Despite nearly a thousand miles of beach, Namibia’s not exactly front page when it comes to those glossy beach holiday brochures. It’s an unusual coastline largely made up of the Namib Desert which stretches along the sea side.
This coastline is unlike any other. The sea has claimed hundreds of ships and many more lives over the decades. Think treacherous currents and thick sea fogs. It’s largely unpopulated too.
But Namibia is the first country to designate its entire coastline a national park and there are a couple of very popular stops, namely Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. So you can have a fantastic time if you stay by the beach, as long as know what’s on offer. Think water sports, water safaris and wet suits. Let’s start from the top of the country and meander south.
The Skeleton Coast is both breathtaking and bleak and one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Cold currents make the water rich in sea life but not ideal for swimming. Water temperatures rarely rise above 19 degrees Celsius and there are often rough waves. It’s an expanse of dunes and the driest place in sub-Saharan Africa. But these barren solitary wastelands do draw visitors from around the world and for good reason, it’s got a rich and fascinating history and is stunning in its own way. So much so, that this area is protected and forms part of the Namib-Skeleton Coast National Park.
There are more than a thousand rusting shipwrecks lying here. Many lost their way in thick fog, ran aground and were destroyed in the heavy surf. The whaling and sealing industries, which lasted into the early 1900s, left real skeletons too. You can also see lots of seals and marine bird life near the wrecks. There are very few accommodation options here (inside the Skeleton Coast National Park) but it’s a straightforward drive from the bigger towns on the coast.
Did we just mention seals? Well, this is the place to visit if you want to see them en masse. Cape Cross is about 140km north of Swakopmund. There are thousands and thousands of seals here, it’s noisy and rather smelly but quite a sight.
Henties Bay is 70 km north of Swakopmund and a popular place for shark angling. Trips tend to be from November to May. You may see coppershark, smooth hound sharks and spotted gully sharks. For conservation purposes, all sharks are returned to the sea unharmed.
Ah, Swakopmund, oft described as Namibia’s favourite seaside town, it’s a big sigh of relief from the heat of the surrounding desert. It’s also Namibia’s biggest coastal town and is an ideal base for a range of adrenaline activities.
But it’s not some tropical beach resort. Early mornings can easily warrant a jumper and sea mist is often present. That’s because the sands of the desert sweep into the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean and a heavy, cold coastal fog forms. But, the sand is soft and there is a summer holiday vibe.
In terms of best time to go, the hottest months tend to be January, February and March and the most popular time (think busiest) is from September onwards.
Swakop’s an unusual place. Poking out amidst palm trees are Bavarian spires and there’s a lighthouse dating back to 1902. In fact, there’s a very German feel to it all, with colonial buildings, German style restaurants and coffee shops selling German cakes. Add to that lots of restaurants, bars, a museum and a small aquarium and you get a bustling town popular with both tourists and Namibians.
In terms of what to do, you can sunbathe and take a dip but it’s the adrenaline activities which bring this place to life. Kite surfing, kayaking, surfing, shark fishing, deep sea fishing and beach angling, you can go on dolphin cruises and easily see seals and pelicans too. On shore you could try skydiving, quad biking, dune carting, parachuting, hot air ballooning and sand boarding. The highest dune, Dune 7, is 30 miles away and excellent for sand-based activities.
You’ll find Langstrand between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. It’s a small beach resort which became famous after movie star Angelina Jolie gave birth to her first biological child with Brad Pitt here. There are unspoilt sandy beaches, a water park as well as tidal pools and children’s play areas. You can quad bike and fish.
If you want more action and you’ve just explored Swakopmund, drive 25km south and you’ll arrive in another hugely popular base, albeit enveloped in Atlantic fog too, this is Walvis Bay. It’s the largest deep-water commercial port in Namibia and is a magnet for birders and watersports enthusiasts. In fact, the Walvis Bay wetlands and Sandwich Harbour lagoons are RAMSAR sites, wetlands of international importance.
The protected lagoon area of Walvis Bay is a calm oasis and a haven for the sheer mass of bird life. Look out for vast flocks of flamingoes, low-flying pelicans and huge numbers of waders. Altogether, some 80,000 wading birds can be seen on the lagoon, with most migrants flying in between November to April.
Boat cruises are the most popular way to spot marine life. There’s also a large seal colony at Pelican Point and seals often climb onto the boats. Plus there are water sports a plenty, you can even waterski at the lagoon and the south westerly winds make it a prime spot for kitesurfing.
Also known as Skeleton Bay, this is a world renowned spot for serious, and we mean serious, surfers. It’s been hailed as home to the most famous and longest wave in the African continent, and one of the longest in the world. You’ll find it just outside of Walvis Bay on the way to Pelican Point.
A ride on a wave here can take you along for up to 2,000 meters. In other words, an experienced surfer may get barrelled and end up riding the wave for three and a half minutes. So you need to know what you are doing. And work out how you are going to get back...
It’s good all year round but professional surfers say the best time is from July onwards. You won’t find many accommodation options other than a tent on the beach or a very basic guest house. Ideally rent a guide to take you to the waves - there are seals to watch if the wave defeats you.
Now this natural lagoon is not easy to get too but if weather and tides allow it, it’s a fascinating place. 56km south of Walvis Bay you’ll find dunes of up to 100m plunging into the Atlantic Ocean. This then washes into a lagoon. The harbour is deserted of human life but full of bird life. In fact it’s a marine sanctuary supporting more than 50 000 birds in the summer and 20 000 in the winter, including Palaearctic waders and flamingos.
Finally, the furthest southern coastal town in Namibia is Lüderitz. Windsurfers and kitesurfers head to the Second Lagoon. Every year the world’s fastest kitesurfers compete in an annual speed challenge.
The town features more German colonial buildings and the art nouveau Goerke Haus which is built into the rock face on Diamond Hill. Nearby, Felsenkirche is a hilltop church with views to Robert Harbour. The museum focuses on the town’s diamond-mining past as well as local and natural history.
The eerie, ghost town Kolmanskop is just south of here. This was a former diamond-mining village which was abandoned and has been reclaimed by the elements. Literally. All the buildings are full of sand, it an amazing site and a good one to explore seeing as you’re nearby.
Boats travel to Halifax Island too, this is home to cormorants and African penguins and if you want to see yet more seals and pelicans, they inhabit the rocky Shark Island peninsula too.
So there you have it. A Namibian beach holiday is not a cocktail sipping, magazine reading, lazy, hazy blur of a trip but it’s still a serious contender if you want to experience the sand and sea from a different perspective. If you want to be steeped in marine history, to face your fears in front of some mammoth waves, watch vast flocks of birds fly or marvel at the gentle giant might of a passing whale. Then head down to the beach in Namibia.
Skeleton Coast - Amy Schoeman
Namibia - Michael Polizia