Swakopmund, Namibia’s second city, is known for its Gemütlichkeit, German beer halls and German-speaking community, relics of the colonial period. We were more than a little excited by the prospect of decent German bread, Apfelstrudel, Bratwurst and beer which awaited us in this microcosm of Germany in this distant corner of Africa. Our three days in Swakopmund were spent recovering from the rigors of bush camping by enjoying some of the best South African wines, excellent cheeses and eating some amazing game including kudu and oryx steaks, which we highly recommend.
Situated on Namibia’s coast, Swakopmund is a pleasant seaside town popular with German holiday makers. Walking through the centre of town, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were in Germany, perhaps even somewhere in the former East Germany which has recently undergone a makeover. Along the seafront a number of ice-cream parlors serve up an amazing selection of flavours which you can eat while walking along the windswept beach or on the pier as you look back on the town and the sand dunes beyond.
Freshly painted colonial buildings sparkle in the sun – were it not for the giant palm trees lining every street, it could easily pass for a small German town. Hendrik Witbooi Strasse intersects with Rhode Allée and the Bismark Medical Centre is just down from the Hotel Prinzessin Ruprecht. More that 50 percent of titles in every bookshop we visited were German – one even had Thilo Sarrazin’s controversial ‘Deutschland schafft sich ab’ in the window!
Attracted to Namibia by the diamond reserves discovered in the Sperrgebiet, and prospect of securing a colonial prize for Germany, which arrived on the continent much later than other European colonial powers, the first German colonists of Namibia were able to make their fortunes in mining, .
It was surprising to see how strong the German influence in Swakopmund remains, especially given that Germany lost control of all its colonies after WWI in 1918. Sitting on the sundrenched patio of the Brauhaus we ordered (in German) Bratwurst, Schmorbraten, Sauerkraut and Rotkohl, washed down with Radlers and white wine. We found ourselves surrounded by local residents all of whom were German speakers. We heard that many Germans actually stayed in Namibia rather than retuning to Germany, which turned out to be a wise choice given what was to happen in Europe during WWII.
We had the opportunity to visit Kamanjab Cheetah Farm, a place where orphaned cheetahs are kept, and it is possible to stroke the ‘tame’ (if such a word can ever be correctly applied) cats. Before visiting we were quite sure that it would be a tacky, zoo-like experience, surely seeing cheetahs in such an environment was cheating? Shouldn’t they be viewed in the wild? Wrong. Our time there was one of the highlights of our entire trip to Africa, allowing us the opportunity to get an even closer view of one of Africa’s most magnificent cat species.
Arriving at Kamanjab we were confronted with a huge warning sign: WARNING: RING THE BELL! All eyes darted towards the lithe cheetah pacing back and forth behind the wire fence. Staring, pacing, prowling. Suddenly it dawned on us that the slightly muted sound of a boy racer’s suped up car engine was actually the sound produced by the deep vibration of the cheetah’s purr.
Marinus, one of the farm owner’s two sons, gave us a quick safety briefing before we entered the premises. He ran through a catalogue of don’ts: don’t touch their paws, don’t touch their tails and most important of all, if Marinus warned us to move away from a particular animal, we had to step away immediately.
When the gate was finally unbolted three cheetahs bounded excitedly towards us. Marinus led us around the back of the farmhouse as one of the three cheetahs trailed directly behind. It was deeply unnerving to be followed by an animal with the potential to kill.
In the garden we had the chance to stroke the cats as they lounged on the lawn. Terrified, I stroked a cheetah behind ears and felt the slightly rough fur on the back of its neck. There was a disconcerting power to vibrations beneath my fingertips as the cheetah purred with delight, meanwhile Martin was licked by the sandpaper tongue of another. When feeding time began each cheetah received its own hunk of meat, which it slowly devoured as we sat on the grass a couple of metres away, glad that none of us were on the menu today. Already the trip was proving more fascinating than we could ever have imagined, yet the best was still to come.
