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Walvis Bay, Namibia
A former German protectorate but independent since 1990, Namibia is often called "The Land God Made in Anger" because of its stark, surreal landscapes, untamed wilderness, and harsh environment. Be prepared for sand dunes that roar, rumble, and wander; shipwreck-littered, barren coastlines; some of the most desolate and spectacular scenery in the world; vast desertscapes; and many unique plants and animals. One of Southern Africa's most important harbor towns, the once industrial Walvis Bay has recently developed into a seaside holiday destination with a number of pleasant lagoon-front guesthouses and several good restaurants-including one of Namibia's best.
Sesriem and Sossusvlei. Even if you're not a romantic, the Sossusvlei's huge, star-shaped desert dunes, which rise dramatically 1,000 feet above the surrounding plains and sprawl like massive pieces of abstract sculpture, are guaranteed to stir your soul and imagination. The landscape has continuously shifting colors-from yellow-gold and ocher to rose, purple, and deep red-that grow paler or darker according to the time of day. The dunes have their own distinctive features, ranging from the crescent-shaped barchan dunes-which migrate up to 2 or 3 yards a year, covering and uncovering whatever crosses their path-to the spectacular, stationary star-shaped dunes, formed by the multidirectional winds that tease and tumble the sands back and forth. Park gates open an hour before sunrise, so if you can, try to be among the dunes as the sun comes up-it's a spectacular sight.
The Skeleton Coast. North from Swakopmund is Namibia's wildly beautiful-but treacherous-coastline, the notorious Skeleton Coast. The Portuguese seafarers who explored this area in the 15th century called this treacherous coast with its cold Benguela current and deadly crosscurrents the "Coast of Death." Its newer, no-less-sinister name, the Skeleton Coast, testifies to innumerable shipwrecks, lives lost, bleached whale bones, and the insignificant, transient nature of humans in the face of the raw power of nature. Still comparatively unknown to tourists, this region has a stark beauty and an awesomely diverse landscape-gray gravel plains, rugged wilderness, rusting shipwrecks, desert wastes, meandering barchan dunes, distant mountains, towering walls of sand and granite, and crashing seas. You'll rarely see more than a handful of visitors in this inaccessible and rugged coastal area.
Swakopmund. The drive to Swakopmund, 20 mi (32 km) north of Walvis Bay, is one of the most spectacular in the world. The paved coast road is dwarfed by magnificent, towering sand dunes on one side and the wild Atlantic on the other. Swakopmund clings to the edge of the continent, as it has done since the first 40 German settlers and 120 German colonial troops landed here in the 19th century. Today, instead of the primitive shelters that the early settlers built on the beach to protect themselves from sand and sea, stands Swakopmund, or Swakops, as the resort town is affectionately known. There's something surreal about Swakops. On the one hand, it's like a tiny European transplant, with its seaside promenade, sidewalk cafés, fine German colonial buildings, trendy bistros, friendly and neat-as-a-pin pensions, and immaculate boarding houses and hotels. On the other hand, this little town is squashed between the relentless Atlantic and the harsh desert, in one of the wildest and most untamed parts of the African continent-something you might understandably forget while nibbling a chocolate torte or sipping a good German beer under a striped umbrella.
Kristall Galerie. This sizable gallery houses the largest known quartz-crystal cluster in the world-an awesome natural wonder more than 520 million years old and weighing 14,000 kilograms. Numerous smaller but no less beautiful chunks of Namibian minerals and gems, including a wide variety of quartz crystals, rainbow tourmalines, and other semiprecious stones, are also on display. Some great souvenirs can be had in the adjoining large gift shop and high-end jewelry boutique. Corner of Tobias Hainyeko and Theo-Ben Gurirab Ave.
Swakopmund Dunes. Though you may have already visited higher or more visually stunning dunes, the Swakop dunes have the unique distinction of being the subject of a truly fascinating tour that introduces visitors to the numerous-and normally invisible-creatures thriving in this surreal ecosystem. Chris Nel, the operator of Living Desert Namibia tours, is a passionate and well-informed character who tends to leap out of the moving 4x4 to catch the desert's perfectly camouflaged lizards, geckos, and snakes. A visit here is a unique, educational, and often humorous experience. Swakopmund Dunes.
Swakopmund Museum. The largest private museum in Namibia, this old and somewhat musty building down by the lighthouse houses a surprisingly large and varied collection of items. Displays on everything from natural history, archeology, and ethnology to the German colonial period may be a bit dated in presentation, but are nonetheless informative and worth a look. Strand St. (just below the lighthouse). Admission charged.
