In 1995 I visited Namibia with Zimbabwe’s National Freshwater Angling team. My husband had been selected to represent his country in a tournament against Namibia and South Africa. Although the country had been independent for five years, it had only been a complete country for one year, when the southern port region of Walvis Bay had been handed back to the country by South Africa.
We flew in to the capital city Windhoek from Harare, landing after a two hour flight. Our first surprise was the appearance of Windhoek. It’s a very well developed, modern city, and driving into town from the airport we felt we were on South Africa’s roads. Many capital cities in Africa are dirty and badly maintained, with roads full of potholes, non-functioning traffic lights and a total absence of street signs – not to mention terrible drivers, desperate beggars and street children. Until my visit to Nambia South Africa was the only country with clean, well maintained and orderly towns and cities. This is Namibia’s legacy from that country, who first occupied Namibia during World War I. A brief history lesson is relevant at this point.
Towards the end of the 19th century Germany colonized Namibia, giving the country the rather unimaginative name of South West Africa. In the south of the country, close to the South African border, is the strategic port of Walvis Bay, then under British control. At the end of the war South Africa administered the country legally until the end of the Second World War, when it unilaterally annexed the territory – without international recognition. In 1966 a vicious guerrilla war broke out, finally ending in 1988 when South Africa agreed to relinquish control of the country. The war didn’t stop the South Africans from installing the excellent infrastructure in Namibia, which has benefited the country considerably and is still very efficient at time of writing.
The Namibian fishing team had offered to accommodate their Zimbabwean counterparts, so after dropping off our luggage at the various houses we climbed into a minibus and went on a tour of Windhoek. The name is an Afrikaans one meaning “windy corner”, and it certainly lived up to its name that day. The streets were very well maintained and clean, and the architecture was impressive. There were some very modern buildings, occupied by many South African businesses and banks. A walk around the shops filled the women in our little party with glee – the shelves were stacked with fine South African products. It was encouraging to see that the two countries had obviously maintained their business links, because so often one hears of African countries being deserted by previous colonial or administrative rulers after independence.
The German influence has been maintained, and a number of buildings and churches reflect the perios of German colonization. There are three castles around Windhoek, the most famous of which is called Alte Feste. This translates as “Old Fortress”, and this castle housed the German occupying forces when they first started building Windhoek back in 1890.
When I was growing up in Zimbabwe we heard much about the Namibian War of Independence, and the fact that the black Namibians were fighting the white South African army was probably my first real understanding of racial conflict. The country was renowned as a hotbed of racial intolerance, and we believed that white people went there at their peril. Our visit to Namibia proved just how inaccurate that perspective was. All cultures mixed freely and seemed very tolerant of each other – in fact as visitors we wondered what on earth they’d ever had a war about. The white Namibians we met had never considered themselves South African, and none of them had fought in the war. Oh, the misconceptions of youth and the power of the media!
We drove down the central street in Windhoek, ironically named Robert Mugabe Way. The Namibians confirmed this was to thank the Zimbabwean president for his support during the country’s war of independence. The first President of Namibia, Sam Nujoma, is also a close personal friend of Mugabe’s. We drove past the President’s house, a fine colonial-style building completely surrounded with a fence – a total contrast to Mugabe whose fear of his people is so great he lives behind a ten foot high wall, and closes the road outside his house to all traffic at night between the hours of 6 pm and 6 am.
In the evening we had a braaivleis (South African word for a barbecue) at the Namibian team’s manager’s house. The following morning, after a hearty breakfast we drove to the coastal town of Swakopmund, the second largest city in Namibia. The road we travelled took us through the Namib Desert, and it was a spectacular drive. It’s considered to be the oldest desert in the world, with an estimated age of 80 million years. The annual rainfall average is just 10 mm (0,25 inches), and there’s virtually no vegetation. The sands are endless; a vast golden expanse stretching in all directions towards the horizon. The contrast between the golden sand and the azure sky was magnificent. Stopping the car on the highway was an incredible experience. We were the only sign of life, and our minibus and the road were the only indications of man’s existence. The overwhelming power of nature was incredible, and we felt incredibly small and insignificant in this desert.
