It’s along Namibia’s central coast that visitors can make the most of what the country has to offer, from exploring desert and marine wildlife to visiting former townships and rural communities, and from road trips through dramatic coastal landscapes to a host of adrenaline-pumping adventure sports. All these activities can be enjoyed from the colonial-era towns of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. Both can be reached from Windhoek in under four hours via the tarred B2 that follows the railway line west, passing through the former mining towns of Karibib and Usakos. Yet far more scenic back routes take you via the dramatic, tortuous Gamsberg or Bosua passes, dropping down onto the flat gravel plains of the Namib, affording opportunities to stop off at a hospitable guestfarm or a wilderness campground along the way.
Around 350km west of Windhoek, the pretty seaside resort of Swakopmund, with its German colonial architecture and moderate coastal climate, has long been the holiday playground of Namibia’s white population. Boasting comfortable accommodation, excellent cafés and restaurants and a relaxed vibe, it has more recently acquired a reputation as a centre for adventure activities. In contrast, Walvis Bay, a thirty-minute drive down the road, is Namibia’s main port, home to a vibrant fishing industry, though its wildlife-rich lagoon is now the focus of a burgeoning tourist scene.
Both towns are surrounded by stunning dune scenery – some of which lies within the northern section of the Namib-Naukluft National Park and the contiguous, newly formed Dorob National Park – which can be explored in any number of ways: on the back of a camel, a horse or a quad bike, or from the air, in a plane, or skydiving out of one. Popular destinations include the fabulously isolated dune-enclosed Sandwich Harbour, an avian paradise south of Walvis Bay. Equally appealing is Welwitschia Drive, just outside Swakopmund, which takes in a variety of desert landscapes, as well as one of the planet’s oldest specimens of the eponymous plant. Further north, the mythical Skeleton Coast stretches 680km to the Angolan border. Most visitors only go as far as Namibia’s largest seal colony at Cape Cross, 120km north of Swakopmund, but with your own wheels and a permit, you can head inland to the explore the otherworldly Messum Crater, or follow the coast road another 200km to experience the desolate desert landscapes of the Skeleton Coast National Park.
The longest yet quickest route to the central coast from Windhoek is via the tarred B2, which peels off the B1 at Okahandja, some 66km north of Windhoek, heading west via the small towns of Karibib and Usakos to complete the remaining 280km to Swakopmund. The journey should take no longer than four hours, though there are diversions that can be made along the way, for example by venturing south into the Otjipatera Mountains south of Karibib, or exploring the bronze boulders and rock art of the Erongo Mountains to the north of Usakos, or even the dramatic Spitzkoppe, slightly further to the west. Try to avoid driving west along this road late Friday afternoon, especially on holiday weekends, as it’s prime time for accidents: the traffic is inevitably heavy and travelling fast, yet the dazzling setting sun will be directly in your eyes.
For quieter, more adventurous back roads to both Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, you need to head west and southwest out of Windhoek, along the C28 and C26, respectively – gravel roads that are devoid of shops, petrol stations and, for much of the way, human habitation. Both take you down scenic passes as the roads cascade off the central highland plateau, down onto the gravel plains of the central Namib below, across increasingly desolate landscape until you reach the coast.
North of Swakopmund, the increasingly wild and seemingly barren coastline stretches towards the Kunene River, which marks the border with Angola about 680km away. Travelling along the compacted salt and gravel coastal road affords you views of endless gravel plains, flat sandy beaches pummelled by the Atlantic waves, and, eventually, pale, distant dunes that creep closer as you drive further north. All of this is punctuated by the occasional flecks of lichen fields, which transform into a colourful tapestry in the early morning mist.
Now, in theory, this whole strip of land (reaching only around 40km inland) is protected, initially by Namibia’s most recently formed reserve, the Dorob National Park (formerly the West Coast Recreational Area). The park extends southwards to the Kuiseb River Delta, south of Walvis Bay, and northwards to the Ugab River, where the Skeleton Coast National Park begins. The ultimate aim is the creation of a coastal megapark that extends the entire length of Namibia’s coastline. For the moment, the incipient Dorob National Park is more a paper park, with various excluded areas (where development has already taken place) and no real facilities; as a result, no park fees are charged as yet, except to enter the seal reserve at Cape Cross.
A pinprick on the map around 120km up the coast from Swakopmund, Cape Cross is home to the largest colony of Cape fur seals in the world. Though the landscape is bare and unremarkable, the seals draw a surprising number of visitors, and the walkway allows you to get close to the action: belligerent bulls tussling for supremacy and mating rights, trying to take chunks out of each other, and female seals and pups, squabbling, playing, dozing off in the sun, or struggling to get out of the surf as it lashes against the rocks.
Nearby is the Cape Cross itself – or rather a replica – which marks the spot where in 1484 Diago Cāo, a Portuguese explorer, erected a padrāo, or stone cross, in an attempt to claim the land for the king of Portugal.
You’re likely to smell it before you see it: the world’s largest breeding colony of Cape fur seals, which sprawls over the windswept beach at Cape Cross. Fur seals (family Otariidae), endemic to southern Africa, are commonly known as “eared seals” as they are distinguished from “true seals” (family Phocidae) by their visible external ears.
