Where Am I?

If someone blindfolded you and dropped you into downtown Swakopmund Namibia you’d be hard-pressed to identify the place as Africa. Walking along the promenade with the pounding surf of the Atlantic, Swakopmund in the shadow of its signature lighthouse, the very well preserved colonial architecture offers clues and picturesque evidence of the regions history. Wait! Where am I? Is this some German resort on the Baltic?

Not likely. I’m in Africa. In Namibia.

For just a few hundred miles of here in Ludritz near where I photographed the wild horses of Garub a few weeks ago, German explorer Adolph Luderitz in 1883 founded a settlement that the following year was officially placed under the German Reich. The vast desert and dune sea between Luderitz and what is now Swakopmund, proved challenging to develop though the German “colony” spread to the north into Hereroland and toward Swakopmund and southeast to an agreed border with Britain’s Bechuanaland. As the colony grew northward the German’s began to look for a port closer in proximity to northern region. While the British had annexed Walvis Bay, just south of Swakopmund, only 35km north near the mouth of the Swakop River, the German’s planted their flag and eventually in 1889 German Captain Kurt von Francois sent a landing party to plant two beacons marking where the town of Swakopmund would be built.

The Neo Baroque Deutsche Evangelische Lutherische Kirche was built in 1910-11 - Lutheran Church.

Palm lined promenade meanders along the Swakopmund coast and beaches.

Though today with only 25,000 residents, Swakopmund is Namibia’s second largest city. But its habitation and development were slow. By 1897 the population had grown to just over 100, the town received its first telephone line, finally linking it to the rest of the world. Conflict with the local Herero people came to a blow when in early 1904 they led an uprising against the Germans. This uprising acted as an impetus to an unlikely modernization of the town with ships delivering twentieth-century weapons, industrial development, ex-patriots and with it banks, hotels, commerce and a beer house. Even a lighthouse was built to guide ships into “the mole”, Swakopmund’s Harbor.

But Swakopmund’s boom era quickly ended during World War I when a British ship shelled the town inciting mass evacuation to the safety of the inland desert. South African troops found a deserted Swakopmund when it entered the town in January 1915. Shortly after the British declared an armistice and the citizens returned to a ghost town. Bringing it back to life, South Africa developed and marketed it as a resort for its citizens. And today it’s one of the top holiday destinations for Namibian’s, South Africans and, of course Germans.

The still operating Swakopmund Lighthouse.

Built in 1901, the Altes Kaiseliches Bezirksgericht served as the magistrates court and later used as district court. From 1918 to 1990 the summer residence of the Administrator General and now since Namibia’s Independence in 1990 it’s quite a nice summer house for the President.

Woermann Haus – and the Damara Tower was built in 1894 as offices and residential quarters for the senior officials of the Damara and Namaqua Trading Company. The architectural ‘Fachwerkbau’ style makes this one of the most signature buildings of Swakopmund. Today it houses the Public Library and Art Gallery.

More recently it attracted Hollywood starlet Angelina Jolie who while filming Beyond Borders fell in love with the area. So much in fact that in 2006 she decided to give birth to her and movie star husband Brad Pitt at the local hospital here. The two have also set up several enterprises that bring needed funding for humanitarian projects and education to the disadvantaged and displaced black community.

But the German influence remains intact. German is spoken as much as English and Afrikaans, the architecture is German and the menu’s at the restaurant are all in German and English.

Wandering the streets of Swakopmund I marvel at the architecture, walk the palm lined promenade, browse the windows of African curio shops and easily familiarize myself with the town. It’s no wonder that everyone who I told that Windhoek would be the place I spend my holiday all strongly suggested that I remain in Swakopmund. Afterall, it is Namibia’s biggest holiday resort. And big? Well, in Namibian terms.

Even though it’s two days before Christmas the town rolls up at 7pm. Even at the height of holiday shopping, I wonder where all the people are? “Everyone is in Swakopmund,” the owner of the town’s only camera and photography shop. “This time of year Windhoek is dead,” he explained while trying to diagnose my camera problem. I’m not sure if it was that road between the T-junction at the Oranje River and Rosh Pinah, or was it the old farm road outside Springbok? But since then my Canon DSLR when fitted with the 17-85 USM IS lens delivers me an Err99 message every time I try to take a picture. Pulling out what’s left of my hair, I troubleshooted this problem for the past several days. Turns out that it must be a problem with the lens. Oddly, the lens operates correctly, more or less, when the zoom is set to any length greater than about 35mm. Shooting at fully wide just gives me another Err99.

“Nope. Nothing in Windhoek,” he said looking over the top of his glasses with sad puppy dog eyes. “You have to go to Jo’Burg,” he explained referring to the largest city in South Africa and almost 2,000km from this little flavor of Germany in Namibia. He handed me a photocopy of a Canon contact in South Africa suggesting I call or email him for more information.

Built between 1904-06 as The Hotel Hohenzollern, Haus Hohenzollern features a facade decorated with cupids, flowers, kneeling lions and atop, there’s Atlas shouldering the world.

Today the Altes Staatsbahnhof serves as the Swakopmund Hotel and Entertainment Center, built in 1901-02 it served as the railroad terminal.

The Kasernewas built in 1905 as a barracks for the engineer soldiers who built the first jetty on the Mole, Today it’s an IH youth hostel.

Seems that the gremlins I’d avoided for 45,000 miles with good luck with my equipment and motorcycle finally caught up with me in Africa. True, I did have the little nagging issue with my MacBook Pro in Brazil. But that was sorted out easily in Buenos Aires. But with Doc acting up in the performance category while hassling me with electrical problems, my favorite Canon workhorse lens and, if you can believe this, my tiny HD video camera saw a little water when I was rafting down the Oranje river and now won’t record — it plays back nicely, but no more recording. This is heartbreaking since Africa perhaps could be some of the best imagery my cameras w ill see, with the wildlife, arid plaines, wild bush and colorful people.

I’m told that service from Jo’Burg could take 4-6 weeks, and the cost might be more than 50% of the purchase price of a replacement. I have no idea where I’ll be in a month and less of an idea of what images I might lose by moving on without my favorite lens. The video camera I could live without, though I’ve been getting better and remember to check in and use it documenting the sights, sounds and recording blow-by-blow monologues from unique places as I travel. But the lens. Want it. Need it. Got to have it.

As for the bike? I hear Dieter at BMW in Windhoek is quite the legend and expert. So I’m confident that we’ll be able to solve the performance and electrical issues when I get there next week. We’ll see.

1 reply
  1. MotoHippie
    MotoHippie says:

    Absolutely insane, hombre. I’m totally jealous and need to get on the road for real as soon as possible. I’m catching the Dakar phase that ends in Malaga on Saturday. It should be fun. Anyways, I have access to a lot of camera gear up here if you need me to DHL something to you.


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