Swakopmund - A star with a skeleton in the cupboard - News - Gondwana Collection


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Swakopmund - A star with a skeleton in the cupboard

Avatar of inke inke - 21. septembre 2018 - Discover Namibia, Tourism

Swakopmund, Namibia's charming seaside resort on the Atlantic coast.

She tends to be chilly and prefers a blanket of clouds. But she also has a moderate, delightful side. Those who dislike her claim that she is aloof – “like a capricious woman”. Her loyal fans, however, simply love this star. By now she is a grand old lady, but young at heart. Namibia’s Atlantic pearl: Swakopmund.

Kirsten Kraft

September 1892: Three makeshift huts without windows have been set up on the beach. This is where Curt Karl Bruno von Francois, a Captain of the imperial troops for the colony of German South West Africa, and six volunteers are to establish a harbour. With what? To the west, nothing but the ocean and all around nothing but the desert, sand, washed up driftwood and whale bones. 

A few years later: the ‘make-up’ is in place, the pioneers have done a great job. Around the year 1900 a new time has arrived in giant strides in Swakopmund, as this settlement is called now.  

The lighthouse and the district office (Bezirksamt) in 1905 overlooking the pier (Mole) and harbour cranes for unloading shipments. (Swakopmund Scientific Society)

Margarethe von Eckenbrecher, an author and wife of a German farmer, wrote about those days: “Human diligence and perseverance have accomplished incredible achievements in this wasteland. Windmills are in full operation to pump water from the ground; the larger streets have paved sidewalks and lights. Many houses have small front gardens, tended with great dedication even though the few puny little flowers are barely worth the trouble.”  

A Swakopmunder is doing the green apple quick step

The quality that gave the town its name is not a smart one. The Nama people called the site around the mouth of the seasonal river Tsoa-xou-!gaos (Tsoa = anus, Xou = excrement, !gaos = mouth). Anyone lucky enough to witness nature’s spectacle unfold when after generous rainfalls the Swakop River pushes brown masses of water into the ocean, will understand the unflattering name. 

In March 2011, the Swakop River pushed brown masses of water into the Atlantic Ocean. (Photo: Kirsten Kraft)

What is more, the brackish water pumped from the riverbed was quick to cause upset stomachs. Which coined the saying: “Either you are a Swakopmunder or you have one”. But even the worst diarrhoea couldn’t stop the development of this town. The Woermann Line of Hamburg was shipping goods from Germany and saw to it that there was no shortage of anything in Swakopmund and that Swakopmunders weren’t left high and dry. Liquor flowed freely and ox wagons lined up to be loaded with goods for the interior. Suddenly traffic was so brisk that the authorities felt compelled to enact an ordinance in order to restore Sunday as a day of rest.

The custom has remained ever since. “The streets are empty, safe for a few churchgoers. The service is about to start in the Lutheran church in Post Street. This neo-baroque church could be somewhere in Bavaria. And indeed it was designed by a Bavarian master-builder by the name of Otto Ertl”, said Henning von Löwis, a radio presenter of Westdeutscher Rundfunk, in his report when Swakopmund celebrated its 90-year-anniversary.

Swakopmund turned into one of Namibia’s most fascinating towns over the years, particularly due to its colonial architecture. Thankfully all the historic buildings are now protected as cultural heritage and they have become a prime tourist attraction. Swakopmund is “more German than German”, a “suburb of Hamburg” – much to the benefit of residents and visitors. Try Café Anton for meringues filled with whipped cream and strawberries, or Swakopmund Brauhaus for Eisbein and the elegant Hansa Hotel for fresh asparagus (if in season) served with ham.

Germany’s most southerly seaside resort

“A refreshing swim in the ocean, the dust-free sea air and healing sunshine help to bring deep restful sleep, vitality and a zest for life to a weary soul and overwrought nerves.” Thus the coastal town promoted itself in the SWA Yearbook in 1948 and promised complete recovery. “These are the soothing effects and the health-promoting benefits of a visit to Swakopmund, the seaside resort of South West Africa, together with the extremely favourable influence of its natural, medicinal sources on those who are healthy, sick or in distress and in need of recreation.”   

