Empire in the sun

Many of Namibia's towns still display their German colonial roots
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The Independent Travel

The scene could be anywhere in Germany. There are tables on the pavement outside Café Anton, the chairs filled by visitors and weary shoppers sitting down for a break. Neatly dressed waitresses serve cream-topped coffee and luscious cakes; the ritual of kaffee und kuchen has been embedded in the German tradition for centuries. What makes this different is the tropical vegetation and the preponderance of black faces on the streets and in the nearby shops. For this seemingly quintessential German town is Swakopmund, halfway down Namibia's endless Atlantic coastline. It is 15 years since Namibia became independent, and nearly 90 years since the country ceased to be a German colony, but urban enclaves like this across the country have refused to shake off the trimmings of empire.

The Germans were not the first of the Europeans to set foot on the soil of South-west Africa. That accolade goes to the Portuguese explorers of the late 15th century, who staked their claim to the territory at Cape Cross, just to the north of Swakopmund. The two crosses that stand there now are replicas, and the place is now colonised by some quarter of a million seals, who occupy the beach, float in the sea, and loll across the rocks. But though the vast expanse of rock and sand dunes are appealing to wildlife, this inhospitable territory discouraged foreign navigators from landing. Gradually, whale and seal hunters were attracted by the deep water around Walvis Bay, and it was claimed by the Dutch at the end of the 18th century. But it was not until nearly 100 years later, when the so-called "scramble for Africa" began to gather momentum, that colonisation began in earnest.

It was the Germans, though, who had the greatest impact on this corner of Africa. The main player was Adolf Luderitz, who bought part of the coast from a local tribal chief. This included the port of Angra Pequena - Little Bay - where the German flag was first raised. The town which was established there was named in memory of its colonial founder.

Although some 250km north of the South African border, Luderitz is the most southerly town of any size along the coast. It is marooned in wild and desolate terrain just below the southern end of the Namib Naukluft, one of the largest national parks in Africa. Perched beside the Atlantic, Luderitz is almost completely surrounded by the Sperrgebiet, or forbidden land, an area rich in diamonds that is under the joint control of the government and the mining company, De Beers, and off-limits to tourists.

Luderitz itself welcomes visitors and is connected to the more developed parts of Namibia by one of the country's few decent tarred roads, but leaving the road between the nearest town of any size, Aus, and Luderitz itself, is strictly forbidden.

The whole place is best viewed from the top of Nautilus Hill, just behind Goerke House, the best-known landmark in town. Built as a private house, a so-called "diamond palace" whose owner made his fortune in the diamond rush, it opens to the public at limited times and is used as a VIP guesthouse.

About 500km north of Luderitz is the only other coastal town of any size, Swakopmund, Namibia's main seaside resort and unmistakeably German in its demeanor. The main thoroughfare, Kaiser Wilhelm Street, heads east from the ocean, and is lined, like the streets that criss-cross it, with lovely colonial buildings. Grandest of all is the Kaiserliches Bezirksgericht, which is the summer residence of the country's president. Across the road, the town's museum, founded by a German dentist half a century ago, provides the background to Swakopmund's history.

Directly west from the seaside resort lies the country's capital. Populated centuries ago by settlers attracted to its hot springs, Windhoek became a military outpost under the German occupation and transformed into a quasi-European city. Its military origins are commemorated in Zoo Park, where the Kriegerdenkmal is a memorial to the German soldiers who died fighting the Nama trabesmen at the end of the 19th century.

The regime was run from the Alte Feste, an imposing white building that now houses part of the National Museum. The German influence is felt all over the city: older residents will even be able to direct you to Kaiser Strasse, although these days the city's main north-south artery is known officially as Independence Avenue. The Gathemann House, one of three striking colonial buildings on the avenue's west side, is an interesting reminder of the incongruous juxtaposition of European style in an African setting. The roof was designed as it would have been in Germany: sloping steeply so that snow would slide off it easily.

The colonial heart of the city is nearby. The Tintenpalast, once the headquarters of the German administration, is now the Namibian parliament building. Opposite is one of Windhoek's best-known landmarks, the Christus Kirche, an attractive Lutheran building which is open to anyone who collects the key from the church office down the road.

Windhoek's railway station on Bahnhof Street is a reminder that, in addition to their architectural legacy, the Germans developed the Namibian railway system. Its history is depicted in a museum in the station building, although most visitors use the place as the starting point for the Desert Express, a luxury train that trundles through the stark landscape a couple of times a week toward Swakopmund. It passes through a flat, sandy landscape and little grows there. But the Welwitschia mirabilis, which does, is believed to be the oldest plant in the world, and some of the specimens in this patch of desert could be nearly 2,000 years old. Once again, there is a colonial connection here, too: Dr Friedrich Welwitsch, who first identified the plant during the 19th century, was a German botanist.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Café Anton, Bismarck Street, Swakopmund: 00 264 64 400 331

Goerke Haus, Zeppelin Street, Luderitz, opens 8am-5pm from Mon-Fri. Entry is N$5 (40p)

Alte Feste, Robert Mugabe Avenue, Windhoek (00 264 61 293 4362) opens 9am-6pm from Monday to Friday, 10am-12.45pm and 3pm-6pm on Saturday, 11am-12.30pm and 3pm-6pm on Sunday. Admission is free

Desert Express: 00 264 61 298 2600; www.desertexpress.com.na

Swakopmund Hotel: 00 264 64 410 5200, www.legacyhotels.co.za. Double rooms start at N$1,500 (£125), including breakfast

Swakopmund Museum, Strand Street, Swakopmund. Opens 10am-1pm and 2pm-5pm daily. Admission costs N$7 (60p)

TransNamib Railway Museum, Bahnhof Street (00 264 61 298 2032) opens 8am-1pm and 2pm-5pm from Monday to Friday. Admission costs N$5 (40p)

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