Swakopmund is named after the river Swakop (dry most of the year), with “-mund” translating literally as ‘mouth’. It was here that the German
colonialists tried to establish a harbour and made Swakopmund an administrative centre. The only other harbour was at Lüderitz
far to the south, while nearby Walvis Bay with its proper deepwater harbour remained in British
So the new German settlers – and the “Schutztruppe” (‘protection force’, as the colonial military was euphemistically called) – from 1892 onwards tried to create an artificial harbour here first by constructing a breakwater (still known by the German word as the “Mole”, pronounced ‘moh-leh’), later also a wooden jetty, and later still an iron jetty with unloading cranes. But these efforts ultimately failed and the would-be harbour eventually silted up.
Nevertheless, the completion of the railway line to Windhoek
in 1902 meant that Swakopmund was still a strategically important location, providing good access to the interior and the capital.
During the war, and genocide
, against the Herero and Nama peoples by the German Schutztruppe in 1904-907, a concentration camp
was also established at Swakopmund (cf. Shark Island
, and see below).
Swakopmund was evacuated and, like the whole of formerly German South West Africa, taken over by South Africa
(cf. Aus and environs
). German residents were later allowed to return, but all officials and regular members of the military were expelled. Hence several buildings initially stood abandoned but were later repurposed.
As South Africa’s harbour in Walvis Bay just south of Swakopmund was now readily available, no further efforts were made to create another harbour at Swakopmund and the cranes on the jetty were dismantled. This abandoning of harbour activities in Swakopmund was also a deliberate decision on the part of the South African authorities in later years, because they intended, and expected, to hold on to Walvis Bay even after Namibia
gained independence in 1990. However, Walvis Bay went into joint administration in 1992 and was fully handed over to Namibia after all in 1994.
Having lost much of its economic and military significance after WW1, Swakopmund initially declined … until, that is, steps were taken to develop the town as a tourism hub – for the white population – from ca. the mid-1920s onwards. This segregation continued during Apartheid
, which was also introduced in Namibia from the 1950s. (A township, called Mondesa, outside Swakopmund proper was established in 1961 specifically for blacks – and still exists today). The after-effects of this can be seen even today. While there are now plenty of black residents too, the proportion of whites, especially in the historic centre, is still notably higher than elsewhere in the country.
Since 1990, Swakopmund, or simply “Swakop” for short, has become the escape destination for many people living in Windhoek
, who flock here in their tens of thousands especially around Christmas and New Year. This is partly due to the distinctly more temperate climate here than in the interior, which swelters in the summer heat at that time of year. This cooler climate is thanks to the Atlantic
and its cold Benguela Current, which creates the frequent coastal fogs, especially in the mornings and evenings (but on many days it never lifts at all).
Another boost for Swakopmund in economic terms came from mining. Unlike at Lüderitz
and the “Sperrgebiet” (restricted mining area) this was not mining for diamonds (see Kolmanskop
) but for uranium. Rössing uranium mine and smelter some 40 miles (65km) inland from Swakopmund began operations in 1976 and became one of the world’s largest open-cast uranium mines. It has also created its own mining settlement town, Arandis, but many employees (especially at management level) stay in properties in Swakopmund. Uranium mining has also expanded and there are now several separate mines east of Swakopmund.
Rössing uranium mine also used to be a somewhat dark tourist attraction. For many years the Swakopmund Museum
organized tours by coach to Rössing where visitors were given a guided tour of the mine and processing plant (where ‘yellowcake’ is produced for export – see Sellafield
). These tours were suspended with the onset of the Covid pandemic in 2020. Since the Rössing mine has meanwhile been sold to a company from China
, these tours are very unlikely to ever resume, as the guy working in the Swakopmund Museum emphatically underscored to me when I asked. I had been very much looking forward to this tour when I planned my Namibia trip for 2020, which then had to be postponed twice because of the pandemic. Rössing uranium mine unfortunately seems to be a permanent casualty in terms of tourism and so I missed out on seeing it, sadly.
What there is to see: Not all that much in dark terms. There’s only one site that is given its own separate chapter here, namely this:
Otherwise the only faintly dark aspects can be seen in the colonial architecture (see below
), because it dates from a time when Germany
led a ruthless regime against the local populace, up to genocide
against the Herero and Nama peoples (see history
and cf. Shark Island
and Independence Museum
). During the 1904-1907 war against these natives, a concentration camp
for captives was also set up at Swakopmund. No trace of it remains today, but there are a couple of memorial stones
, erected in the 2000s, at the former burial ground
for Herero and Nama located to the immediate south of the town, where the dead were buried in simple shallow earth mounds with no markings.
The adjacent proper and landscaped cemetery for whites also has a few memorials – but to members of the German military as well as South Africans who fell in WW1
A particularly dodgy colonial-era memorial monument is to be found right in the centre of town just east of the State House. This is known as the Marine-Denkmal and was erected in 1907/08 in honour of those members of the German Marine (Navy) Expedition Corps that crushed the Herero uprising in 1904. The splashes of blood-like red paint you can still see on the monument are the result of vandalism. Naturally, the monument is quite controversial today.