The world’s largest sand dune is in the Namib Desert. Known as Dune Number Seven (I’ve never been able to discern the reason for this rather unimaginative name) it is almost 390 metres in height (about 1,256 feet). We got out of the minibus, and some of the more adventurous among us climbed a few dunes, but failed to get to the top. Walking through sand is incredibly tiring! Dune Number Seven is situated in a range of sand dunes located in a clay area called Sossusvlei. Apparently there have been a few occasions when the rainfall in the area has been sufficient to fill the vlei pans with water, and the sight this creates is stunning. The water is a turquoise colour, because the clay soils are so dense there is absolutely no water filtration. The vlei means there is some very hardy vegetation around these dunes, and a couple of local native settlements have sprung up in the area. The most wonderful aspect of these dunes is the almost complete lack of tourist development, which means the area is undefiled by man. Travellers are able to visit the dunes with tour parties, but there are no hotels and no other holiday conveniences.
After a spectacular five hour journey we arrived at Swakopmund. The visual impact of the town is formidable. It seems to appear from the desert like a mirage, and the town is so classically charming that it seems to be a little piece of Europe transferred to Africa. Beyond the town is the Atlantic Ocean, adding to the alien, almost surreal experience of driving into Swakopmund. The German influence is very evident here, and it’s not only limited to the architecture. The German language is widely spoken in Swakopmund, and the restaurants are full of delicious Bavarian cuisine and beer. The people who call this town home are a wonderful, eclectic mixture of fishermen, safari operators, miners, African peoples and descendents of those early German settlers.
The town has a lot of bars, restaurants and theatres, and there’s even a casino. During the years of South Africa’s white minority rule gambling was banned, so South Africans often drove to Swakpomund to indulge in their “habit” – Swakopmund is close to Walvis Bay. In addition to the massive sand dunes Swakopmund also boasts several huge salt dunes. Some of the roads along the seafront are made of salt, something I found very hard to believe because of their dark grey colour – almost like tar. My husband dared me to taste the road, but I was unable to bring myself to try it! I did learn that when wet the roads can be treacherous.
The town at sunrise and sunset is magnificent, because the setting sun turns the sand dunes a deep shade of red. The light in the air seems to glow from the reflection off the sand. Because of the icy cold Atlantic Ocean a mist rolls over the town in the mornings and evenings, giving it a ghostly, ethereal appearance. The first day we spent there we were taken to see a tree called welwitschia mirabilis. Although it never grows higher than two metres it has an underground root system of up to four metres. And they look as though they’ve been thrown down into the desert to fend for themselves – they lie mournfully on the sand, almost recoiling from the harsh sunlight. These plants only ever bear two leaves, growing in opposite directions. If one of these leaves dies so does the whole plant. We didn’t see the oldest specimen, which is more than 2000 years in age. The plants we saw were only 500 years old – mere youngsters in comparison!
The next morning we went shark fishing along one of the beaches. To my surprise the beach was very inhospitable. There were more stones and rocks than sand, and the wind blowing in from the Atlantic was icy cold. I love sea shells, but there was nothing except fragments on the rocky beach. Despite the fact that the sun was shining and we’d been very warm during breakfast in town we found ourselves wrapping up warmly for the day spent on the beach. This part of Namibia is called The Skeleton Coast, and the name has nothing to do with the description of the beaches. It dates back several hundred years ago when Portuguese seafarers and spice traders from the Dutch East India Company sailed around the Cape to India. Many ships came to grief along the treacherous shores of the Skeleton Coast, victims of the harsh Atlantic Ocean, the submerged rocky coastline and the regular fogs and mists. In the days before man-powered boats, it was possible to get ashore through the continuous surf, but impossible to get back out to sea, unless one travelled north for a few hundred miles in the hot, arid desert. Many men died making this trek, and their skeletons have been found scattered along the coastline. Several shipwrecks have been found inland, deposited there by the relentless Atlantic waves and the gale-force winds. The men caught Bronze Sharks, Kob and Rays. All fish were weighed, tagged and released. The bronzies were fairly big, weighing between 80 and 100 kilograms (between 175 and 220 pounds). Their name derives from their colour, and they are an attractive species.
The next morning we piled back into the minibus and drove back inland to the venue for the international fishing competition, Hardap Dam. The dam is the largest in Namibia, with an 865 metre (2,838 foot) dam wall and a surface area of over 25 kilometres (ten square miles) – when it’s full. The year we went there was a dreadful drought in Southern Africa, and the Dam was just 25 percent full. The water was also the most ghastly pea green colour. I couldn’t believe people were fishing, swimming and waterskiing in and on the water, but Hardap Dam is a popular resort and nobody seemed to mind the colour of the water.