Out in the ocean for much of the year, the vast, blubber-bloated bulls heave their 360kg bodies onto shore around mid-October, losing almost half that body weight over the next few weeks as they scrap with other bulls to establish and defend territory and secure a decent-sized harem. The heavily pregnant cows arrive a few weeks later but enjoy very little breathing space: no sooner are the pups born (late Nov–early Dec) than the dominant bulls mate with each female in their harem. Development of the fertilized egg is delayed for three months, followed by a nine-month gestation period, which results in females giving birth at the same time each year. Pups suckle from their mother for almost a year, though progressively they hunt for longer periods away from home. Just under one in three pups survives – some drown, some are abandoned or lose their mother, or get trampled on by other seals; around a quarter fall prey to brown hyenas and black-backed jackals, which can be spotted at dusk, lurking on the fringes of the colony, awaiting their chance to snatch their prey.
Numbering between eighty thousand and one hundred thousand, the size of the seal colony is kept more or less constant by the extremely controversial annual culling that takes place between July and November, during which thousands of seals are slaughtered. The Namibian government maintains that the cull is necessary to protect fish stocks, provide seasonal jobs and as a means of generating income through fur sales; counter-arguments put forward by the increasingly vocal national and international anti-culling protest movement claim fish stocks are not threatened by seals and that more jobs and better revenue could be generated through eco-tourism activities involving seals.
Straddling the eastern boundary of the Dorob National Park lies the mesmerizing Messum Crater, the centre of a collapsed volcano that erupted some 132 to 135 million years ago, and the probable source of much of the basalt that forms the neighbouring Goboboseb Mountains, to the north. The shallow flat caldera, around 20km in diameter, is surrounded by two non-continuous concentric rings of heavily eroded igneous rocks, forming a surreal, eerie wilderness worthy of a science fiction film. The routes to and from the crater also provide opportunities to explore other fascinating natural and human phenomena: lichen fields and welwitschias lie along the well-graded gravel track from the Skeleton Coast side; archeological remains, such as stone circles used by ancient nomadic Damara groups, are also visible; and taking the northeastern exit out of the crater, the vast massif of the Brandberg looms as you draw closer, glowing pink and gold when bathed in afternoon sunlight.
Make sure you’re well prepared for the drive here. In addition to the satellite map you can purchase from Henties Bay tourist office, a GPS is advisable (and a satellite phone if you’re travelling alone and not up to basic breakdown repairs), since it’s easy to get lost.
At the Ugab River the larger-than-life skull and crossbones on the gates herald your entry to the Skeleton Coast National Park, evoking images of whalebones strewn along the shoreline, giant rusting hulls of shipwrecked vessels half-buried in the sand, and the twisted skeletons of the hapless crew members who struggled, and failed, to make it out of the desert alive. While some of these images hold true, most shipwrecks have been consumed by either the sand or the sea, and those that remain are to be found in the most northerly section of the park, only accessible on a fly-in safari (or in the equally inaccessible Sperrgebiet), and not the southern section open to self-drive visitors.
As a result, it’s easy to be underwhelmed by the Skeleton Coast, especially when driving across never-ending, and seemingly empty, gravel plains in thick coastal fog, flanked by a beach scene that is reminiscent of the North Atlantic in November. There are few actual sights – a couple of small and unimpressive wrecked fishing boats and some abandoned mining equipment. However, if you adjust your expectations, appreciate the stark beauty of the landscape, and take time to stop along the way and seek out some of the smaller pleasures of the desert – the insect life and multicoloured carpets of lichen fields, which are only apparent when soaking up the morning moisture from the fog – then the park will still mesmerize you.
If you persist as far as the last 58km between Torra and Terrace Bay, the dunes reach the road; a 7km dune drive affords you a closer exploration. Some 166km after the Ugab Gate, the fairly bleak collection of exposed cement cabins that comprises Terrace Bay marks the end of the road; part of a former mining operation, this isolated outpost is now favoured by fishing fanatics.
By the side of the salt road up the Skeleton Coast and en route to the Messum Crater on the Namib’s gravel plains lie some of the world’s most extensive (foliose) lichen fields. One of Namibia’s more overlooked treasures – especially since to the uninitiated they resemble shrivelled, dead bits of plant for much of the time – they warrant closer examination. In contrast, on overcast mornings, when there is moisture in the air, they show their true colours, “blooming” and producing a kaleidoscope of colour, turning purple, orange, black, green or reddish-brown, only to shrivel up once more as the sun burns more to reduce transpiration. If you happen to miss the show in the morning fog, at any time of day you can stop, sprinkle a little water on a patch, wait a few minutes, and watch the transformation.
Lichens are truly extraordinary: plant-like but not plants, rather organisms that are combinations of algae living among the filaments of a fungus in a symbiotic relationship. The alga absorbs light and moisture from the air to photosynthesize and provide food and energy; the fungus also absorbs and stores moisture, draws nutrients from the ground, and usually acts as an anchor. For this reason, lichen are important stabilizers in the Namib, helping prevent erosion, though a relatively common sight is the Xanthomaculina convoluta, a free-flowing foliose lichen that blows around and collects in hollows and dry river beds; with a charcoal-grey appearance when sheltering from the sun, it turns green when absorbing moisture.
