Swakopmund brims with numerous historic examples of traditional German architecture. For further information on the town’s colonial sites, pick up Swakopmund – A Chronicle of the Town’s People, Places and Progress, which is sold at Swakopmund Museum and in local bookshops.
Trekkopje Military Cemetery
In January 1915, after Swakopmund was occupied by South African forces, the Germans retreated and cut off supplies to the city by damaging the Otavi and State railway lines. However, the South Africans had already begun to replace the narrow-gauge track with a standard-gauge one, and at Trekkopje, their crew met German forces. When the Germans attacked their camp on 26 April 1915, the South Africans defended themselves with guns mounted on armoured vehicles and won easily. All fatalities of this battle are buried in the Trekkopje cemetery – 112km northeast of Swakopmund along the B2 – which is immediately north of the railway line, near the old train station.
The Martin Luther
In the desert 4km east of Swakopmund, a lonely and forlorn steam locomotive languished for several years. The 14,000kg machine was imported to Walvis Bay from Halberstadt in Germany in 1896 to replace the ox wagons used to transport freight between Swakopmund and the interior. However, its inauguration into service was delayed by the outbreak of the Nama-Herero wars, and in the interim its locomotive engineer returned to Germany without having revealed the secret of its operation.
A US prospector eventually got it running, but it consumed enormous quantities of locally precious water. It took three months to complete its initial trip from Walvis Bay to Swakopmund, and subsequently survived just a couple of short trips before grinding to a halt just east of town. Clearly this particular technology wasn’t making life easier for anyone, and it was abandoned and dubbed the Martin Luther, in reference to the great reformer’s famous words to the Diet of Reichstag in 1521: ‘Here I stand. May God help me, I cannot do otherwise.’
Although the Martin Luther was partially restored in 1975, and concurrently declared a national monument, it continued to suffer from the ravages of nature. Fortunately, in 2005 students from the Namibian Institute of Mining and Technology restored the locomotive to its former grandeur. They also built a protective encasement that should keep the Martin Luther around at least for another century.
The Wonderful World of Weltwitschia
Among Namibia’s many botanical curiosities, the extraordinary Welwitschia mirabilis, which exists only on the gravel plains of the northern Namib Desert from the Kuiseb River to southern Angola, is probably the strangest of all. It was first noted in 1859, when Austrian botanist and medical doctor Friedrich Welwitsch stumbled upon a large specimen east of Swakopmund.
Despite their dishevelled appearance, welwitschias actually have only two long and leathery leaves, which grow from opposite sides of the cork-like stem. Over the years, these leaves are darkened in the sun and torn by the wind into tattered strips, causing the plant to resemble a giant wilted lettuce. Pores in the leaves trap moisture, and longer leaves actually water the plant’s own roots by channelling droplets onto the surrounding sand.
Welwitschias have a slow growth rate, and it’s believed that the largest ones, whose tangled masses of leaf strips can measure up to 2m across, may have been growing for up to 2000 years! However, most midsized plants are less than 1000 years old. The plants don’t even flower until they’ve been growing for at least 20 years. This longevity is probably only possible because they contain some compounds that are unpalatable to grazing animals, although black rhinos have been known to enjoy the odd plant.
The plants’ most prominent inhabitant is the yellow and black pyrrhocorid bug, which lives by sucking sap from the plant. It’s commonly called the push-me-pull-you bug, due to its almost continuous back-to-back mating.
This worthwhile excursion by vehicle or organised tour is recommended if you want to see one of Namibia’s most unusual desert plants, the welwitschia. Welwitschias reach their greatest concentrations on the Welwitschia Plains east of Swakopmund, near the confluence of the Khan and Swakop Rivers, where they’re the dominant plant species.
In addition to this wilted wonder itself, Welwitschia Drive also takes in grey and black lichen fields, which were featured in the BBC production The Private Life of Plants. It was here that David Attenborough pointed out these delightful examples of plant-animal symbiosis, which burst into ‘bloom’ with the addition of fog droplets. If you’re not visiting during a fog, sprinkle a few drops of water on them and watch the magic.
Further east is the Moon Landscape, a vista across eroded hills and valleys carved by the Swakop River. Here you may want to take a quick 12km return side-trip north to the farm and oasis of Goanikontes, which dates from 1848. It lies beside the Swakop River amid fabulous desert mountains, and serves as an excellent picnic site.
The Welwitschia Drive, which turns off the Bosua Pass route east of Swakopmund, lies inside the Dorob National Park. Most often visited as a day trip from Swakopmund, the drive can be completed in two hours, but allow more time to experience this other-worldly landscape.
For an alternative take on the experience, pick up the pamphlet 'The Weltwitschia Plains – A Scenic Drive' from the NWR office in Swakopmund.