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Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Swakopmund and the Skeleton Coast, Namibia

Written by Richard Taylor
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We dont have the money,said Wolfgang.

My big genial driver was expounding on Namibia’s lack of infrastructure. He sounded cheerful. Everything Wolfgang said sounded cheerful, even his lamentations.

His case had been made hours ago, when the gravel road had petered out and Wolfgang swerved the rover from side to side, avoiding the deeper mounds of red earth. Happily, we didnt spin our wheels in any serious way, the route upgraded finally and we continued without incident to the Tropic of Capricorn, its marker sign faded after years of sand and wind, further obscured by the stickers plastered on by previous drivers. It surprised me to feel jazzed about a line of latitude. Not your typical bucket list item.

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We reached Swakopmund in the late afternoon, stopping by its lighthouse and adjacent market, where Wolfgang inquired about vacancies and found one for me at the Villa Weisse.

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Spitzkoppe tomorrow?asked Wolfgang.

Maybe. Maybe the day after. Want to look around first.

Very good,” he said and we shook hands.

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There was an impression of a good cycling town, with its pancake flatness and wide avenues and light traffic. On the south side was an equestrian club where riders were trotting their steeds through the dunes and sparse grasses. Beyond that was the Namib Desert. This was Swakopmund, squeezed between sand and sea, although the hotel and street signs BISMARK STRASSE, LUDERITZ STRASSE, HOTEL SCHWEIZERHAUS, HOTEL KAISER WILHELM suggested another country entirely. The main thoroughfares like Sam Nujoma and Daniel Kamho had recently swapped their Germanic monikers for more indigenous tags (Sam Nujoma Avenue was previously Kaiser Wilhelm Street). Within this leisurely grid were handsome outdoor malls, smart little shops and a narrow beachside path lined with palms, while the store fronts and residences had a clean central European chalet-like charm.

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It was a pretty little town in other words, Namibia’s most popular resort, a place to don flip-flops and chill. But I hoped for their sake it wasnt high season, for as the mists curled in off the Atlantic, ’Swako’ was suddenly a cold empty burg; streets, markets, beach near deserted but for flocks of guinea fowl, which had the run of the place. As for chilling, well, one could still do that; the few tourists on view were bundled in parkas and toques, while the market vendor ladies huddled in sixes and sevens, wrapped tightly in blankets.

Until they made a sale.

In that happy event, the covers were tossed, the ladies braving the cold with equanimity, posing near naked for the customer pix. I bartered for seven bracelets, paying too much as usual, underlined by a vendors remark:

Sir, you may take many photos,she said.

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I took three. Didn’t want them to catch their death. Their children, who had remained fully clothed, were sniffling and I disabused myself of the notion that Africa was an eternally hot place.

Back at the lodge, on the upstairs terrace, our proprietress was chatting over coffee and cigarettes with a group of friends that suggested a Hell’s Angels retirement chapter. They were in fact a motorcycle club and knew that in this rugged land, self-driving was the way to go. Public transit required a public. No infrastructure, as Wolfgang had said.

The manager offered me some coffee. For instant coffee it was surprisingly good. On her recommendation, I returned to town and popped into the Kristall Galerie, an ideal diversion for inclement weather, featuring a dramatically lit faux cave and a fourteen thousand kilo quartz crystal, the largest in the world. The latter was found on the first floor and the security man moved aside, to clear my photographic field of vision.

Actually, if you dont mind, you can stand beside it,I said. Gives it some scale.

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I recalled Wolfgang’s reference to Namibia’s virtually unlimited, largely untapped mineral wealth, of which the museum offered a glittering panoply: amethyst, topaz, garnet, aquamarine. Even the sulphur looked pretty.

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As was his habit, Wolfgang showed up early the next morning. The sea mists dissolved as we moved inland under a crackling sun, the blue skies arching over the rocky hills and the boundless crystal treasures they were hiding. After an hour, we stopped at a collection of kiosks and tents, where the tots and vendors greeted Wolfgang as an old friend.

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They are Damara people,” he told me.

Three children were playing a board game with beautifully colored stones. Were they precious? Was Namibia some kind of El Dorado where the gems were so commonplace one could roll them about on board games?

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We turned off the main road toward the mountain called Spitzkoppe. Wolfgang introduced me to our guide Gideon, who led us to a large rock overhang revealing cave paintings from millennia ago. Gideon explained the meaning and composition and materials used. Blood was involved. It usually is.

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We hiked past the rock formation called The Elephant (a fair likeness) and continued on to The Arch, a bridge of stone familiar to cineastes – it was here that Stanley Kubrick filmed his prancing monkey folk and black obelisks in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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They shoot a lot of movies in Namibia,said Wolfgang after wed said our goodbyes to Gideon. All the Mad Max films.”

We were driving now along the treacherous stretch of coastline that extended through half of Namibia’s western flank. Wolfgang pointed out the battered hulk of a sunken Japanese frigate, one of many ships claimed by the Skeleton Coast over the years.

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We continued on to the Cape Cross Seal Reserve, remarkable both for its vast crush of seals and its crushing stench; the creatures were everywhere, bobbing in the sea, covering the rocks and beach, overflowing the parking lot. The general din suggested the bleating of sheep, punctuated by angry barks when the seals fought each other for space.

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Theyve eaten most of their food supply,said Wolfgang. A lot of them are starving.

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Two hours later, we had returned to Swako and its mists.

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The fogs persisted until late afternoon the next day (after I’d finished packing). I opened the door of my room. All was clear. The sun was bright. I left the lodge. A group of school children shouted and waved from a van. I waved back. I continued to the beach. There were more people now, scampering about the rocks, fleeing the waves of incoming foam with squeals of laughter. The pastel buildings and cafes were glowing, the surf gloriously lit and Swakopmund was Namibia’s resort town at last.

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Still too cold for flip-flops.



©Richard Taylor


Last modified on Thursday, 01 July 2021