Actually Swakopmund wanted to become a centre of education but the South African mandate government treated the town’s German residents stepmotherly. The attempted harbour, the “mole”, remained silted, the jetty lay idle. It also took a while before the state hospital finally got built and a small airstrip was approved. The answer always was: “Swakopmund doesn’t need that, it has its good neighbour, Walvis Bay, after all.” Why invest in a town which in 1967 had 7000 inhabitants?  

New bait in the SWA Yearbook aimed to lure visitors. "Swakopmund – the holiday destination of South West Africa offers: a lovely, temperate climate, an extensive beach for swimming, recreation facilities for young and old, and a paradise for anglers."

That hit home. Now not only the officials fled with suitcases full of records from the hot temperatures in Windhoek to the coastal town, but also many a resident in the country’s interior all of a sudden felt attracted to Swakopmund. Never mind the recurring ailments of the digestive organs. In December 1971 alone, the town recorded 17 972 holidaymakers.  

“After the long, hot drive through the desert our first stop was always the jetty,” says Almuth Styles, owner of Namib i, the tourist information office in Swakopmund. “We simply had to get a whiff of the sea.” Already as a child she promised herself, “when I grow up, I will move to Swakopmund”. Even though as a teenager she stayed at the Princess Rupprecht Home for a number of holidays and had to eat "disgusting fish". She has never had fish again since then, but she very well moved to Swakopmund. 

Wilfried Groenewald is a Swakopmunder by birth. His great-grandfather, Adolf Winter, arrived in the country with one mark and 50 pfennigs to his name and in 1925 constructed the largest “table” in the world on a reef: Bird Rock Guano Island. Groenewald is a city councillor and promotes the interests of his home town.  He says: “Not everything is as perfect as I would like it to be and wish for, but as city councillors we are making an effort and Swakopmund, by Africa standards, still gets well above average marks.”

And thanks to a desalination plant the brackish water from the Swakop valley is an old hat by now. The city council claims that tap water is just as good as bottled water bought in the supermarket. 

A skeleton in the cupboard

Picturesque, romantically enchanted, harmonious, stylish, clean and cultured are just a few attributes, but they all fit Swakopmund. Even when the struggle for independence was waged during the 70s and 80s, and particularly in the north of the country, Swakopmund carried on quaintly. Once, however, the spark of political violence did flare up in the coastal town. In 1978 a bomb exploded in the busy Putensen Café and bakery owned by Paul Pohl. Between 80 and 100 people were on the premises at the time. Shock, dismay and horror among the inhabitants. Luckily, no one was killed by the explosion. The building was reconstructed and reopened as Café Treffpunkt. 

Any other skeletons in the cupboard? Yes, there was another one. A story told by the late Doc Wota Swiegers, a Swakopmund character. He said that he always seemed to feel some gloom when he was all by himself in his surgery in the Bismarck Medical Centre. As if there was something “moving about”. When the centre was renovated and the floor of his office was removed, the builders made a grisly discovery. They found the skeleton of a woman buried in the sand. The police was called, but the forensic institute established rather quickly that the bones were quite old – probably from the early days when the building was a hotel. The police shelved the case but Swiegers continued to investigate. Could it be that the woman was a victim of Jack the Ripper? After all, between 1905 and 1906 this villain was apparently contriving his evil deeds not only in Windhoek but also in Swakopmund.  At least according to historian Charles van Onselen. It is said that after the old bones were properly buried, an atmosphere of calm suddenly returned to the surgery of Dr Swiegers.

Stories about the coastal town and its inhabitants abound. Humorous lore, incredible but true, from the early days, the war years and thereafter. There are quite a few books available on Swakopmund now and the unique museum begs to be visited. One thing remains certain. Swakopmunders stick together. When the 1920s recession plunged many families into abject poverty the men sat at the street corner and played cards. The winner of the round got the job. With bartering they stayed afloat. “Get me a couple of bags and I’ll give you some salt.”

Today the Atlantic pearl, once notoriously known as a sleepy hollow, is more alive than ever. When you look over Swakopmund from the top of the Woermann tower and behold the many turrets which are another characteristic feature of the town, you won’t fail to confirm: yes, the “make-up” fits all right. The pioneers really did a good job of turning this formerly inhospitable corner of the world into an oasis of note. 

Sunset on the Atlantic Coast. (Photo: Heike Lorck)

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