While Namibia is made for road trips, Windhoek is so much more than a pitstop to “stock-up-on-padkos” or to empty desert sand from your shoes before springboarding onwards.
By: Iga Motylska
If you drop a location pin in Windhoek, you’d see it pegged right in the middle of Namibia, wedged into the ochre-coloured ground. Zoom out your view and you’ll understand why the capital is a springboard to exploring the country. This is regardless of whether you head towards the luscious Zambezi Region for a water safari; make a beeline towards the world’s oldest desert; explore the seemingly desolate Skeleton Coast; or bundu-bash through /Ai /Ais-Richtersveld and the Fish River Canyon. My father and I were going to do just that – all of it.
Our month-long road trip saw me fly into Windhoek from Cape Town, while my father drove his Landy from Johannesburg via Botswana. We timed it so that he’d be waiting for me at Hosea Kutako International Airport once I landed. Our mission was to challenge the notion that safaris are Etosha’s playground alone. In less than an hour from touchdown, we arrived at Habitas Namibia. It is one of a number of private game reserves within arm’s reach of Windhoek.
We traded the Landy for a game drive vehicle and stirred up dust as we headed towards a rocky outcrop. Our luxe, tented camp blended so seamlessly with its environment that I’d miss it if our guide hadn’t pointed it out, especially as it’s built from natural materials in a low-impact manner.
The 50 000-ha conservation area shelters lion, rhino, elephants, giraffe and plains game within its boundary, with predators in a separate section of the reserve to allow for walking safaris. As the summer temperatures cooled to a simmer, //Gexam Johannes Beregho, our guide of Khoisan descent, suggested we read the tracks and trails printed in the ‘bushman newspaper’. His ancestors survived through this innate understanding of Mother Nature’s cues. After learning how to distinguish ant lion tracks and a crash course on the traditional uses of medicinal plants, we walked the length of a non-perennial river bed.
//Gexam stuck a long grass blade into rectangular-shaped tunnel. The grass indicated the serpentine direction of the tunnel, while he dug through the river sand using his right hand. Next, he pulled out a scorpion by its sickle-like sting and placed it on my palm, as he explained their place in this giant sandbox.
After a dip in the rockpool swimming pool, I sit around the firepit on the wooden deck. It’s a front-row seat to the sunlight playing hide and seek across the savannah plains. Without anyone having to ask, I’m handed a gin and tonic. This time, the attentive staff poured me Stillhouse Atlantic’s classic dry gin. Crafted at an artisanal distillery in Swakopmund, it blends baobab fruit, wild hibiscus, !Nara melon and hand-picked seaweed from the Atlantic coast – a fusion of Namibia’s elements.
Cycling for change
For a culinary experience of a different kind, we’re told to look for Kalahari truffles in Windhoek. For centuries, soil-saturating rains have been a signal for the Khoisan to scour northern Namibia for domed cracks in the soil. It’s a race to outpace baboons, bat-eared foxes, hyenas and meerkats that dig up the “eggs of the lightning bird” to indulge in their earthy-flavour with hints of wild grass and porcini mushrooms.
Between April and June, these N’abbas pop up at Oshetu community market, alongside crunchy, dehydrated Mopane worms, omavanda (dried spinach in the shape of burger patties) and Kapana (open-fire grilled beef strips served with a chili spice). You have the opportunity to try them all during a 12km, 3.5-hour guided cycling tour (N$750) though Katatura with Anna Mafwila, owner of Katu Tours and Safaris. “Mrs Bicycle” – as she’s known by the resident children who often join her tours – stops at small businesses, restaurants and non-profits along the way to illustrate the realities of life in the country’s largest informal settlement.
Since the late 1950s, Katatura has grown to encompass more than half of Windhoek’s population. Anna narrates Namibia’s most recent history, when forced evictions during Apartheid lead to the Old Location uprising of 1959.
“Our tours encourage genuine cultural exchange, without the concept of ‘colour’, and beyond photographing people from the windows of moving vehicles,” she tells me with heart. “We promote social justice and economic development because we want these small businesses to feel self-emancipated, and for them to directly benefit from Namibia’s tourism industry,” Anna continues.
The usual suspects
Downtown is characterised by German Colonial architecture that elbows its way through glass-encased high rises, sidewalk cafés boasting the best apple strudel in town, and stalls flaunting hand-made curios. It’s close – and safe – enough to walk between these centrally-located attractions.
There’s the 1896 Lutheran Christuskirche that a mix of neo-Romanesque, Art Nouveau and neo-Gothic architecture, as well as Tintenpalast. The latter, a 1912 double-story townhouse set within the elegant Parliament Gardens, was once the seat of the German colonial government. Today, it’s where you’ll find the national assembly.
On its stoep is the Independence Memorial Museum – surprisingly built by a North Korean firm – with a victorious Sam Nujoma raising a clenched fist to the sky. For an introduction to contemporary Namibian art, the National Gallery Art Museum (recommended donation: from N$30) displays 20th century German-Namibian painters, lithographs and temporary exhibits by African artists.
We swing by Joe’s Beerhouse for local craft beers on tap and to see the much-talked-about ‘one metre beer’. It’s hard to choose what to eat between Joe’s Jägerschnitzel (game schnitzel doused in Jägermeister sauce), the kudu loin steak or springbok medallions. My food gets cold, as I wander this quirky institution admiring the thousands of eclectic memorabilia, from petrol pumps and road signs to rusting anchors and fishing ropes. The lively atmosphere makes it the location to meet regulars and other travellers for insights into how best to plan the rest of your Namibian cross-country, off-road adventure.
Visitors need a valid passport to enter Namibia for up to 90 days. While 47 countries don’t require a tourist visa, those that do can obtain them at Hosea Kutako International Airport, Walvis Bay International Airport and the Trans-Kalahari border post. Business travellers require business visas.
A 4×4 with air-conditioning (left-hand traffic) is your best option for the gravel roads, alongside domestic flights to far-flung destinations. Book a car ahead of peak season as soon as possible. Pack spare tyres and repair kits, sufficient drinking water, food and extra fuel, as remote fuel stations may run dry or only accept cash.
The rainy, summer season is characterised by passing afternoon thunderstorms (November – March) with longer days and less dust, which are idea for photography. While the landscape erupts in swathes of green, temperatures peak at 35-40°C (95-104°F). With fewer tourists it’s also more affordable. This time of year corresponds with the birthing season and welcomes migratory birds.