WINDHOEK, Namibia – The Gateway to Namibia
Nestled among rolling hills in a valley created by the sloping Khomas Hochland Plateau to the west and the Auas Mountains to the east, Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, is scenically situated. At an altitude of almost 1700m, the city avoids the excessive heat experienced in much of the rest of the country, with daytime temperatures rarely topping 30 degrees in summer, or dipping under 10 degrees in winter. What’s more, whether due to meticulous German planning or serendipity, Windhoek lies almost in the centre of the country, which makes it the perfect starting point for any tour of Namibia.
Strolling down Independence Avenue, Windhoek city centre’s tree-lined main boulevard, it’s easy to feel you’re in a provincial town in northern Europe. Its tidy, clean pavements, dotted with German colonial architecture, lack the frenetic and chaotic pace and horn-honking mayhem more readily associated with African capital cities. Yet this is a city striving for modernity, keen to shrug off its small-town image and colonial past: new high-rise buildings now pierce the CBD skyline, and the brash multi-million-dollar post-independence constructions, such as the new State House and Heroes’ Acre, dominate the surrounding hillsides.
Windhoek is somewhat short on sights beyond a few modest museums; however, a wander around the National Botanical Gardens in the suburbs and a day’s outing beyond Windhoek to the attractive surroundings of Daan Viljoen Game Park – Namibia’s smallest reserve – will whet your appetite for some of the extraordinary landscapes and wildlife that await. Besides, Windhoek’s comfortable guesthouses and a handful of pleasant alfresco dining options make it an agreeable environment to spend a couple of days getting your bearings at the start of a trip – as well as stocking up on supplies – or unwinding at the end of a hectic safari.
There is plenty of comfortable accommodation in Windhoek, from inexpensive backpackers hostels to family-run guesthouses, self-catering chalets and modern hotels. Guesthouses form the bulk of the properties, with many places only having a handful of rooms, so it pays to book well in advance. Most of the higher-end guesthouses, smaller hotels and restaurants are situated in the leafy eastern suburbs of Klein Windhoek, Ludwigsdorf and Eros Park, though they’re little more than a ten-minute drive into the centre of town. Other areas offering generally less expensive lodgings include Windhoek West, just west of the city centre, and within walking distance of Independence Avenue, and Pioneers Park – good also for self-catering options, a fifteen-minute drive on the main road south, next to the University of Namibia and close to a shopping centre. Within a thirty-minute drive of downtown, accommodation at Daan Viljoen Game Park offers a viable alternative.Daan Viljoen Game Park accommodation Note that many owner-managed places close down mid-December to mid-January, as people migrate to the coast for the main annual holidays.
The nearest escape for city dwellers on hot summer weekends are the rolling hills of Daan Viljoen Game Park, a pleasant slice of the countryside and a perfect place to picnic a mere thirty-minute drive west of the city centre. On the other hand, if you’re prepared to drive an hour or more out of the capital, and fancy a gentle introduction to the Namibian outdoors – as experienced by white Namibians, at least – several guestfarm provide the perfect answer, offering hiking or horse-riding opportunities and some hearty farm cooking. On a contrasting note, if you’re heading south out of the city on the B1, it’s worth swinging by Heroes’ Acre, which pays homage to those who lost their lives in the independence struggle.
Daan Viljoen Game Park
If you have your own transport and fancy escaping the city for a few hours then there’s no better place to head for than Daan Viljoen Game Park. It’s a delightful natural retreat, set among the hills of the Khomas Hochland Plateau, covered in highland shrub vegetation including kudu bush, buffalo thorn and various acacias.
Although the 6km game drive is pleasant enough (high-clearance vehicle necessary, 4WD when wet), with some well-sited viewpoints, the absence of predators in the park offers an opportunity to get much closer to the wildlife and reall experience the bush by exploring on foot. There are two self-guided walking routes: the 3km – there and back – “Wag ‘n’ Bietjie” trail is a simple stroll from the reception to the Stengel Dam, and is popular with birdwatchers early in the morning; those wanting a more challenging hike should opt for the 9km circular Rooibos Trail, which heads uphill from close to the Boma restaurant, returning via the Augeigas Dam. If you look carefully enough amid the vegetation, there are still signs of the odd crumbling wall that once demarcated plots of the formerly resident Damara community, which was forcibly relocated by the South African regime in the late 1950s.
