Swakopmund, Namibia –
a German town in Africa
Recently, the Australian broadcaster SBS reported that the German language is making a comeback in the Barossa Valley in South Australia, which has a rich German heritage. In my opinion, it could only be to the advantage of the Barossa to cultivate this heritage and promote the language to help attract German tourists.
This reminded me of our experience of Swakopmund on the Atlantic coast of Namibia. Several years ago we spent an unforgettable holiday in Namibia. We were in Swakopmund for 6 days. I would like to share some of my memories with you.
Swakopmund is situated on the mouth of the Swakop River, which gave it its name. The setting is amazing: except for the side facing the ocean, the town is surrounded by desert with huge sand dunes. I’ll never forget the stark contrast when driving through the suburbs. There are houses with gardens with lush green lawns, bushes and flowers. Behind the fence of the last garden there is just sand and no plants whatsoever.
In the midst of all the sand, there is this picture book German town. Swakopmund was founded in 1892 by Captain Curt von Francois as the main harbour of German South West Africa (the capital, Windhoek is two years older). It was not easy for the Germans to find a site that had water supply. The other possible site for a port was Walvis Bay (about 40km south), but this belonged to the British.
Initially there were only 40 civilians in Swakopmund. They found it very hard to settle down in this inhospitable area. Initially they had to dig caves into the sand for shelter. However, soon supply came by ship and houses could be built, initially wooden prefabricated ones. By 1897, there were already 113 settlers with post and telegraphic services, and the first telephone connection was established in 1901.
In 1904, there was an uprising by the Hereros in Namibia. The German response was to ship weapons, soldiers and supplies through the port of Swakopmund. The civilian population also rose quickly so that by 1905 there were already 1433 people living there. Swakopmund boasted a bank, hotels, shops, a brewery and a Lutheran congregation (the church building was consecrated on 7th January 1912). An 11m high lighthouse was built in 1902, which was extended by another 10m in 1910 and is still operational today. Public transport by light rail throughout the town, was also introduced. The first decade of 20th century was a period of prosperity, which is reflected by the buildings from that time. Prime examples are the Woermann House and the Hohenzollern House. The Woermann House belonged to belonged to Woermann Brock & Co, a shipping company. From its tower observers used to look for ships in the ocean and ox wagons in the desert. The Hohenzollern House was originally a hotel. These buildings give the town its unique atmosphere to this day.
The beginning of WWI brought an end to the prosperity. The British shelled the town and the population was evacuated. South African Union troops entered the empty town on 15 January 1915. An armistice was declared with the civilians, who were allowed to return from the I July 1915. However, its economic raison d’être – the port – was no longer used, which caused many people to leave for economic reasons. The last German officials were expelled from Namibia in October 1919.
In 1923, the authorities decided on a rescue plan for Swakopmund and made it into a holiday resort. This decision has stood the test of time. The town makes the most of its colonial heritage. Namibia was a German colony for only 30 odd years. Despite this short tenure, it is quite surprising how strong its impact still is today, all over the country, but particularly in Swakopmund. The architecture is German, German cuisine is everywhere and German is spoken widely.
The buildings from the first decade of the 20th century buildings are well-maintained. To a certain extent the town centre is a more uniform example of a German town of that period than many towns in Germany are. Of course most towns in Germany were not built within just a few short years, but evolved over time. They suffered destruction during WWII and the post-war enthusiasm for modernisation, which Swakopmund escaped. Great care has been taken so that the modern buildings are a good stylistic fit with the historic architecture.
German traditions are also maintained on a culinary level, however, not the fake Bavarian food which you often find in Australia. Modern German cuisine has very little in common with dishes like Eisbein with Sauerkraut and Knödel.
During our visit to Swakopmund, we were lucky enough to stay at the Hansa Hotel. This facility is without a doubt the best hotel I have ever stayed in. It was spacious, beautifully decorated and had outstanding personalised service. The choice between the continental breakfast buffet and/or the traditional cooked breakfast was a no-brainer for us. Who wants bacon and eggs, if you can have all sorts of traditional German breads and rolls, jams, cold meats, fish and cheeses and even fresh oysters?
One afternoon we went to a café in town and were treated to real baked cheesecake with cherries. The restaurants in Swakopmund have evolved with Africa/German influences. You can even get African speciality dishes, as my daughter did when one evening she had “black and white” (zebra).
Seafood is also in widely available. Along the coast of Namibia, the Benguela current is flowing up from the south. Its cold waters are full of nutrients and marine life is plentiful. One morning we went on a dolphin and seal watching cruise from Walvis Bay (as there is a lot of fish, there are lots of seals). One of the seals even came on board of the boat. The skipper of our boat showed us the oyster pods along the coast. Due to the nutrient rich current, oysters grow at record speed. He told us that once during wild weather, some of the oyster pods became loose and the oysters escaped. They caught some again after several months and they had grown to a size of around 25cm in diameter. He showed us the shell of one of these run-away oysters. And then we had – normal size – oysters and champagne for lunch.
As mentioned earlier, German is spoken widely. As Swakopmund seems to be a must-visit for German tourist, keeping up the linguistic tradition makes sense, but also makes this destination more attractive. One day my daughter and I looked at Tusk T-shirts, a shop specialising in hand-printed T-shirts. The (indigenous) shop assistant came up to my daughter and asked her in perfect German whether she could help her. My daughter’s German is rather limited and the shop-assistant’s English was also limited, so mum the interpreter had to come to the rescue!
Swakopmund also makes the most of its unique geographical location. One morning, we went quad biking in the desert. In the small group, just our family and a guide, we prioritised sight-seeking instead of thrill-seeking. It was an unforgettable experience to drive through the sand dunes, though -at least for me – rather scary too. Driving through shifting sand is a bit like driving through loose snow. However, there is simply no other way to experience the desert. The views more than made up for it.
And this brings me back to the Barossa Valley. They have so much to offer, excellent wines, good food, golf courses, a rich German tradition/heritage. These are just the type of attractions German tourists are looking for, especially the somewhat older ones with more disposable income. However, they might not have had as much exposure to spoken English as younger people have today. Therefore to be able to communicate in their own language would be a big draw-card. Australia has more to offer than beaches.
‘Swakopmund – Town in Namibia’, Namibweb. URL: http://www.namibweb.com/swakopmund.htm [last accessed 15 Dec. 2015]
‘Swakopmund the German colonial period’, Namibia-1on1. URL: http://www.namibia-1on1.com/a-coastal/swakopmund-4.html [last accessed 15 Dec. 2015]
‘Woermann House in Swakopmund’, Namibweb. URL: http://www.namibweb.com/woermann.htm [last accessed 17 Dec. 2015]
‘Evangelical Lutheran Church Swakopmund, Namibia‘, The Cardboard Box Travel Shop. URL: http://www.namibian.org/travel/buildings/elcin-swakopmund.html [last accessed 15 Dec. 2015]