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Notes on the Geography of Namibia: Swakopmund

What happens to an ex-German colony set in a desert corner of Africa? Answer: it thrives with Germans looking for sun and space.

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First sight leaving the airport. The image of a ship sailing through dunes is not, perhaps, what most advertising agencies would suggest, but maybe these guys are trying to distract you from the stupefyingly empty landscape.

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That would be the airport behind the fence. No need to worry about jet blast. The road's in good shape, though.

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Dune 7. That's the actual name, straight out of sci-fi.

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The Germans weren't deterred by a bit of sand. Here's the track they built between Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. It branches. One line heads north to Angola--never quite getting there. Another heads east toward Botswana but never quite got there, either. A third actually makes it down to South Africa. What doesn't enter the country that way, or by road, is likely to arrive by container ship to Walvis Bay.

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The distances are respectable.

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One's man desert is another's riot of biodiversity.

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The fence is intended to keep four-wheelers off the dunes.

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A few minutes later we arrive in Swakopmund. Here's the former railway station, now the lobby of a hotel attached to the rear. Built in 1901, the station was dressed up for a reason. After all, the overseas German Empire at the time had only two railways. One was in German East Africa, now mostly Tanzania. This was the other, the Kaiserliche Eisenbahnverwaltung and Swakopmunder-Handels-Gesellschaft. The building looks much better if you can squint away the later addition of the top hat.

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An architect apparently had Angkor on his mind.

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Dated 1975, when Namibia was still under South African administration, this sign still puts German first, followed by Afrikaans and then English.

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Originally, the railway south from Swakop to Walvis Bay ran along the coast, but the bridge at the mouth of the Swakop River was destroyed by a 1931 flood. The track was rerouted inland.

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The Swakop River.

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Bits of old rail along a frequently treacherous coast, now and then living up its name: Skull Coast.

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The Swakopmund Lighthouse was built in 1903 but raised in 1910 to a height of 35 meters, with a reach of 35 miles.

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Adjoining it is the Kaiserliche Bezirksgerich or imperial district court, from 1902. It was later used as a summer residence by the administrators of Southwest Africa.

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A monument on the spot commemorates the dozen or so battles fought by Germany's Marine Expeditionary Corps "with God for emperor and empire."

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The monument, cast in Berlin and dedicated in 1908, commemorates both sacrifice and courage.

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There is another side to the story, of course.

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While we're at the cemetery, we can snoop a bit.

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What did people use to say? More soldiers died of disease than combat?

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It's easy to forget that southern Africa attracted immigrants from lots of places.

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The cemetery isn't all European, but the distinction between Europeans and Africans is about as stark as you can imagine.

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One of the better-maintained African graves.

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Downtown. This corner building was the Kaiserhof Hotel, from 1905. Later it became a branch of South Africa's Standard Bank. Now it's a branch of Bank Windhoek.

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The Woermann House, in quasi-Tudor Fachwerk style, was built in 1894 (and extended in 1903) by the Damara and Namaqua Trading Company, later called Woermann, Brock & Co. The company ran a monthly steamer to Hamburg, and the tower here was both a lookout and navigation aid. After World War I, the building was taken over by the government, which ran it as a school hostel until 1972. Now it's a library and art gallery.

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The same building, showing its Muscovite aspect.

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Yet another angle.

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And yet another, this to emphasize the beach-hugging location. The grid of city streets begins here and marches inland a dozen blocks of so.

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One of the most imposing buildings in town is a former hotel, the Hohenzollern House, built in 1904-06 but soon converted to city offices and eventually sold as a private house, now chopped into condos. Atlas carries the world up top.

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The Kaserne was built in 1905 as housing for the workers building the railway. Beween 1927 and 1975, it was a school. Now it's a hostel.

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On the eastern outskirts, the city jail.

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The Altes Amtsgericht or old magistrate's court, designed as a school but completed as a courthouse. Later a hostel, since 1976 it has housed city offices.

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Another view. Definitely the work of a city government that knows how its bread is buttered.

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Now a hotel, this building opened in 1902 as a military hospital named for the wife of the heir to the Bavarian throne.

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For 80 years this was another hospital, in this case operated by Franciscans.

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The comparatively humble station of the Otavi Railway, which between 1906 and 1914 carried copper ore 567 kilometers from Tsumeb, in the northeast corner of the colony. It was reputed to be the longest narrow gauge line in the world.

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Any guesses? The construction date is 1913.

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There's your answer.

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Across the street is the German Evangelical Lutheran Church, from 1910.

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Inside. Couldn't be in better shape.

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The Church with its parsonage.

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Note that the pastor's older son grew to become a doctor but died at Stalingrad in 1942. That's why you don't want to know your future.

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Close by, the Dutch Reformed church on a Sunday morning.

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A considerable congregration, though generationally challenged.

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If there's not enough heritage to go around, you add some more. What could be simpler?

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Flats for sale.

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Festive retail.

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Beachfront condos.

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The pitch is very simple.

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Plenty to choose from. (By now you're thinking: this isn't at all what I expected.)

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More on the way.

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On a budget? Try camping. Not too crowded, and it's safe so long as you don't sleepwalk into the electric fence.

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Now that's a convenience store.

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Meanwhile, set way back from the beach and behind a main road, there's another Swakop.

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One of the better houses on this side.

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And another.

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And another.

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And another, with ambition.

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It's not such a pretty picture now. Not even with the palm tree. Palm tree? Not quite. Check the light up top.

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Base of the "palm tree" communications tower.


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