Sunday, July 8, 2012

Namibia Part I - Windhoek and Swakopmund

It has been a while since I posted because I have been super busy interviewing people for my research and I wanted to write a post about my trip to Namibia last weekend that would do it justice.  So here goes!  I was invited to join 3 others on an impromptu weekend road trip to Namibia - we left at 4am on Saturday morning and returned late Tuesday evening.  The drive from Gaborone to Windhoek (the capital of Namibia) is about 11 hours.  We stopped in Windhoek overnight and the next day drove another 4 hours to get to Swakopmund, which is a vacation town on the Atlantic coast.  My companions were a American pediatric resident, a PhD student in public health from Kenya, and a friend of the PhD student who is here on vacation.

Sunrise over the Botswana bush during our early morning drive

Driving along highways in the dark proved to be a risky undertaking - there are cows, donkeys, and who knows what other animals (I saw something that looked like a fox scurry across the road, and countless pairs of reflective eyes staring at us out of the bushes) hanging out in the middle of the road at ungodly hours.  It is incredibly dangerous to hit one of these animals, especially in a tiny car like the one we drove (a Kia Picanto), so we drove slowly and carefully during the night hours and were thankful when the sun came up.  We hit sunrise just as we were getting to Jwaneng, which is famous as a diamond mining town.  Underneath the "Welcome to Jwaneng" sign there is a sculpture of a huge diamond.  Most of the government's money in Botswana has come from its control of the diamond mining industry here, which has paid for the majority of the health care and other infrastructure from what I can tell.  Because the government has control over the diamond industry, there are no "blood diamonds" in Botswana, which is fantastic.

Amusing side note: there is a town in Botswana not too far outside of Gaborone called Kanye (pronounced like the American singer), and we saw a sign when driving through that pointed towards "Kanye West." Hmmmmm . . .

We managed to run out of gas about 15km from the town where we were planning to fill up before taking our turn west towards the Namibian border.  It turned out the gas gauge on our rented car was broken, so it looked like we had nearly half a tank left when we sputtered to a stop.  Fortunately some incredibly generous South Africans who were heading up north in a caravan with huge trucks and camper trailers stopped for us right away, and we were able to buy a fuel can that got us to the town.  Lesson learned, we began counting kilometers using the trip meter and filled up at EVERY gas station we saw after that, even if we just needed a few liters.  Once you are about 2 hours away from Gaborone, there is absolutely no civilization for hundreds of miles.  Occasionally you will come across a cattle post or there will be a few huts visible from the highway, but the Kalahari desert is not somewhere you want to run out of gas.  We were incredibly lucky to be so close to the nearest town when we got stuck.

During the drive we saw tons of ostriches (probably 40 in total), a variety of antelopes (definitely kudu and springbok, and possibly an oryx), and many warthogs.  We also saw a secretary bird, which was an impressive sight and looked to be about three feet tall.  I didn't get any pictures of the animals from the road since we were moving so fast, but it felt kind of like a fly-by game drive with fewer animals per square mile.
Crossing the Border
In Gobabis, the town where we stopped for gas after crossing the border into Namibia, we saw lots of women wearing super interesting outfits with pointed hats made out of the same sort of fabric as their dresses, which looked very 19th-Century to me.  I thought at first maybe this was some sort of religious wear or perhaps there was a wedding or other special event going on.  I didn't get any photos because I didn't want to be rude and gawk at them, but here is a good picture of what the clothing looks like.  We later found out they were from the Herero tribe, and the women wear this clothing every day, even in the heat of summer!  The hats are representative of cattle horns; cattle farming is the main source of income for the Herero.  The Herero people have a sad history of being forced from their lands by other African tribes and by European colonialists, and the majority of their remaining population now lives in Namibia. 

We arrived in Windhoek relatively unscathed but exhausted after our 13-hour drive, and we headed straight for the recommended watering hole, Joe's Beerhouse.  After drinking some Windhoek Lager (naturally one must drink Windhoek when in Windhoek), we were met by our gracious hostess, who is a friend from back home of the PhD student.  She is currently living in Windhoek doing public health work related to HIV/AIDS, but is originally from Kenya.  