Wildlife to look out for includes a variety of antelope: springbok, oryx, kudu and eland, alongside other large mammals such as blue wildebeest and even giraffe; smaller potential sightings are of a reallyporcupine, yellow mongoose and rock hyrax, and you can’t fail to bump into the ubiquitous warthogs and baboons. Over two hundred bird species have been recorded, with plenty of water birds gravitating towards the muddy edges of the dams.
Day visitors are welcome to use the resort’s lovely large circular pool and eat at the Boma, after making a N$50 deposit, which is redeemable against food and drink purchases.
Khomas Hochland Hiking Trail
The rolling highveld surrounding Windhoek is often overlooked by visitors in their rush to clap eyes on Namibia’s more famous landscapes, but the opening of the new Khomas Hochland Hiking Trail may soon change that. Covering a 91km circular route over six days (or 53km over four days), the trail takes you across five farms, hiking through thornbush scrub, along kloofs and across grasslands, scrambling over boulders and even climbing down a rock ladder. It’s physically demanding but the rewards are ample: superb views at times, abundant wildlife, and the chance to sleep out under the stars. You’ll catch sight of plenty of kudu, oryx, mountain zebra, warthog, klipspringer and baboons, as well as countless small reptiles; the birdlife is prolific too, congregating around the Aretaragas and Otjiseva rivers, farm dams and precious sheltered pools of water in the kloofs, while the ever-elusive leopard keeps out of sight. For the hardcore version of the trail, you need to carry your pack with a sleeping bag (one for cold nights), food, extra clothing, utensils, torch or headlamp and all the usual extras – a walking pole is advisable too, as parts of the trail are heavy on the knees. However, if that all sounds like too much hard work for a holiday, worry not, as there’s a slackpacking option too, in which you take a daypack, with water, snacks, your camera and not much else, while the rest of your gear – food and bedding (including mattresses, or even tents, if you want) – is transported for you from camp shelter to camp shelter.
Though basic, each campground has a toilet, wood- or solar-powered hot shower, braai facilities, a pot and a kettle, with the Monte Christo treehouse on the fifth night the standout overnight spot. Rather than confining yourself to light, easy-to-cook meals, you can tuck into a pre-ordered fresh farm meal-pack from each night’s host, which includes braai meat and veg as well as freshly baked bread, though you’ll need to carry anything you want to spice up the food. It’s even possible to request a few cans of beer to enjoy around the campfire. This is all at extra cost, but the hike alone is strenuous enough; taking the weight off your back allows you to maximize your enjoyment of the trail.
The trail starts and finishes at Dürstenbrook Farm, located 46km broadly north from Windhoek – 30km along with the B1 before turning west. A minimum of three hikers (maximum 12) is required, and the booking can be made online to do the trail between April and September (though experienced hikers are allowed in October and March).
The city centre
Windhoek’s modest sights and tourist attractions are predominantly located in a compact one-kilometre area along or between Independence Avenue, the city’s main drag, and Robert Mugabe Avenue, which runs parallel along a ridge to the east. Most can be covered on foot in a day – or two, if you want to take your time and trawl all the disparate sections of the national museum.
The Gibeon Meteorite
No artistic representation, the Gibeon Meteorite Fountain sculpture is comprised of genuine lumps of iron-rich meteorite from what is thought to have been the largest meteor shower ever to have hit the planet, some six hundred million years ago. It was named after the place in southern Namibia where the meteors fell, covering an area around 13,000 square kilometres. Although Nama populations had been fashioning tools and weapons out of the extra-terrestrial rocks for many years, it took the “discovery” by a British explorer, James Alexander, in 1838, and subsequent tests by a London chemist, to determine the meteoric origin of the samples. More than 25 tonnes and 120 specimens have been recorded over the years, ranging from a tonne to several grams in weight. After being displayed in the Zoo Park for many years, 33 meteorite fragments were put into temporary storage in the Alte Feste in 1975, before their installation in Post Street Mall. However, two lumps went missing, and a third was swiped from the sculpture once in place – their three empty plinths still stand forlornly alongside the other 30 specimens on display. Other pieces of the meteorite are displayed in the National Earth Science Museum.