Adventure Sports. Swakopmund is one of the adventure centers of Africa, second only to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Adrenaline junkies can try their hand (or feet) at skydiving, sandboarding, jet skiing, kayaking, dune-buggying, paragliding, or wave-skipping in a light aircraft. The less adventurous (but romantic) can take day, moonlight, sunrise, or sunset horseback or camel rides through the riverbeds and up into the moonlike landscape. Note: The majority of water activities advertised in Swakopmund actually depart from Walvis's small waterfront area, and there's an amazing flamingo colony residing in Bay's 3,000-year-old lagoon.
Beaches. Though Namibia is hardly a beach destination, if you really want some sand and sun time, head to The Mole and adjacent Palm Beach, Swakops's most popular beaches (in front of the lighthouse). Keep in mind that this is not Mauritius or the Caribbean: the sea can be treacherous, and the temperature usually runs in the lower 50s. Both of these beaches are a short walk from the center of town, and there are numerous cafés and restaurants along here to stop for a quick drink or bite to eat. Since the beach is sheltered by a breakwater, its calm waters attract crowds, especially on the weekends; if you do swim out, beware of the strong currents just off the breakwater. There's a paved walkway that heads north along the beach if you need to stretch your legs. You can also head to the jetty at the southern end of the beach for a stroll. The southern side of the jetty is for walkers, while the northern side is reserved for fishing.
Birdwatching. Walvis Bay is a paradise for birdwatchers. The old whaling station of Sandwich Harbour (about 40 mi/64 km south of Walvis Bay) is one of Africa's most important wetlands, comprising mud flats, a huge salt lagoon, and freshwater pools. Tick off thousands of flamingos, cormorants, pelicans, terns, and other seabirds as well as migrant waders in season. It also has spectacularly beautiful desert dunes stretching down to the bird-covered beaches.
Hiking. If you're reasonably fit and energetic, you can easily hike up Dune 7 just outside Walvis Bay and be rewarded with spectacular views of dunes and sea. If you're a perfectly fit "10," you can hike to the top of "Big Daddy' at Sossusvlei, supposedly the highest sand dune in the world. The less fit can climb halfway up and then sit and marvel at the stupendous views. Even couch potatoes can climb as far as Dead Vlei, with its twisted dead trees, and then make their leisurely way down again to sit in the shade of the camelthorn trees and watch the bird life, or focus their binoculars on the distant climbers. Go armed with a hat, sunblock, water bottle, binoculars, and camera, and wear strong, comfortable shoes or all-terrain sandals.
Swakopmund is the place to head if you want to shop. In some of the specialist shops and craft centers, look out for pure wool, handwoven carpets and rugs in desert colors (they can be shipped), and all kinds of varieties of rocks, crystals, and semi-precious stones. In the curio shops and boutiques, you'll see African clothing, wooden carvings, jewelry, and knick-knacks made from ostrich eggs, and exquisite brightly-colored hand-embroidery work (look out for cushion covers and bed linens). If you can find them, prints and copies of the linocuts of Namibia's most famous artist, John Muafangeyo, are also great buys.
In the harsh environment of the dunes are some of the world's strangest, desert-adapted creatures. There are sun-bathing beetles that collect condensed drops of moisture on their backs; the drops then roll down to their mouths. Other beetles dig trenches to collect moisture. The golden mole (once thought to be extinct) spends its life "swimming" under the dunes and popping up to the surface to grab unwary insects. The side-winding adder does just that: it winds itself from side to side as it makes its way over the sand. There's a sand-diving lizard that stands motionless, one foot raised, as if in some ancient ritual dance, before it dives into the dunes. As the sun goes down, listen out for calls of the barking geckoes as they chatter to each other in the fading light. If you're really lucky and do a flight over the dry Huab River, you might catch a glimpse of the amazing desert elephants. To see their great grey shapes silhouetted against the dry river's sandy mounds ringed by mountains and sand dunes is an incredible sight.
Be sure to see Namibia's most famous plants-the Welwitschia mirabilis-reputed to be the world's longest-living plants, which can live up to 1,000 years. Muse over the fact that when many of the plants you see were still tiny, Columbus was just sailing to the New World and the Portuguese to this part of Africa. Ask your guide to show you some of the amazing desert-adapted plants, including the dollar bush (so called because its leaves are dollar-sized) or an ink bush, both of which can survive without rain for years. Marvel at the fragrant members of the genus Commiphora, from which Myrrh and Balm of Gilead are made, or the withered-looking desert lichens that seemingly rise from the dead whenever even a drop of water is poured onto them.