Namibia, A Road Trip – 1 – Windhoek
“Namib” is of Nama origin meaning “open place”. Indeed, it is a vast, open place considering that the desert extends along the east coasts of Angola, Namibia and South Africa – a distance of about 2,000 kms. The Namib Desert is also believed to be the oldest desert in the world. It has endured hyper-arid to semi-arid conditions for roughly 55-80 million years.
April 2015 saw our dream of visiting this ancient land – The Republic of Namibia – come to fruition. Our trip was organized as a photography safari with David Rogers.
In-country arrangements were made by The Nature Friend Safaris.
Windhoek’s Hosea Kutako (a founder member of the South West African National Union, Namibia’s first nationalist party) International Airport is much like airports in many parts of Africa – small, friendly, informal and easy to negotiate. We alighted from the aircraft to a cool, sunny afternoon. The sky was a brilliant blue with cotton tuft clouds. We were met by a representative of our local hosts, Cliff Mbala who helped us with all the regular requirements of landing in a new country – currency exchange, cell phone connectivity, etc. He then drove us into town.
We were booked to stay at The Heinitzburg Hotel.The hotel was originally a castle commissioned by Count von Schwerin for his fiancee, Margarethe von Heinitz in 1914. It is situated on a hill overlooking the capital city. An elegant building is enhanced by prettily laid out gardens.We were welcomed in style …and we spent the evening sitting out on the terrace admiring the stunning view. A brilliant sunset faded away leaving below us a city lit up like something from a fairy tale …… complete with a pretty princess in the castle, Leonie!
Dinner was served at the palatial dining room named “Leo’s At The Castle”. It is gourmet dining with a distinctly European touch. The exquisite food is complemented by a selection of fine wines from the in-house wine cellar, one that boasts the largest collection of South African vintage wines in Namibia.In the morning, simple tables were set up on the terrace for breakfast. The consideration towards every comfort of the guests was clearly apparent in the warm fleece throws provided on the back of each chair. There is something very cosy about wrapping oneself up in a soft blanket while enjoying breakfast in the cool and crisp early morning air!Breakfast was a buffet with delicacies from the in-house patisserie. Each course (and there are many of these!) had a large variety on offer. The whole meal was a gastronomic experience – scrumptious to both eye and palate – an absolutely perfect start to a day!The first impressions we gathered of Windhoek were of a city that is sparkling clean – and then we were informed that it holds the distinction of being the cleanest city in Africa. This we readily believe. It also proved to be a city where we were comfortable walking around on our own, asking total strangers for directions and this, late into the evening. Safety is definitely not a matter of concern here.
Namibia gained its independence from South Africa in 1990 and Windhoek was declared its capital. In fact, it is the only proclaimed city in Namibia! It has had a long and chequered history. But what is fascinating is the history of its name.
In the site of the current city, there were once perennial hot water springs. It was called AiGams (hot water) in Nama or Otjomuise (place of smoke) in Herero (the language of the local tribes) for the steam that rose from these springs. In 1837, a British explorer, Sir James Alexander, renamed it Queen Adelaide’s Bath. Rhenish missionaries arrived in 1842 and called it Elberfield. The Wesleyan missionaries who arrived next in 1844 called it Concordiaville. It was Jonker Afrikaner who is believed to have given it the name Winterhoek or Wintry Corner after the mountains of the Cape of Good Hope where he was born. In written communication, he used the words “Wind Hoock”. After German colonisation, it became Windhuk. After South Africa took over the country, the Afrikaans spelling of Windhoek came into being and has stayed on.
While one day is nowhere near enough to explore this beautiful city, we did our best to fit in as much sightseeing as we could. The hotel reception kindly provided us with brochures about the city and this helped us plan the must-dos of our stay. Cliff picked us up in his gleaming Landrover, a vehicle of beauty and comfort.
The first on our list was the Windhoek railway station or the Bahnhof Windhoek. Unfortunately, the railway museum was shut. But we could walk around the station itself.The first railway line was built from Swakopmund to Windhoek in 1902 during the colonial rule of German South Africa. The line was then extended to Walvis Bay in 1914. A southern line was laid in 1906 from Lüderitz and connected via Keetmanshoop to Windhoek in 1912. An eastern line was built in 1930 to Gobabis. Today, this network is run by the TransNamib.