We ordered dinner at Joe's, which proved to have an impressive assortment of game on the menu.  We decided to share so we could sample everything! We started with the Oryx carpaccio, which was really nicely seasoned and much less game-y than I would have expected.  Then we moved on to the Bushman Sosatie (on the menu below), and for the first time I tried zebra, crocodile, and kudu.  The kudu was my favorite, but all of the meat was incredibly delicious, perfectly seared with a smoky barbecue flavor.  I had tried ostrich before, which is similar to a lean steak, and it did not disappoint.  The crocodile was also surprisingly good, the texture lies somewhere in between the texture of fish and chicken and the meat had a very delicate flavor.  We also ordered a salad that had zebra steaks on top, and were soon ready for a good night's sleep after ending our meal with a glass of gluhwein (german hot spiced wine).

A small portion of Joe's menu

On Sunday morning we enjoyed a fantastic breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, and Kenyan spiced tea before heading out early for the coast.  Before we left we took some pictures on our hostess's rooftop deck, which has stunning views of the city.

Looking towards downtown Windhoek
Road trip crew and our lovely hostess

We stopped to get gas in a town called Okahandja, and discovered a craft market and a biltong shop.  Biltong is the African version of beef jerky - and they make it out of all sorts of game, not just beef!  We bought a huge bag of springbok biltong for the equivalent of $10 USD (what a steal!) and snacked on it for the rest of the trip.

Biltong Shop in Okahandja

We drove westward and soon the landscape changed from dry bush to dry plains.  At one point we passed a whole herd of grazing springbok.  Before long the landscape changed once again to sand, dirt, and rocks with virtually no vegetation, and the fog of the coast was ominously getting closer.  Before we knew it we were out of the heat of the Kalahari desert sun and engulfed in a cold fog - it felt like San Francisco weather!  We arrived in Swakopmund and checked into our hotel, which was an old building with a beautiful garden.  It used to be a hospital and also houses a retirement home - and it was just 2 blocks from the beach.

Our Hotel in Swakopmund
We headed out to explore Swakopmund, which is clearly a resort town but was nearly deserted since it is winter here and thus the low season.  There were a few other tourists wandering the streets, most of whom appeared to be from South Africa.

The  Beach and the Jetty
 We wandered down to the beach, which had two brave surfers in the icy water and beautiful sand with shades of black and red blended into the earth tones.  We stopped at a restaurant for some refreshments and a sampling of fresh local oysters - something you don't get in Gabs!

Oysters on the Coast
Swakopmund turned out to be quiet and relaxing.  It is a very clean town with a clear German architectural and cultural influence from the colonial days.

Swakopmund Pedestrian Alley

Beautiful old building
We decided to have dinner at one of the nicer restaurants in town, aptly named The Lighthouse.  Ironically, we had a hard time finding it because it is hard to see the lighthouse from town (I suppose they placed it so that it is easier to see from the ocean, hmmm . . . ).

During our search for the restaurant we came across this shop:

Potatoes can cure most diseases? That's news to me!
Finally we found the lighthouse, which was beautifully lit up.  How did we miss it?  The restaurant is tiny and contained entirely in the small house at the base of the lighthouse.  We had a lovely dinner, although we were nearly the only people there, and then headed to the only bar that appeared to be open in town to watch Spain win the Euro cup alongside several other South African tourists - viva Espana!

The Lighthouse
After the game ended we headed back to the hotel for a good nights sleep. The next morning we woke up early to take a boat out on Walvis Bay and climb a huge sand dune - but that update will have to come later, since this post is growing far too long and it's time for me to go to bed so I can get some more interviews completed in the morning.

I am enjoying reading your comments, and I welcome feedback if there are things you would like to see/hear more of or less of.  Until next time!


  1. Its great that you are getting some time off to explore the country. It sounds fab so you should def make the most of it!
    Keep 'em coming!!