To the west of this lies the waterfront and what’s left of the ill-fated “Mole” (breakwater – see above). Further south along the coast is the jetty, no longer unloading boats but home to two restaurants (one at each end). There are otherwise no traces left of the efforts at creating a harbour here.
Amongst the many activities offered to tourists from Swakopmund are scenic flights
by small planes (window seat guaranteed!). There’s a choice of routes, up the Skeleton Coast or to Sossusvlei/Dead Vlei (see under Namibia
) and the coast south of Walvis Bay, or combinations thereof. I was on one that first headed inland, flying along the dry Swakop riverbed, then crossing the sea of red sand dunes of the inner Namib Desert, over Sossusvlei, Dead Vlei and the Big Daddy dune, then onwards to the coast, and heading back north along the coast passing a couple of shipwrecks
, then flying over the lagoon and harbour of Walvis Bay before returning to Swakopmund airfield (total flying time just over two hours). It is in particular those shipwrecks (see under Namibia
) that make these flights attractive for dark tourists. Also, just flying over endless sand dunes where there is absolutely no sign of life, and where you really don’t want to make an emergency landing, has a certain dark appeal as well. (For photos see the gallery
that the general Namibia
chapter comes with.)
Aspects of the Living Desert Tours – described below
– could also be seen as partly dark (the poisonous snakes and scorpions).
roughly in the middle of Namibia
coast, over 200 miles (350km) west of the capital Windhoek
, but just a few miles north of Walvis Bay. The only other harbour on this coast, Lüderitz
, is 280 miles (450km) to the south – as the crow flies; by road it’s much further.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: quite remote, but easy enough to get to by road; prices vary widely.
Most visitors (other than those on organized tours) get here
their own (hire) car. From Windhoek
there are competing routes, the fastest being the tarmacked B2 trunk road, which is convenient but you’ll have to overtake a lot of heavy-goods trucks. The alternatives are the gravel track roads C26 or C28, which are slower, but more scenic. The B2 also continues south to Walvis Bay (don’t use this at night, when drink drivers frequently have races here). And the C34 goes north along the Skeleton Coast to Cape Cross and beyond (see under Namibia
Theoretically there’s also a rail link to Windhoek
, but passenger trains are infrequent, very slow and with inconvenient timetables. Swakopmund’s airfield is not served by commercial airlines, though there are a few connections to nearby Walvis Bay’s little airport, from where transfers could be arranged.
Getting around: The compact town centre is perfectly walkable, you’d only need a car for getting to the edge of town (e.g. to the cemeteries).
options are vastly more plentiful in Swakopmund than anywhere else in Namibia
; still: booking ahead is always advisable. At around Christmas time and New Year when a large proportion of the inhabitants of Windhoek
decamp to Swakopmund for their holidays, the town can get completely booked out – a time to be avoided by international visitors. When choosing your accommodation make sure you’re in or near the centre!
Because Swakopmund is so geared towards tourism, there’s also a vast range of choices in terms of food & drink
. There are countless eateries, from simple fast-food joints to upmarket gourmet restaurants, with seafood and game being specialities (table reservations are always a good idea). The German character of Swakopmund is also reflected in the culinary scene: you will see many bilingual (German and English) restaurant menus, and there are numerous German cuisine staples to be found (e.g. Eisbein – see under Namibia
). Especially German in character is the Swakopmund Brauhaus (meaning ‘brewhouse’, though it’s not a brewery, … but the food menu is the most German I have ever encountered anywhere – with very little for vegetarians, as you would expect).
As for drinks
: Swakopmund is exceptional in Namibia
in that it has a craft beer microbrewery (though their range is rather small), located in an industrial quarter on the eastern edge of town. Neighbouring this is also a craft gin distillery, whose products are absolutely outstanding. (To get to try them you don’t necessarily have to drive out there, their products can also be found in some restaurants and in supermarkets.) Also in this industrial complex is a celebrated coffee roaster with its own café.
Drinking water has to be piped in over long distances to reach Swakopmund on the desert coast, but it is actually potable, though not necessarily very tasty, due to the long journey through metal pipes. (By the way: a lot of this water, however, is diverted to the uranium mines and processing plants – see above.)
In some shops and restaurants, and in the museum
, German is the default language
– but non-German-speakers need not worry, everybody also speaks English, Namibia’s “official” language.