Hardap Dam is located in the semi desert region of Namibia, so there was quite a lot of hardy vegetation in the region, namely succulents and aloes. The bird life around the dam was plentiful and varied. We were accommodated in several chalets, with access to the resort’s facilities like the restaurant and swimming pool (full of nice clean water). We were there in November, which is mid summer. The climate is typical of any desert region; day time temperatures reached 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit), and because we were so far inland the wind only came up at night, when the temperature plummeted close to zero.
We spent four days at Hardap Dam. I was the only non-fishing member of the team, so I stayed by the refreshing (and very clean) swimming pool and went on a few game drives. Although the region is semi-desert there’s a variety of wild animals, including ostriches, zebras, warthog, kudu, springbok and oryx. There’s also a small population of black rhinoceros. The anglers spent the day fishing for carp, and it was tough. Firstly the fishing spots had to be ground baited to attract the carp and keep them there until the fishermen were ready. We would prepare the bait the night before in our chalets.
This was a complex operation – a stiff porridge (pap) would be prepared from maize meal and different flavouring then added. The consistency was very important, because the next morning the bait was placed in a firm, hard ball over a hook, which was then cast from the bank into the water. The angler had to be very careful that the bait didn’t fly off during casting or disintegrate when it hit the water. The Zimbabwean team struggled to perfect their technique during the practice day, but they’d improved by the second day of the international. The rod is then horizontally balanced on supports while the fisherman rushes back to his bait bucket to prepare another rod. Once caught the fish were weighed and then released. It was very tiring rushing between the water and the bank all day in the searing heat.
Our evenings after we’d prepared the bait were great fun. The Namibian team taught us a game called Spread the Virus. Zimbabweans had just discovered a rather potent liquor called sambuca, and we were intrigued. It wasn’t just the potency of this drink, it was the different colours. I thought (and still do think) it tasted really disgusting. To avoid drinking it one had to succeed at the game. Each player dipped a forefinger in the sambuca, and a flame was passed from one player’s finger to the next until someone stopped the flame or it went out. As a forfeit the player was made to drink a tot measure of sambuca, and then the game would start again. There’s a strict routine to follow if one wants to avoid drinking the sambuca. Wet the finger in the liquid, take the flame, pass it to the next player and extinguish the flame by closing the finger in the palm or putting it into the mouth. Great mirth was caused by inebriated players trying to light the flame when the finger had been in the mouth, or trying to extinguish the finger in the glass of liquor. Flames frequently covered the table that night, and we actually managed to pass the flame between eight of us for 17 rounds before it was finally extinguished. It took several days to get the dark colour of the sambuca off our stained fingers.
Zimbabwe didn’t win the tournament, which was no great surprise considering none of the team had ever fished for carp before. We drove back to Windhoek, tanned, relaxed and elated. The following day we boarded the Air Namibia ‘plane and headed back to our lives in Zimbabwe. One of the air hostesses was a very attractive blonde, and she took a shine to our little party. Half way through the flight my husband took over the bar, and was serving her drinks while she sat with us. She was a finalist in the Miss Namibia beauty pageant, which she subsequently won. She went on to represent the country at the Miss Universe beauty contest, which she also won!
There’s much more to Namibia than we saw on the trip. The legendary Okavango Swamps in the north on the border with Angola are world famous for their flora and fauna. Close by is the Caprivi Strip, a narrow corridor that was especially demarcated to allow the German colonisers access to the Zambezi River. These areas are renowned for their wonderful variety of African wildlife, and attract visitors from all over the world. There are at least 450 different animal species. The port town of Walvis Bay is full of great historical information and references to do with its rather unorthodox history. I believe the fishing is wonderful there. Elsewhere along the coast a colony of seals resides. With a population of 1,8 million on its 825,000 kilometre (330,000 mile) surface Nambia must surely reflect one of the world’s least dense population figures.
Namibia has been called “The Land God Made In Anger”, a reference to its unique and often brutal geography. And indeed the climate and the landscape are impressive, stark and intimidating. However the wonderful, friendly attitude of the people is as striking as the landscape. It’s refreshing to see how a country once ravaged by a vicious civil war can, fifteen years after the end of conflict, be held up as a shining example of African democracy. Sadly there are very few countries in that incredible continent that can lay claim to this statement. Which is why Namibia is a very special place.