Southern Africa Road Trip: Swakopmund

(This is the fifth post in our Southern Africa Road Trip Series. Feel free to start at the beginning: Let’s Road Trip Through Southern Africa!)

We awoke early for our ATV adventure, in which we would be riding ATVs through the desert on some of the world’s largest sand dunes. Neither of us had ridden one of these things before, and while we weren’t scared, we didn’t really know what to expect. The weather was foggy – the desert is unusual in that it runs right up to the coast and receives less than .75 inches of rain per year but there are plants that survive off of the pervasive marine fog that rolls in most mornings. We were worried about the fog obscuring our views of the endless dunes, but it wasn’t very dense and the fog ended up adding a bit of mystery to and intrigue to those views, so I am glad it was foggy.

We didn’t quite get the instructions we were hoping for from our guide – we expected a bit of riding around to get used to the ATVs and learning how to go up and down the dunes safely, but instead we just headed straight out and got after it. Danielle, I would learn later, cried during the entire first half she was so scared. One of the things that’s counter-intuitive and went unexplained is that as you go up and down (and turn on) the dunes, more speed means more control. Danielle isn’t a natural-born speed demon, so she was slowing down as she approached the tops of the dunes, and as she turned to go down, it always felt like her ATV was going to tip over or she was going to get stuck. Not fun.

Halfway through the adventure. Having fun, but a little scared.

Halfway through the adventure. Having fun, but a little scared.

Our bikes, our guide's bike, and the bikes belonging to the two crazy Austrian guys with us.

Our bikes, our guide’s bike, and the bikes belonging to the two crazy Austrian guys with us.

Halfway through our two hour ride, we got a break and stopped on top of one of the largest dunes to take in the scenery. Danielle asked how to keep things feeling more stable and that’s when we learned that we just needed to go faster. This made the second half much more fun as we basically floored it and had an awesome time. At the end, we agreed that it was a blast and we’d do it again, but that there should be a “riding ATVs for Dummies” course for beginners like us.

Emotionally spent from the ATVs, we learned that there was a sushi place in Swakopmund (!) and made a bee-line for it without even asking how much it would cost. We gorged on sushi and paid the moderate bill, and didn’t even feel bad about it. The sushi was pretty good, and it was a great way to relax before spending the afternoon wandering the old part of town.

Swakopmund was founded in the late 19th century as a German colony, an answer to the British port just 20 miles south at Walvis Bay. Its German heritage is evident in the architecture of the city. If you awoke on the streets and judged the place by the buildings, you might think you had been dropped into a small town in Bavaria. The people also retain an affinity for Germany – there are German restaurants, German speakers, and the whole town was rooting for Germany in the World Cup. We stopped by one of the German restaurants where Danielle had sausage and sauerkraut which she loved, and I had zebra steak which was also fantastic, though the portion could challenge anything you might see in the States – I couldn’t finish it.

The next day, we had booked a three hour cruise on a catamaran based out of Walvis Bay. It’s one of those day cruises that typically holds 20-30 people so the price was right and when we turned up to board, we learned that we would be the only two customers that day so it was a private tour. Awesome! The main draw of the cruise is wildlife sighting. Sadly, it was still not whale season so we would be unlikely to see them, but we should get to see plenty of birds, dolphins, and seals.

The first sighting was immediate – as we boarded the boat we were joined by a seal named “Bubbles” that has learned that if he jumps up on these boats, he’ll get fed while tourists take pictures. He (and several of his friends) joined us on board for the first ten minutes, but it wasn’t all fun and games. The seals fought pretty fiercely with one another to be the king of the boat – whenever a second seal came up, there was a fight and only the winner remained. Bubbles, being the largest, tended to win these little skirmishes, we were told, and this day was no different. The crew dutifully gave Bubbles some fish to eat while we took pictures and video, and then promptly scared him away and we were off.

Bubbles. Friendly to humans, mean to other seals.

Bubbles. Friendly to humans, mean to other seals.

We cruised out of the bay and into the open ocean, and after keeping a watchful eye for 15 minutes or so, we started to see what looked like dolphins in the distance. Our captain headed in that direction and we were rewarded upon arrival with a pod of at least 12 dolphins (probably more – they were hard to count). It was incredible – the boat cruised onward and the dolphins swam right up alongside us, brushing up against the boat (they apparently like the vibrations) and swimming between the two pontoons of the catamaran.

Danielle and I took up positions on the front of the boat and stuck our hands out toward the water, hoping the dolphins would come up and touch us with their nose or dorsal fin, but we couldn’t quite reach the water’s surface, and the dolphins didn’t have a lot of interest in us. We cruised on like that for a good half hour with more and more dolphins showing up and swimming along with us, and then we encountered another pod of even more playful dolphins that were chasing each other and jumping up and out of the water in that prototypical dolphin jump. I’ve never seen anything like it, and the experience will always be one of my best memories from this trip.

The rest of the cruise was fun, there were more animals: seals all around us, birds, and even a wild pelican that landed on one of the crew’s heads. We then drove through the port at Walvis Bay and got an interesting explanation of the drydock there and its role in global shipping which was much more fascinating than it sounds. Along the way, we sampled freshly farmed raw Namibian oysters (better than Maryland, but still not great) along with champagne and various fingerfoods. At the end, we were stuffed, I was a little tipsy, and we had had an absolute blast.

Danielle (briefly) at the helm. All souls on board survived.

Danielle (briefly) at the helm. All souls on board survived.

Sitting on the front of the boat, taking a break from dolphin-watching.

Sitting on the front of the boat, taking a break from dolphin-watching.

This poor guy had a wild pelican land on his head.

This poor guy had a wild pelican land on his head. I look scared, but I’m not: I’m trying to sneak up and touch the bird (I succeeded).

We were very hesitant to bid farewell to Swakopmund. It was our favorite city in Southern Africa (yes, better than Cape Town) and I think you could have a good time there no matter what your interests are. They’ve got it all: food, culture, history, wildlife, nature, and adventure. But alas, the road beckoned and after three days, we were off to cross the length of Namibia on our way to Victoria Falls.

Continue along our road trip series: Victoria Falls – The Smoke that Thunders

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