Wandering along the orderly main streets, past half-timbered colonial-era buildings and pavement cafés, where German is spoken at every turn, it’s easy to see how Swakopmund – or Swakop, to use its more familiar name – is sometimes jokingly referred to as “Germany’s most southerly Baltic seaside resort”. German-Namibians may only constitute a small percentage of the town’s 45,000 population, but German influence is surreally omnipresent in Namibia’s only real seaside resort. However, you only need to gaze across the dry Swakop River at the rippling golden dunes, or experience a savage sandstorm on a winter morning, to be brought back to the more defining presence of the desert. Indeed, it’s the recent exploitation of the desert – and the dunes in particular – as a location for adventure activities that is helping attract more foreign tourists and a younger crowd, periodically giving the place a slightly less anachronistic feel.
Though midweek in winter Swakopmund can seem like a ghost town, the place really comes alive in the summer holidays (Dec–Jan), when half of Windhoek decamps here to enjoy the cooler coastal climes, and get some respite from the dry desert interior. The downside of this is that guesthouse rooms and restaurant tables are hard to come by. At other times of the year, the place is less busy, though long weekends can attract crowds too.
The town centre
Despite the proliferation of informal settlements and low-cost housing developments northwards, the town centre of Swakop remains small, centring on the main shopping street, Sam Nujoma Avenue, and a few blocks either side, which ends at the seafront and the town’s delightful ocean promenade, where the evenly spaced palm trees seem to stand to attention. The seafront stretches from the Mole – the colonial-era sea wall that now protects the only safe, if cold, swimming spot – and the lighthouse opposite, past the jetty and down to the beach overlooking the Swakop River mouth, which marks the southern boundary of the town.