Piling into the back of one of the farm’s utility vehicles we drove into the wild cheetah farm enclosure located nearby. Here Marinus and his family were busy rearing cheetahs to be released into the wild in regions where the numbers were dangerously low. The Kamanjab Cheetah Park is one of several non-profit farms aiming to educate people in a bid to save this endangered species.
As we entered the sprawling estate a posse of cheetahs began to trail behind us. The setting sun was low in the sky and it was clear that they eagerly anticipated dinner. In the large plastic bin at the back of the vehicle we were carrying over 40 kg of meat to distribute to our hungry pursuers. When the lid was removed we could hear a laughably bird-like noise emanating from the waiting cats. All of us were taken aback by what sounded like a Velociraptor from Jurassic Park.
Hunks of meat were tossed from the back of the vehicle and it was interesting to note the solitary ceremony of eating, which began with a competitive leap into the air. Once the meat was secured, each cheetah would dart off to devour its portion in private behind a bush or under a tree. Once the last morsel had been retrieved we were left standing on our vehicle in the deceptively peaceful grass unable to identify a single one of the twenty or so cheetahs which had surrounded us only minutes before.
When Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie chose the southern African nation as the birthplace for their first child, Namibia became front page news. Although it had long been a destination popular with Germans, playing host to a celebrity childbirth helped to put Africa’s youngest nation (until south Sudan is officially recognised) firmly on the safari and overlanding map. Now that the word is out, Namibia is fast becoming one of the most popular destinations in southern Africa.
Within 5 minutes of entering the country we were treated to the view of a male lion relaxing in the sun on the side of the road, followed by the rich wildlife of Etosha National Park the following day.
An abundance of colossal rock formations dot the Namibian countryside rearing up at the most unexpected intervals, they look as if they are transplants from Utah or parts of the Australian outback. This could easily be Marlboro country.
At Spitzkoppe in northern Namibia, we camped at the base of one of several red craggy peaks in the vicinity. When sunset came they glowed like red coals, blushing violently as the moon rose into the perfectly clear sky.
A day later, we were driving through peroxide blonde grassland and white sand contrasting starkly with the endless blue sky. It was here that we spotted our second African snake in the wild, a large black spitting cobra, slithering across the road. As our vehicle trundled past the Naja Nigricollis Woodi reared up at us inflating its hood. Though incredibly dangerous, the sight was strangely compelling; a stunning and contrast to the white glare of the sandy road.
Traversing the country we made our way to the Atlantic at a point where small white dunes tumble into the sea. It was hard to believe that just a month before we had been paddling in the Indian Ocean off Zanzibar on the other side of this vast continent.
Later we visited Cape Cross Seal Reserve a breeding ground for 50,000 seals which have commandeered the coastline (the stench was so awful that we got a nasal warning a couple of kilometres before we actually arrived at the site!).
Naukluft National Park must, however, take the award for the most impressive landscape we saw in the whole of Namibia, if not Africa. We camped just down the road from the gates so that we would be able to get in before the temperature soared. That morning, we carefully dragged our tent before putting it down so that we could dislodge any scorpions which might have been hiding under our warm groundsheet (after the spitting cobra and witnessing a scorpion being burned to death in the campfire by locals, we were beginning to take these precautions more seriously).
When the gate opened at 6:30 am we entered a wonderland of massive sand dunes of Sossusvlei. The dunes are static – the heavier sand which they are composed of means that they only move a few centimetres each year, rather than changing positions overnight as is possible in the Sahara. Some of them are over 300 metres and as we found out that morning, climbing them is exhausting work.
Our final destination in Namibia, before the Orange River and the ‘new’ South Africa, was Fish River Canyon. Although it is the world’s second biggest canyon, most people we have met have never heard of it. Unfortunately, a few fatal heart attacks and other emergencies heralded a decision by the authorities to ban day hikers, so we were not able to descend into the monumental chasm, but walking along the lip of the crater gave us a couple of hours to admire it from several angles.
If only we had had the good sense to stay there a day or two more rather than proceeding to the Orange River where we spent three days waiting for a permit to enter our final destination on the African continent, South Africa…