Despite the Namibian government’s 2004 ban on the removal of any meteorite material from its site and the threat of a hefty fine, pieces continue to make their way out of the country. Some end up in museums, others in private hands, which is no great surprise as meteorite smuggling is big business. Large chunks of Gibeon meteorite can fetch several thousand dollars, which a quick look at eBay can confirm. In 2016, an 81kg lump was put up for auction at Christie’s, in London, with an estimated US$230,000–380,000 price tag. The notion of wearing a bit of outer space on the finger or around the neck has also made Gibeon meteorite jewellery very popular, especially since an attractive lattice-like patterning – known as Widmanstätten – stands out once the stone has been cut, polished and acid acid-etched. However, one of the more extraordinary Gibeon meteorite products, which failed to sell at auction in 2015, is a life-sized sculpted human skull known as “Yorick”.
Surrounding the Tintenpalast (Ink Palace) – the two-storey structure that houses Namibia’s parliament – are the delightful, shady, landscaped Parliament Gardens, which merit a stroll. They are particularly popular at lunchtime and weekends, bougainvillaea-linedwhen students laze on the lawns poring over their books or each other. Don’t miss the bougainvillea-lined bowling green and thatched clubhouse to the north of parliament, which are kept in immaculate condition. Post-independence additions to the grounds include three bronze statues of liberation heroes that flank the steps up to parliament’s main entrance: Kaptein Hendrik Witbooi – not to be confused with the better-known Hendrik Witbooi, who graces Namibian currency notes – an opponent of Bantu education; Hosea Kutako, the Herero chief who was instrumental in petitioning the UN for Namibian independence; and the less frequently championed – and not so easily pronounced – Reverend Theophilus Hamutumbangela, a priest and vociferous independence activist, who was arrested on various occasions and was allegedly poisoned by the South African authorities under apartheid.
Culinary offerings in Windhoek are essentially a mix of European – with a predictable German bias – and South African fare. Meat features strongly whereas vegetarians will have fewer menu options to choose from. Most restaurants are located in Klein Windhoek, drawing a predominantly white clientele; some offer an alfresco dining experience; others opt for an air-conditioned environment, while some have both. Restaurants in the city centre have a more mixed crowd, especially at lunchtime on weekdays. If you want the kind of Namibian food that the majority of the population eats, head for the Xwama Traditional Restaurant in Katutura, or sample some street food at the market there; other African dishes feature at the Cameroonian-run La Marmite Royale, at the Zoo Park.
Getting oriented in Windhoek
Windhoek is more confusing to drive around than it should be given its diminutive size. This is mainly due to its rolling hills and dispersed residential areas – largely a hangover from successive colonial governments’ urban planning. On the plus side, however, streets are well signposted, though since most have been renamed since independence, some residents still occasionally refer to the old names. The city’s main arteries run broadly parallel from north to south: Namibia’s principal highway, the B1 – which stretches the whole 1500km between the South African and Angolan borders – becomes Auas Road as it approaches from the south, passing Eros Airport (the small domestic airport), and then Hosea Kutako Drive as it enters the city. Peeling off to the west, just south of the airport, the aptly named Western Bypass circumvents the city, continuing the apartheid-era separation of the former non-white townships of Khomasdal and Katutura from the white areas, before the two main roads rejoin, north of the city. Two other major north/south roads to get a handle on are Robert Mugabe Avenue, which undulates along the eastern flank of the city, and Mandume Ndemufayo Avenue, which starts in the town centre and heads southwest, through the Southern Industrial Area, where several vehicle rental companies are located, to emerge as the C26, the back road to Walvis Bay. The main highway on the east-west axis is Sam Nujoma Drive: eastwards it heads out through the Klein Windhoek Valley and on to Hosea Kutako International Airport – where all international flights arrive – Gobabis and the Botswana border, as the B6; to the west it skirts Khomasdal and becomes the C28, the back road to Swakopmund, passing the Dan Viljoen Game Park.
