Namibia: A unique snapshot of German colonial Africa

On 9 July 1915, the German army relinquished control of Namibia. A century on, the town of Swakopmund remains little changed, right down to the beer, says Simon Parker

Simon Parker
Tuesday 07 July 2015 17:50 BST
Colonial German buildings in Swakopmund
Colonial German buildings in Swakopmund

As I sipped from my third frothy stein of fruity wheat beer, I studied the menu with the blurry focus of a man who was debating with himself whether he should consume something solid before another pint. Brawn with boiled potatoes, bratwurst with sauerkraut and pork schnitzel and dumplings were on offer, with apple strudel for dessert. The menu was enhanced with glossy photos and artistic doodles, but it was just a little bit meaty.

Signalling to the barman that I was ready to give in to one of the Germanic gastronomic temptations, I mustered the courage to ask a question that always seems to cause a stir, wherever I am in the world.

"Excuse me, but do you have anything without meat?"

Immediately a whisper then rippled down the busy bar like a cascading line of dominoes, as the proprietor dashed off into the kitchen in a huff. Left to quaff the dregs of my beer, I pondered my odd but intriguing day spent in Swakopmund, a former German colonial town on the shores of Namibia's coast.

Surrounded by the raging South Atlantic Ocean to the west and dusty, inhospitable desert in every other direction, Swakopmund emerges from the sand in an otherwise barren and windswept landscape. Founded in 1892 as the main harbour of German South-West Africa during the "scramble for Africa" that preceded the First World War, Swakopmund survives as a living monument of German colonial ambitions.

Its supply of fresh water rising up from an otherwise arid coastline put it in good favour with the German army, which saw this tiny oasis as a strategic footing in the continent. Conveniently, it was also positioned just 20 miles north of the British-held deep-sea harbour of Walvis Bay.

Exactly 100 years have passed since the German army relinquished control of Namibia to South Africa, when the German commander Victor Franke capitulated after months of hostility on 9 July 1915; but despite a century of cultural separation, the country's influence remains entrenched throughout the town.

From restaurant menus to the fuel-efficient brands of contemporary European cars being driven on the Germanic-inspired streets, Swakopmund offers a unique snapshot of German colonial Africa. As I walked past Kaiser Wilhelm and Bismarck Strasses, intersecting the downtown esplanade running adjacent to the town's main beach, it felt like stepping through a portal, not only to a different time, but also somewhere firmly rooted in Europe.

Most buildings remain inscribed with early-20th-century dates, and shops are nearly always labelled using the Germanic serif Fraktur font. Meanwhile, antique shops peddle vintage German clothing, wartime artefacts and literature. In one shop I counted no fewer than three copies of Mein Kampf.

"When German troops first landed here, caves were dug as protection from the heat," read a plaque erected inside Swakopmund's tiny museum, crammed with artefacts and information. "Then thousands more followed and quickly a German colony was established."

I was 7,500 miles from Berlin, but I felt closer to Germany than I did to southern Africa. It was like a small Bavarian town in high summer, bustling with tourists dawdling with ice creams. Shops close between 1pm and 3pm, but most of the town's restaurants stay open to serve currywurst, hot chips and ice-cold beers in a strange fusion of Latin and Germanic customs that contributes to Swakopmund's unusual charm.

Sands of time: Namibia's red dunes

A fierce sun beats down on Swakopmund for most of the year but, combined with the welcome Atlantic breeze, it has become a popular seaside resort. All along the promenade, children were playing ball games and licking ice lollies, though few were venturing into the wild Atlantic and its perilous, swirling currents. The colonial hotels and simple guest houses, meanwhile, were serving German lagers and rye bread sandwiches.

Wandering past the eerie Altes Gefängnis prison, where dissenting locals were sent if they objected to German rule, I could feel its physical and historical presence looming over its low-rise surroundings.

Back in the pub and returning from behind the door of the steamy kitchen like a nervous contestant on Stars in Their Eyes, the landlord reappeared in a fluster with a tiny notepad covered in scrawl.

"Fritten, Salat und Brot," he barked at me as the bar fell silent.

Fries, salad and bread. I ordered all three, and another wheat beer.

Getting there

Simon Parker flew from Heathrow to Windhoek via Johannesburg with South African Airways (0844 375 9680;

He travelled with Abercrombie & Kent, which offers an 11-night Quintessential Namibia itinerary to Windhoek, Sossusvlei, Swakopmund, Damaraland and Etosha from £3,995 per person. This includes all accommodation, most meals, guiding and game drives, international and internal flights and transfers (01242 855 098;

Staying there

The Hansa Hotel (00 264 64 414 200; is one of Swakopmund's oldest buildings and a short walk from the beach in the centre of town. Doubles start at N$1,475 (£80), including breakfast.

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