Price levels vary from very reasonable to somewhat elevated. The most expensive things are activities such as the scenic flights – but as there were about six other takers the day I undertook this, the price per person was brought down to a just about affordable level. Having to hire a whole plane for, say, just two people can cost as much as a transatlantic commercial flight! (N$12,500 per person when I last looked.) But when spread among more people it becomes increasingly worth the investment. The Living Desert Tours are much more affordable, at about N$850 per person (at the time of writing in 2022), which I think is pretty good value for money.
at least a couple of nights, or even longer in order to exploit the excursions/activities offered here, such as scenic flights (see above
), desert tours (see below
) and adventure kicks such as skydiving.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
nothing much in the immediate vicinity – but see under Namibia
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Swakopmund is a proper tourist town and seaside resort complete with beaches – though swimming in the cold Atlantic
takes a hardy disposition! Others can just walk up to the “Mole
” (‘breakwater”) and south along the seafront to the jetty
Specific sights to see are in particular the many German colonial-era architectural
gems. Considered the most noteworthy by many is the Woermannhaus
with its iconic Woermann Tower in the centre of town on Sam Nujoma Avenue. Not far from there is the remarkable Hohenzollernhaus
with its statue of a man shouldering a large globe at the top. In the north-eastern part of central Swakopmund stands the large Lutheran church
, which couldn’t look more German if it tried. Two blocks to the north of that is the former
colonial-era railway station
, now an upmarket hotel with a casino next door. Plenty more examples of colonial German architecture can be found dotted across town – just keep your eyes open. Not in a genuine colonial building but a German institution nevertheless is the Swakopmund Brauhaus (see above
). There are guided tours around historical Swakopmund too.
The very largest colonial-era building is the big pile next to the lighthouse, the State House, formerly a magistrates’ court, and now the Swakopmund holiday residence of the Namibian president – and hence strictly out of bounds for ordinary mortals (guards make sure of that).
Other than the Swakopmund Museum
there is also an aquarium
, a “snake park
” and the Kristall Galerie
(‘crystal gallery’) showcasing gemstones and their mining.
Swakopmund is also an excellent place for shopping! This includes the legendary Peter’s Antiques, a jumble of rooms crammed full of all manner of collector’s items and arts and crafts. Infamously, you can also spot some items not only from the German colonial era but even Nazi memorabilia. Less controversial are the various souvenir and arts & crafts shops. I was also able to stock up a lot on African outdoors/safari clothing (made in South Africa and of exceptional quality at very reasonable prices).
Activities/excursions offered from Swakopmund include not only the scenic flights mentioned above but also a very special desert excursion on land, “Tommy’s Living Desert Tours” (half day, 4-5 hours). On these tours you can meet what they call the “Little Five” (in allusion to the “Big Five” of African safaris – elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion and leopard). They are specially adapted creatures that manage to survive in the harsh Namib Desert environment. The five species in question are the Palmato Gecko (which buries into the desert sand and has a semi-translucent colourful skin), the Namib Sidewinder Adder (a snake that moves swiftly sideways, hence the name, and is actually quite poisonous), the Shovel-snouted Lizard (which can put on a remarkably fast sprint), the Namaqua Chameleon (a much more sedate but impressive creature that we saw feeding with its catapult-like sticky tongue) and the Cartwheeling White Lady Spider (which can roll down dunes – but that was the only one out of the five that we didn’t get to see, as the people running the tours no longer want to disturb these spiders’ delicate nests). Sometimes yet more animals are included, such as a couple of birds who have become quite habituated, as well as black scorpions that can hide underneath rocks or inside cracks (but those we didn’t see). The original Tommy has retired but his colleagues who carry on the business, and have been trained by him, are no less impressive. I had a fantastic guide, really enthusiastic, knowledgable and with a wry sense of humour. He picked the small group up from their accommodation and then headed out into the desert dunes just to the south of Swakopmund in a specially adapted 4x4 vehicle. The dune driving as such is great. But seeing and learning about these special animals was the highlight. Also very educational were the stories about the geology of the desert – including a demonstration of how much iron the desert sand contains (by means of a strong magnet). Highly recommended!
Other, less educational activities on offer locally include camel riding, quad biking, skydiving, fishing and golfing, amongst other things. No one gets bored in Swakopmund.
- Swakop 01 - State House and lighthouse
- Swakop 02 - dodgy monument
- Swakop 03 - German style architecture
- Swakop 04 - more German-style architecture
- Swakop 05 - yet more German architecture - Hohenzollernhaus
- Swakop 06 - Woermannhaus and tower
- Swakop 07 - former court house
- Swakop 07 - former municipal court
- Swakop 08 - very German church
- Swakop 09 - Brauhaus Swakopmund
- Swakop 10 - Bismarck medical centre and pharmacy
- Swakop 11 - legendary and infamous antiques shop
- Swakop 12 - Mole
- Swakop 13 - seafront
- Swakop 14 - not much allowed
- Swakop 15 - jetty at sunset
- Swakop 16 - Living Desert Tour
- Swakop 17 - gecko posing
- Swakop 18 - Namaqua chameleon
- Swakop 18 - sidewinding sidewinder snake
- Swakop 19 - posing bird
- Swakop 20 - coastal fog rolling in