Thursday, 11 June 2015

May 16: Swakopmund: A town of "meh"

We visited some really cool places this trip, but Swakopmund wasn’t one of them.

We deliberately planned to take it easy today, after the repeated early mornings of the last few days; sleep in and get some laundry done were our goals. We were warned that stores closed at 1 PM on Saturdays, but were told the grocery stores stayed open until 7. Our list of things to pick up was short: 4 bottles of wine, some giveaway notebooks, and a can of compressed air to blow dust off cameras (dusty roads are playing havoc with things).

Where we are staying (Stay@Swakop) is a nice B&B but it’s over 2 km from anything in town, like, say, any place to eat lunch or dinner. Because they are so far away, they kindly offer a free shuttle service to/from town. It runs at 9 AM, 12, 2 and 5 PM. It will run at other times on demand but costs R20/person when it does. We had no intention of making the 9 AM shuttle. Our math said that if the town was interesting, we wanted to go before a noon shuttle to shop late and catch a 5 PM shuttle back. So we decided to walk into town.

We sauntered down the street toward town a ways, then suddenly saw this.

What's at the end of the street? 
The town just ends 
And then there is sand
Turns out you can even have a dune as a back yard, and they build some pretty cool modern houses up against the dunes, as well as some houses designed to look very old.

This house we loved 
This was just weid
There’s even an actual fort here, former home of the Voortrecker Regiment and now apparently a youth hostel.

Impressive building
We found the cemetery, which has two different halves: African and Jewish. There's more folks buried on the African side than it looks; here's the awful story as to why.

Looking west at the African graves
A bit barren. River valley in the distance before the dunes 
The start of the eastern Jewish half. A whole lot of graves in a forest
Downtown architecture is a mix of not very old and not very interesting.

A German-inspired street 
Dutch or German Colonial 
Turn of the century stuff 
Imposing; probably the nicest building in town 
A real architectural who-hash
After a walk of almost an hour to get to downtown, we found the Pick 'n Pay and the SuperSpar grocery stores around noon. We checked out the wine selection, intending to buy it on our way back to the shuttle, as we didn’t want to carry it home.  We found no camera or computer shop that might have compressed air. We made it to the beach; we did not check the water temp but people were swimming, though mostly kids just jumping in the waves.

Offshore fog 
In a land of sand, the beach has to be big 
Looking south towards Walvis Bay area 
Fishermen, too
The waterfront area is a mix of stuff, nothing of any note.

A kid's play area 
The lighthouse, which you can't visit

A vibrant boardwalk 
Pretty flowers 
Friendly guinea fowl
We watched a guy pull his boat out with a front load trailer.

In he drives, and... 
...out it comes
The have obligatory waterfront stuff like a jetty (from which we saw dolphins) and birds.

Drying one's wings 
The jetty
There’s a market at the waterfront; 25 “stalls” selling nice if identical stuff. Most of the vendors are from the Caprivi strip in northern Namibia (they may have moved here to escape the civil war there in 1999; most were vague on that), but there are a few Zimbabweans, too. And they are all very hard sell, very personable, but always with the relentless pressure to show you stuff and explain how they are supporting the community and ask you what you want to pay. One guy was even carving nuts and after introducing himself and getting your name, he carved it in a nut (see a later post for more about this practice).

There were also a number of Himba vendors in their own separate space. We deliberately skipped them as we are doing a Himba village tour in a few days. Normally, I like taking pictures in markets, but the relentless pressure in the African markets makes me uncomfortable to do so. And needless to say, I didn’t even try to take pictures of the Himba.

Within a few hours, we ran out of things to see in the town, though I suppose we could have visited the aquarium. Walking through town after 2 PM was like visiting a morgue. There were no cars moving, no humans on the street. At 3 PM, we went back to Pick 'n Pay to grab our wine and discovered that liquor sales in the entire town country stop at 1 PM Saturday and don’t recommence until Monday at 9 AM. Whoops. I wish we had known that going in, as we had no warning about it. We could have bought wine when we were in the store 3 hrs earlier.

