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  • Swakopmund - Namibian Skeleton Coast

    Posted by Peter Richards December 16, 2013 - 443 views - 1 comment - 0 likes

    Swakopmund - reprinted from Fran Sandham's article

     

    At 5am, after 10 hours creaking and groaning across interminable dry scrub savannah and then pure desert, the night train from Windhoek finally reaches Swakopmund. I haven't slept for two days – only three days ago I was still at work in London. The train conductor mistakes my haggard expression for dissatisfaction with the train service. "Sorry, we had a flat tyre!" he jokes.

     

    Stepping off the train into the empty streets, it's hard to get my bearings. I'm so tired it takes me several minutes to identify a curiously irritating tapping sound, rather like a woodpecker following me around − my teeth chattering. I'd been warned about the cold down here on the coast, but it feels bizarre. Am I really in Africa?

     

    The surroundings are stranger still. Swakopmund is sandwiched between the cold breakers of the South Atlantic and the burning heat of the world's oldest desert, but rather than a wild, remote, frontier town, it feels more like a rather genteel European seaside resort. Fog creeps around the corners, rolling in from the sea. The buildings which loom from the mist are whitewashed and half-timbered, looking like mock-Tudor southern England. There are twee ornamental lawns, a pier, candy-striped lighthouse and several pretty churches. When I find a hotel, the receptionist is an elderly German lady, and the young black Ovambo porter is called Gerhardt. It's not quite Europe, not quite Africa, a peculiar other world, marooned in the desert.

     

    All of which makes it the perfect setting for the remake of The Prisoner, the cult 1960s TV series that follows Patrick McGoohan trying to escape from "The Village", a place that is half fantasy perfection, half sinister prison. The new version stars Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel and has many of the weird hallmarks of the original, including the evil giant balloons that chase would-be escapees; however, the location has moved from Portmeirion, the Italianate holiday village in north Wales, to Swakopmund, a town just as surreal as anything in the show.

     

    Much of its strangeness is a product of the town's German heritage.Namibia was a German colony from 1884 to 1915, but strong links continued long after that, and while there are reminders of this throughout the country, nowhere is the German influence more readily visible than in Swakopmund. Today, many of the streets have German names (though Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse has been renamed Sam Nujoma Avenue after Namibia's first president). German bakeries on every corner serve their customers Brötchen and pumpernickel, the town's brewery makes beer to strict German standards and you can find more varieties of wurst than probably exist in Germany. Some of the bars wouldn't look out of place in Bavaria, with wood-panelling, roaring fires and maps of the fatherland on the wall. Beside the half-timbered buildings, others are painted in bright pastels, and styles range from the "rustic" colonial of early structures to the full-blown elegance of neo-baroque national monuments such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

     

    But beyond Swakopmund's colonial architecture, twee souvenir shops and carefully tended residential gardens there's always a sense of the vast African landscape outside, eerily beautiful, harsh and unforgiving, especially to the north, on the aptly named Skeleton Coast.

     

    The filmmakers used the dunes to lend visual grandeur to Caviezel's attempts at escape, but in reality they are helping draw growing numbers of tourists who come to quadbike through the desert. When Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt moved to the town for several months for the birth of her daughter Shiloh, Pitt spent much of his time ripping round the sands on a quad.

     

    I went to Swakopmund to start a solo walk across Africa, from the Skeleton Coast to the Indian Ocean, but things didn't begin well. In fact, true to the spirit of The Prisoner, I got stuck there for more than three months, my efforts to leave repeatedly thwarted. The coastal chill had done little to prepare me for rocketing temperatures inland; after four days on foot in the Namib Desert I was back in town to buy a donkey to carry my gear and water. This plan backfired, dissolving into fiasco when I bought a desert donkey called "Tsondab" (in the Nama language "Where you get stuck"). In 10 weeks together we'd covered literally less than one mile of the journey across Africa.

     

    During this period, one Swakopmund landmark in particular came to symbolise my enforced sojourn on the coast: the "Martin Luther" – the unluckiest steam tractor in history, abandoned just outside town. Imported by the German authorities in 1896 to replace ox-wagon transport, it proved so utterly inefficient that it took three months to clunk its way a mere 20 miles up the coast. At Swakopmund it broke down completely, and remains there to this day, earning its nickname after someone remembered the words of Martin Luther: "Here I stand, God help me, I cannot do otherwise."

     

    And yet I look back on that time on the Namibian coast with perhaps the most fondness of the entire journey across Africa – the absurdity of it all delights me. If you are going to get stuck somewhere, Swakopmund is a very nice place for it to happen.

     

    Article by Fran Sandham, author of Traversea : A solo walk across Africa

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