Plinthed in front of the station’s entrance is one-half of a South West African Zwillinge No,154A, apparently the sole surviving specimen of this type of steam locomotive.A plaque gives this interesting tidbit of information.There were more exhibits around. An old-fashioned wagon made entirely of white painted wood had an air of waiting patiently for its long-ago passengers – ladies who would arrive with their flowing gowns and frilly parasols, elegant gentlemen, probably in their smart military uniforms … it definitely gave rise to a flight of fancy!Other colourful, less romantic, but practical locomotives were also displayed.The station building made a pretty backdrop.We walked around the beautiful colonial building, opened in 1912, and directly onto one end of the platform.The past rushed in again … the sense of suddenly being transported back in time … about a hundred years …when colonialism and all its social distinctions ruled …A charming, old fashioned bell is still functional.The arrival and departures boards showed some fairly heavy traffic to the North of the country!It is much quieter in the southern line …But there is absolutely no doubting that passengers who need to alight at Windhoek have arrived!Walking into the station building, pretending we were visitors to this city, just disembarked from the train, we found some curious relics! Is this a weighing machine?This? Perhaps a grain sack, we were told. Our guide was none too sure!As we exited the main building, we looked up and discovered that we were, uh … trespassing! And at a time when certainly there were no trains …As we walked away from this old-fashioned wonderland, a backwards glance revealed one more treasure.Our next stop was the Zoo Park. The name is misleading in that this is not a zoological park! It is, in fact, a popular local picnic spot, perfect for packing a few bags of food and enjoying a sunny, leisurely day in the midst of the city.
In 1897, the German colonial administration chose this central location to erect a memorial to German soldiers and their leader Hendrik Witbooi, who died fighting the Nama.In 1916, a request was made to convert this park to a zoological garden and a zoo did exist briefly between 1922 and 1929.
Between 1956 and 1963 , in spite of public protests, the park was shrunk and the layout changed due to road widening. During this process, in 1961, ancient remains of two elephants and some quartz tools were discovered. Experts believe the fossils belong to animals that died about 5000 years ago.An elephant column, which is the work of Namibian sculptor Dorthe Berner was erected here. An elephant skull fossil sits on top of this sculpture.We next drove over to the Christus Kirche or the Church of Christ in the centre of town – located on what appeared to be a large traffic island.Begun in 1907, the church was consecrated in 1910. It was built as a church of peace between the Germans and the tribes of Nama, Herero and Ovambo. The architecture is a blend of Neo-Romanesque, Art Nouveau and Gothic styles.It is built of quartz sandstone. The portal and altar are made of marble from Italy. It has a beautiful rustic door with ironwork.The clock and three cast bronze bells were brought from Germany. The stained glass windows were a gift from the German Emperor, Wilhelm II. In 1960, one of the bells came loose and smashed through a window to fall on the street. Window bars were then installed. In the late 1990’s it was noticed that the windows had been installed with the sun protection on the inside! It took two years to restore and turn them all around!The Tintenplast – the Ink Palace (!) is located across from the Christus Kirche.It is the seat of the Namibian parliament since Independence though it has been the seat of German colonial government since it was inaugurated in 1913.We walked through the parliament gardens with its collection of statues …… right up to the doors of the building itself with absolutely no security system in evidence. Indeed, there was a wedding being celebrated with photographers and music in the grounds. This was a refreshing change after watching the world’s politicians being obsessive about their own importance and mortality! In fact, these were the only restrictions to visitors …The last place we visited was the Independence Memorial Museum, a part of the National Museum of Namibia.Waiting for the elevator, we noticed a printed sign with a very odd footnote.As we walked around the three floors of the museum, it began to make sense … In vivid technic-colour …In stark black and white … and all shades of grey … The larger than life frescos – two storeys high
…and the paintings bring to chilling life the grim struggle for independence of this small but brave country.They are a grisly reminder of the inhumanity of man to man,and yet, a symbol of the triumph of the spirit over mere physical adversity. Sam Nujoma, the first president of independent Namibia is a symbol of this struggle and victory.After spending longer than we had meant to in the sombre museum, we just managed a short drive through the streets …
the main business district with shops …Katutura, a suburb was established in the 1950’s to relocate blacks from the “white suburbs”.The name means “Place where we do not want to live” in Otjiherero. Contrary to the name, today it is a lively suburb.The Old Location Cemetery houses the graves of about 12,000 people – many killed during a relocation riot in 1959 when they were forced to move from Old Location to Katutura.The brief glimpse we had of this charming city has left us promising ourselves that we would soon be back to explore it in more detail.
Now it is time to begin the discovery of the rest of this beautiful nation …