Postcard from Namibia

Often the closer you are to someone the more rivalry you feel, especially if the other person is a little older or more successful. So it is with countries, where neighbours compete fiercely. With the Rugby World Cup in mind, you can find a Welsh guitar-playing rugby supporter on YouTube with his song,

“As long as we beat the English…” which sums it up nicely. It seems to be everywhere: I remember for example a Portuguese businessman once telling me that we had no chance as a foreign company to sell in Portugal but, as he put it, “at least you’re not Spanish”.

Namibia is in the shadow of South Africa, its vastly more populous and economically dynamic neighbour to the east. So you might expect that phenomenon of neighbourly rivalry to be here, but in fact Namibians love South Africa, cheer the Springboks rugby team, drink their wine, take payments in Rand and talk of them as being family. All the more odd, you may think, bearing in mind that South Africa was effectively the colonial power from the First World War after the Germans were defeated until independence just 25 years ago (the British, as they did in many places around the world, hung on to a small sliver of land around the only deep water port in order to control trade).

The Germans have left their mark (or should that be ‘Reichsmark’?) on the country, even if they were deposed a century ago. It’s in the architecture, the food, beer, work ethic (including everything but everything being closed on Sunday), the names (we rather liked Bahnhof Street as a linguistic mish-mash) and in the fact that everything works. The place, as you might imagine, attracts German speaking tourists, so in our hotel here in Swakopmund (the mouth of the river Swakop), we are the lone English speakers in a sea of Swiss German, Austrian German and Hochdeutsch.

In fact Namibia could be the most polyglot country we’ve ever visited, with 14 official languages, including English, German and Afrikaans for just 2.5 million inhabitants. Fifty years ago, there were just half a million inhabitants, not many for a country about the size of Nigeria. In fact, Namibia today has a lower population density than Australia.

The old adage that you can tell a country by the advertisements in the airport seems to hold true here: a prominent one announces that it’s illegal to buy uncut diamonds. This is a country of minerals, from uranium to zinc, from diamonds to gemstones.

It’s hot here, with temperatures in the 30’s despite Windhoek being at an altitude of 1,700 metres. We stay in a simple charming guesthouse near the centre of town, in Room 1 which is just as comfortable but less famous than Room 8, where Prince Harry stayed during a recent visit. We eat in the nearby Joe’s beer house, where German style beer and African grilled meats are served in a set of roughly built, connected wooden huts. Quite fun, but a little concerning that it’s near the top on TripAdvisor.

Every house is surrounded by barbed wire, electric fences or tall walls. We’re also under strict instructions not to walk back after sunset, so we pay about 50p for a taxi to take us about 300m back to the guesthouse. We never really feel comfortable as a result.

So we’re not sorry to leave the next day, driving three hours through the desert for the coast. Here the temperature is much lower, the waves pound the shore, the local beach does not allow swimming and we are wearing our fleeces in the evenings. Swakopmund has the feel of a resort town a little out of season. The food is well, let’s just say that this was not one of Germany’s best legacies, but the town is well laid out, with broad avenues, some interesting architecture and an attractive seafront.

There’s a lot of birdlife which we’re just starting to identify, from weaver birds to Pelicans, from sparrows to flamingos. We’ve bought a bird book and hope to be able to identify many over the coming days.

We visit the original factory making Desert Boots, run by a German family who’ve been in business for decades and whose family came to Namibia in the late C19. We talk about the hardship the first immigrants endured; the clarity of her Hochdeutsch (most immigrants were from the north of Germany apparently) and the way the German culture and language persist today in Namibia. She tells me Desert Boots are called “Vellies” locally. What do you call them, she asks. When I reply, “Brothel creepers” she admits it may be an even better name than theirs.

The highlight so far is our guided tour of the desert, where we see plants (such as Welwitschia Mirabilis, a surface-growing conifer that can grow to be over 1,000 years old), female beetles being chased by enthusiastic males (it is Spring, after all), swirling geological formations and an oasis where Springbok are calmly eating the grass taking not the slightest notice of the humans.

We’re off tomorrow to another unpronounceable place, Sossuvlei, which lies 350 km south, where we are told the temperature will be back over 30C and it will be even more desert-like. We can’t wait.

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