Of the world’s 20,000 known lichen species, the Namib hosts around 120, many endemic to the area. One of the most visually striking is Teleschistes capensis, a relatively large bushy specimen, which can grow several centimetres high, and resembles a piece of terrestrial coral the colour of burnished gold when open. Some lichen are thought to be thousands of years old – even older than welwitschias, growing at a glacial pace of only 1mm per year. This also makes them incredibly fragile; a thoughtless bit of off-road driving over seemingly featureless desert can result in the destruction of centuries of growth.
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.
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.
For around half the year, especially in summer, you’ll head out of your hotel after breakfast to find Swakopmund or Walvis Bay enveloped in thick fog. As the prevailing southwesterly winds are further cooled over the Benguela Current, the air condenses to form cloud and fog. Blown inland, the humid air becomes trapped beneath the less dense hot air, forming an inversion layer. This compact white blanket of low-lying fog is an extraordinary sight as it creeps over the mainland, hovering over the desert, generally reaching around 60km inland (though sometimes twice that distance) until it’s dissipated by the strengthening sun. Though responsible for many shipwrecks on the Skeleton Coast, this coastal fog helps maintain the milder temperatures at the coast and, crucially, is the lifeblood for much of the Namib Desert’s flora and fauna, providing five times more water than is provided by rain.
A long-standing favourite excursion from Swakopmund is along Welwitschia Drive, a marked interpretive route across the desert that starts a few kilometres from town, and can be done either as a 4WD self-drive (3–4hr) or a half-day tour. The route traverses gravel plains, where you can stop and peer at lichen fields and drought-resistant plants such as the dollar bush, with its waxy coin-shaped leaves that give it its name. Other highlights include the otherworldly “moonscape” – an area of undulating granite mounds that pushed through the Earth’s surface around 460 million years ago, and which have been eroded by the wind and the changing course of the Swakop River over time. Last, but not least, you will see welwitschias – including Namibia’s presumed largest and oldest specimen.
Appearances can sometimes be deceptive: what may look like a mangled giant cabbage run over by a truck is most likely to be Namibia’s most remarkable desert survivor, the aptly named welwitschia mirabilis – “mirabilis” being Latin for marvellous or wonderful, while “Welwitsch” was the surname of the Austrian botanist who stumbled over some in the mid-nineteenth century. Featuring on Namibia’s coat of arms and nicknamed the “living fossil”, the welwitschia can live over 1500 years; its most celebrated specimen – rumoured to be one of the oldest and largest – is located inland from Swakopmund and attracts thousands of visitors annually, though the plant’s withered and dishevelled appearance can be an initial disappointment.
Welwitschias are endemic to the arid, coastal gravel plains that extend 1000km northwards from the Kuiseb River south of Walvis Bay to southern Angola. They survive on very little water and some years get none at all.
Strangely, the welwitschia – a dioecious plant with both female and male specimens – only possesses two grey-green leaves, which shrivel and shred over the years. Though the leaves can reach 2–4m in length, this extraordinary plant rarely grows higher than 1.5m.
As a major fishing port possessing a rather dispersed town centre, and lacking the eye-pleasing colonial-era architecture of Swakopmund, WALVIS BAY, Namibia’s second-largest population centre, attracts few overnight visitors. Tourists that come are usually on a day-trip from Swakopmund to do some activity on the lagoon. However, the town’s very ordinariness and down-to-earth nature can actually be quite appealing after the surreal, toy-town nature of Swakop. What’s more, tourist-oriented accommodation and decent dining options, clustered round the lagoon and new waterfront, are on the increase, and the town makes a better base for the highly worthwhile excursion to Sandwich Harbour. Beyond the lagoon, the only sight – and a very modest one at that – is the town’s one-room museum, in the library basement, which contains some interesting photographs of colonial life in Walvis.
A long-standing birding hotspot, isolated Sandwich Harbour, which lies 55km south of Walvis Bay, has recently begun to attract more casual visitors, drawn by the stunning wilderness scenery, as the rolling golden dunes of the Namib meet the wild Atlantic coast. The “harbour” itself is a lagoon, a mix of fresh and saline water, and an important site for migratory and resident seabirds and waders, which also spread over the nearby tidal mud flats. Numbers can top fifty thousand in summer, and twenty thousand in winter. Even non-birders will be amazed at the colourful carpet of huge flocks of flamingos and pelicans, vast numbers of grebes and the immense variety of terns and waders, dramatically enclosed by the dunes.
Though in theory anyone with a high-clearance 4WD can get a permit from the MET office in Swakopmund and drive themselves here, it is not advised, even for experienced 4WD motorists, as the driving conditions are treacherous, and the route constantly shifting with the sand, plus you will only add more eyesore tracks to the sand. Better to leave your vehicle behind and take one of the organized day-trips. Even then, research the tide timetable thoroughly before booking, as access to the lagoon itself depends on it being low tide so that vehicles can drive along the beach.