Windhoek – Capital worth a thorough visit. South Africans love Namibia for its wilderness, but its capital city is well worth a better look, writes Clifford Roberts.
Just like Pretoria, the capital city of Namibia rarely gets a second glance from South African holiday-makers. It’s not for nothing that the country’s spectacular landscapes and coastal towns like Swakopmund and Henties Bay enjoy top spot.
There’s a fascinating side to Windhoek that justifies spending more than a couple of days exploring. Its streets hum with an Afro-cosmopolitan feel that extends beyond, to amongst other its museums, parks and galleries; architecture, both contemporary and well-preserved heritage; bustling shopping centres; and, trendy restaurants and bars.
The city lies at the geographic centre of the country. Not only the seat of government power, it is the nexus of main roads leading to the most popular destinations as well as neighbouring countries of Angola to the north, Botswana east and South Africa.
As with many travellers to Namibia, our trip starts and ends in Windhoek; the direct flight to Hosea Kotako International is less than two hours from Cape Town.
It’s only in the last couple of days before departure for home, that we set out to explore the town. The city is broad, but crisscrossing it from one feature to the next we realise how small the CBD actually is. This heart of the city is very walkable, with a collection of interesting places like the National Art Gallery of Namibia and upmarket shops within minutes from each other. Further afield, are bigger shopping and office complexes and construction sites that suggest even greater expansion.
We snap away at its vast collection of historic buildings and a smattering of dramatic new ones, like the Independence Memorial Museum that opened in 2014. In its shadow lies Alte Feste, a fort built in 1890 by Germany’s colonial troops that is now the oldest surviving building in Windhoek.
Another historic landmark sits just metres away. Built in the early 1900s, the Christuskirche’s jewellery-box appearance is re-enforced by its isolation on a traffic island. Its snug interior is relatively plain in contrast with magnificent stained-glass windows.
As we move from landmark to landmark, so the story of Windhoek opens up – from its birth as a settlement above an aquifer of plentiful springs; through various wars and 30-year colonisation by Germany; then, rule by South Africa to Namibia’s independence just 27 years ago. (If imposing state monuments are your thing, Windhoek has no shortage of them, from the Heroes Acre just outside of town to various statues along its high street.)
Much of this journey to the modern state can be attributed to the coming of the railways, which makes the TransNamib Museum a must-see. Negotiating the harsh country and long distances before 1897, when the first major railway was built, was done by wagon. The museum itself is located in another of the city’s grand old buildings – the Windhoek railway station, which is still in operation today.
Back in the CBD, we combine our fascination of history with shopping at the Old Brewery building that is home to a large, formal craft market; second-hand bookstore; pub; and, theatre.
The entire property is still owned by the holding company of the country’s biggest brewer, Namibia Breweries, which outgrew the space years ago. We stroll through the space chatting to crafters and browsing for books. There’s karaoke in the pub but a no-show at the theatre tonight, although we hear it regularly sees performances by stars including South Africans Tobie Cronje and Elzabe Zietsman.
The familiarity to South Africans also continues to extend into many other areas of Windhoek society as well. Afrikaans is commonly spoken; and, if you’re after your favourite tipple, almost every brand is represented between places like The Wine Bar and Wine Shop, Stellenbosch Wine Bar and Bistro, and Embassy Liquor Store. An almost mandatory stop for South Africans and other visitors too, is Joe’s Beerhouse, on Nelson Mandela Avenue.
Established in 1991, the rustic pub restaurant with its eclectic décor is quite possibly one of the most photographed sights around town.
On the opposing side is the National Botanic Garden, a landmark that deserves far more attention from visitors to Windhoek.
Next to history and geology, it is Namibia’s biology that so obviously captures the imagination of even the most casual visitor that cannot avoid asking: how does an immobile organism manage to survive in some of the most extreme conditions on earth? The answers and more are provided at the city’s 12ha reserve where plants are identified with information boards giving their formal and informal names as well as interesting facts on their cultural and occasional medicinal uses.
On our last night, we endeavour to pursue our own travel tradition – sundowners with a city view.
Travel the world and you quickly learn to appreciate the value of a good sky bar. From New York City to the capital of Latvia – few sights are as beautiful as a city skyline at sunset. In Windhoek, that sight is delivered by the Hilton’s Sky Bar.
In the red-sky dusk, we watch the streetlights come on and reflect on our experience of Windhoek. There are still many places we wanted to visit but never had the time. They’ll just have to wait for next time.
Travel Tip: Take the N7 #WildRoute and stop at Kardoesie N7 Countrystop. The 7 Stops On The N7 route has been launched by the Kardoesie N7 Countrystop and is a self-drive route which includes the towns of Piketberg, Citrusdal, Clanwilliam, Wupperthal, Van Rhynsdorp, Nieuwoudtville and Garies.
Kardoesie N7 Countrystop also offers camping and self-catering accommodation. As its only 80 minutes’ drive from Cape Town it’s ideal for a weekend breakaway to explore the district and to get away from it all.
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West Coast Way is a unique collection of themed routes that can be enjoyed by locals and visitors when they do an adventure-filled Cape West Coast self-drive trip for a day trip or a West Coast Holiday. The new West Coast Way “basket” of free routes on offer include the West Coast Way Scenic Route, the West Coast Way Berg Route, the West Coast Way Foodie Route, the West Coast Way Cultural Route – as well as the newly launched West Coast Way Wild Route, all of which are designed to showcase the many attractions and activities that are already on offer on the Cape West Coast and inland areas – but may be unknown to many. For more information on West Coast Way, the other routes on offer, and the list of 101 Things to Do on the West Coast visit www.westcoastway.co.za or call West Coast Way on 0861 321 777. Connect with West Coast Way on Facebook and Twitter at WestCoastWaySA.