An hour’s drive north of Windhoek, where the main road divides – continuing north as the B1, and veering off west to the coast as the B2 – sits the important historical town of Okahandja. Its 24,000-strong population is rapidly expanding, bolstered by growth in light industry, the relocation here of some government offices, and an improving road link with Windhoek, which is making it a commuter town for the capital.
Okahandja has a long history of trade and strategic importance. The Herero were the first to settle here, around 1800, before it later became an important mission station and trading post, as well as a site of conflict between the Herero and Nama, and later, the Germans. Today the town is still the administrative centre of the Herero people, as well as containing the burial sites of many of their former chiefs, notably Samuel Maharero, who led the uprising against the German colonial forces, and Hosea Kutako, a pivotal figure in the independence movement. These and others are honoured in the annual Herero Day commemoration. Jonker Afrikaner, the Orlaam-Nama leader, is buried here.
What the town lacks in tourist sights it makes up for in its fine craft markets; two occupy either end of the main road into and out of town. Though basketry, painted gourds, gemstones and the like are on display, the markets are predominantly about wood. The array and size of some of the carvings are phenomenal, from beautifully polished masks to sculpted life-size Himba women, giant giraffes and even dugout canoes – not easily stuffed into your luggage. Be prepared to be hassled if the stallholders are short of custom when you arrive.
Less well known is the town’s reputation for high-quality biltong – not to be missed, provided you’re not vegetarian; head for the Closwa Biltong Factory Shop and Butchery on Vortrekker Street (see The Waterhole).