The city centre, however, consists of little more than a kilometre of Independence Avenue and a block or two on either side, which can easily be explored on foot. Independence Avenue continues northwards all the waway to the former black township of Katutura, crossing Hosea Kutako Drive and the Western Bypass en route. Most accommodation and restaurants lie in Klein Windhoek – along or just off Sam Nujoma Drive and Nelson Mandela Avenue – and the other eastern suburbs, with a sprinkling of restaurants in the city centre. Some cheaper lodgings are to be found in Windhoek West, and Pioneers Park (also Pionierspark), to the south, beyond Eros Airport.
Clubs come and go, and relocate, mainly operating during the latter part of the week and at weekends. There are now also several nightclubs in Katutura that are starting to pull in a more mixed crowd. However, only go with someone who knows the place, and make sure you’ve transport back fixed up before you hit the nightlife. If you’re in Namibia in November, look out for the annual Windhoek Jazz Festival, which attracts international artists, such as Letta Mbulu and Caiphus Semenya, as well as talented local acts.
The main street markets are in Post Street Mall and along Independence Avenue by the main car park, where even some Himba have set up a stall. Haggling is expected in both places, though cheaper curios can be found in Okahandja. More expensive but often similar offerings are to be found in the shops along Independence Avenue, sold at fixed prices. Windhoek’s three main malls – Wernhil Park, Maerua Park and The Grove – offer much the same diet ofas South African chain stores and supermarkets. The first two are centrally located, whereas The Grove is the newest, glitziest and largest addition to the retail scene and lies off the main road south out of the city. The new Freedom Plaza, currently under construction on Independence Avenue next to the Hilton, promises to bring more upmarket boutiques.
Outside the Central Business District – also known as Windhoek Central – the capital melts outwards in all directions in a collection of suburbs, which include the former townships of Katutura and Khomasdal to the northwest. These, in turn, have spawned an even greater number of informal settlements, which house an estimated third of the city’s population, predominantly in collections of aluminium shacks, which lack adequate access to basic services such as clean water, sanitation, medical care and schooling. Although the Namibian government is committed to building affordable low-cost housing, the serried ranks of boxlike structures in the newer suburbs are still beyond the incomes of many black Namibians.
National Earth Science Museum
It is well worth making the trek out to Namibia’s National Earth Science Museum, which boasts small but impressive displays on Namibian palaeontology, minerals and mining. Well-labelled glass cabinets show fossil collections from diverse eras, some remarkably preserved, such as the eggs of an ostrich ancestor, the carapace of a giant nineteen-million-year-old tortoise, and the almost-complete, a clear fossilized impression of a megalosaurus – a 50cm-long reptile, found on a farm near Keetmanshoop, in southern Namibia. Fear not if you’re struggling to picture such beasts, since they come alive in the wonderful accompanying illustrations by the late Christine Marais, a South African artist renowned for her portrayals of the Namibian environment.
The museum’s geological section is a more mixed bag: though the detailed, specialist displays may fail to grip the casual visitor, the collection of sparkling gemstones holds more general appeal – don’t miss the cabinet showing UV radiation and fluorescence in minerals, and the exhibits illustrating their household uses in such mundane products as toothpaste and make-up. Namibia’s mining industry has sponsored the displays on the country’s various mines, so, although informative, they are inevitably laden with PR-speak.
Visiting the National Parks
All bookings for National Park accommodation can be made in person at the Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR) office in the Erkrath Building, 189 Independence Avenue, though you’ll need to have made the reservation in advance of your trip if you’re hoping to stay at the popular resorts of Etosha and Sossusvlei, and even for the less well-patronized places in high season. Even if you’ve booked online, though, it’s worth popping in to reconfirm your reservation. The office staff can also provide limited information about the parks. In addition to any accommodation booking, you will need to pay daily park entry fees to the Ministry of the Environment and Tourism (MET).
The MET permit office, where you can pay park fees is on Robert Mugabe Avenue at Kenneth Kaunda Street. You can buy your park entry permits in advance here, though they can usually also be bought at the gate of the respective park. If you’re contemplating climbing the Brandberg, you need to acquire a permit at the National Heritage Council at 54 Robert Mugabe Avenue, although they are said to be working on a more convenient system that allows for tourists to pick up a permit at the site.