It turns out that Swakopmund closes at 1:30 PM on Saturdays, and by 2 PM, you can fire a cannon down a street in the downtown area and not hit anything. On Sunday, NOTHING is open. These are strange hours for a place that bills itself as a “tourist town”.

Rather than continue to hang out in an uninteresting town for another 90 minutes (where everything was closed) until the shuttle came, we decided to take the 35 minutes to walk directly home (back to the "inconvenient shuttle times" problem). Once at home, the Stay@Swakop folks helped make dinner reservations for us (though not without a bit of an argument, because they didn't like where I wanted to go -- "too small", "not enough menu choices", "just a pizza joint"), and we bought their “honesty bar” out of red wine, which while double what we would have paid at Pick 'n Pay, was half what we would pay while on the road.

We shuttled back down to downtown for dinner at 7 PM with one of the new people who just joined the tour today (you can join or leave the tour here or in Windhoek; we lost 1 person today, and picked up three. We’ll lose 7 in Windhoek). For dinner, I picked a nice tiny restaurant I found on TripAdvisor called The Secret Garden Bistro, which is basically just a simple pizza joint but had a both a funky soup and a nice sounding risotto special tonight that we saw on a sign when we walked past it earlier in the day. We arranged for a shuttle to come get us, too. On the trip in, our innkeepers again tried to dissuade us from eating there; I really could not understand why. We enjoyed it and dinner for 3 including wine with a healthy tip was under R500.

Stay@Swakop being located so far from town is a pain, and while I like Stay@Swakop as a place, you REALLY need a car to stay here. The innkeepers are nice, but the location is poor for people without wheels, and also happens to be right next to a major highway with a lot of loud truck traffic. They offer a laundry service; we found a coin laundry open Saturdays (diagonally across from Amanpurna Lodge; no hours posted in the window, but it was open at both 11:30 AM and 4 PM on Saturday when we walked by) that charged R110 per load for wash + dry + fold, which is more than we paid in Wilderness or Cape Town, but not much less than the R120 we were charged at Stay@Swakop. The internet at Stay@Swakop is available and free but flakey; I could not load e-mail on several occasions and uploading a 2 Mb picture took several minutes at a peak speed of 32 kb/sec, not really fast enough to Skype (though this may or may not be Stay@Swakop’s fault). The shuttle service is sort-of OK, but not terribly convenient and a true pain to go out to eat. Still, you could do what some of our tour group did, and just buy groceries and eat cold food in (though there’s no kitchen you can use). Which means… if you’re not on tour, why not just stay somewhere more conveniently located?

Swakop itself is a “meh” place. It has no redeeming qualities if you don’t want to do “adventure” stuff. Others on our tour raved about sandboarding and quadbiking and other fun stuff, so that's a reason to go. Still, it’s sure not a place I would want to plan to be on a weekend, when everything is closed. It’s not even really a good base to explore anything, being a long way from anything consequential. Still, as a place to take a break from the go-go-go of our safari, it worked out fine.


Today’s Africa Travel Tip: Solar panels

When I worked Latin America, you couldn’t get a landline without a 1-year wait, but you could get a cell phone in 15 minutes. Latin American countries basically skipped a technology layer. Africa is like that. The cell service is available all over the place, including very remote places, and it’s cheap, but the landlines suck.

There’s another technology they’ve embraced: solar energy. Outside of cities (and we’ve mostly been outside of cities), solar is everywhere, and it’s the right answer for them. Lots of sun, plus miles and miles of wire you don’t need to run. Almost every lodge we see or stayed at our whole trip had solar electricity and solar hot water. Some installations are small, like the one at Fallen Baobab in the Delta, and some are big, like the one at Felix Unite

A huge bank
Most of the places we stayed at used to use generators and shut power off from 10 PM till 5:30 AM (one still did). All still have backup generators, but they never use them.

In Africa, solar installations make a ton of sense. Lots of sunshine in the desert, temperatures that don’t get cold enough to make your water cold, low power demand on a site by site basis, highly distributed nodes of low power demand – solar’s the perfect solution. 

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