public garbage cans, and numerous storefronts hawk tours of every kind. And it’s almost impossible to throw a stick without hitting a souvenir shop. It is a beautiful city, and inexpensive to boot, but if you want to see how a normal Namibian lives you should expand your reach into the countryside.
Swakop is 60 minutes by air from Windhoek, and two hours from Johannesburg. The city sits on the western coast of Namibia, between the Namib Desert and the Atlantic ocean. Most visitors arrive by air at Walvis Bay, the port city 30km south, but it’s also possible to arrive by (paved) road from Windhoek in about four and a half hours.
Swakopmund is a small city with a well-planned, walkable downtown laid out in a grid pattern. To the east and south of downtown the desert takes over quickly, while to the north the city devolves into windy residential streets.
Two good points of orientation are the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Swakopmund Hotel and Entertainment Centre, the massive complex that takes up several city blocks and sits on the northern edge of downtown. Keep those in your virtual map and you will have few problems finding your way around.
Downtown is where the lion’s share of restaurants, bars and activities lie, and within that sphere most points of interest are walkable. Unfortunately, not all hotels are necessarily in this area, so it pays to be judicious in choosing the right place to stay if you want to avoid long walks or taxi rides. Something within three to four blocks from downtown is usually a safe bet.
Most of central Swakopmund is extremely walkable and won’t require a vehicle for day-to-day activities. Should you choose to drive however, you won’t have much trouble — traffic is light, parking is aplenty and the road system is fairly robust. There is a Budget car rental agency at the Walvis Bay airport and an Avis desk (by appointment) at the Swakopmund Hotel. At this writing, the coffee shop in Walvis Bay also operated a shuttle service around the region, though the terminal was under construction so the service may be moved after completion.
Within the city, it’s possible to grab a taxi at the busier intersections with relative ease. Taxis here don’t necessarily have a yellow lamp on their roof, but they always have the operator’s name written on the fender, so keep an eye out for the stencil lettering and flag one down like you would in New York City. Note that passengers often share cabs in Swakopmund, so don’t be surprised if there’s another person or two in the car when it stops.
Most trips within the city should cost 20-30 Namibian dollars per person. It’s not necessary to haggle prior to departure, just verify the rate when you get the cab; there are no metered fares.
Longer trips are often arranged through tour operators or your hotel’s booking agent. Most adventures from the city will send a shuttle to pick up passengers in the morning. If you’re out and about at 7:30 in the morning you’ll see vehicles zipping around like ants collecting bread crumbs. Should you need to book a driver for the day, check with your hotel for a trusted source.
One of the biggest complaints western travelers have about Africa is the inconsistent telecommunications connectivity — and Swakopmund is no exception. Many international mobile data plans don’t include Namibia as a “partner” country, so you’ll incur egregiously high data transfer rates if you try to check e-mail on your phone. There is a fairly robust 4G connection here though, so at least phone calls and text messages will likely go through.
Internet connectivity is a problem at many establishments. While many of the guest houses and hotels have wireless service, the speed is so slow that’s impossible to do much more than check e-mail; doing something simple like online banking or browsing Facebook is painfully slow. Ironically, this also means that video rental stores are quite popular here, since streaming movies online is not a practical option.
Beyond the internet, the infrastructure in Swakopmund is refreshingly modern. Power and water are always on and reliable, though most westerners will probably drink bottled water. Almost all of the downtown roads are nicely paved and much of the coffee is even freshly ground.
Where to Stay
Currently, Swakopmund doesn’t have any big western chain hotels like Marriott or Hilton. The closest the city gets to a mainstream hotel is the Swakopmund Hotel and Entertainment Centre, which has several hundred rooms, a pool, a casino and a few restaurants. Unsurprisingly, the hotel also charges western rates.
The rest of the city consists of a series of boutique hotels and guest houses, and it may take some legwork to research the ideal lodging to suit your needs. Most important in your search, however, is the location of the property that you pick. Many of the guest houses in Swakopmund lie on the outskirts of town in sprawling suburbs, or on obscure side streets. The majority of these are not walkable from the downtown area, so if you’re planning on strolling to dinner or staying out late, getting home can be a challenge. While taxis do run through the night, they can be scarce.
Of all guesthouses within walkable distance to the city, Meike’s is the best: it’s not only excellently priced at 800 Namibian dollars per night, but it’s also quite cozy and extremely hospitable.
Namibia’s reported unemployment rate of almost 50 percent means that crime is an unfortunate part of the national economy; however none of that crime seems to have reached Swakopmund. Streets within the downtown area are safe and quiet, and most women feel comfortable walking around on their own at night.
Standard precautions when visiting a developing country hold true here: keep your wallet and mobile phone close, don’t wear flashy clothes or jewelry, and use common sense.
Swakopmund is the starting point for many different types of excursions. Skydiving, dune bashing, desert tours (i.e. Sossusvlei and Spitzkoppe), boat trips (from Walvis Bay) and Skeleton Coast trips can all be arranged with tour outfitters who have offices in town. If your guidebook doesn’t offer suggestions, your hotel or guest house probably has informational flyers for a dozen or more companies who can get you out and about, exploring the fascinating landscapes that define Namibia.