June, 2017: What does German bratwurst and kayaking with seals have in common? Usually very little but if you head to the rather random Namibian town of Swakopmund, you’ll find both in plentiful supply. After a mildly frustrating time in Windhoek, we headed to this bizarre little village in search of fine German beer, cured pork products and a date with a whole lot of seals. The coastline around Swakopmund and Walvis Bay to the south plays home to huge colonies of seals and we had it on good advice that kayaking with seals was one of the best experiences in Africa. We wanted in.
Kayaking with seals: a brief look at Namibia’s German history
Namibia used to be part of the former German South West Africa colony. Naturally the Germans brought their brauhaus and bratwurst and, like other fellow European colonisers, an at times brutal disdain for the lives of the indigenous tribes. While Germany essentially lost it’s colony to the British commonwealth during WW1, the German influence can still be seen in modern day Namibia. Some remnants are more subtle like the general orderliness of Namibian towns (this is my hypothesis anyway) while others might as well be wearing lederhosen at Oktoberfest. One such glaring reminder of Germany’s influence is Swakopmund; a small village which could be straight out of Bavaria except that it’s in the middle of the driest desert in Africa.
Kayaking with seals: touching down in Swakopmund
We had heard mixed reports about this wee Deutschland outpost with it’s authentic brauhaus and austere architecture. And, admittedly we found the place a touch disconcerting on first arrival. We pulled in after sundown and found a fairly dark, well ordered town with broad streets virtually devoid of people. Obviously we hadn’t expected an African version of Berlin’s Love Parade in the streets but the place felt almost foreboding it was so quiet. Still, as soon as we walked into the busy brauhaus and saw the full steins of beer, plates of bratwurst and juicy schweinebraten (roast pork) we immediately started to relax.
Kayaking with seals: heading to Pelican Point
While enjoying German hospitality is always a bundle of laughs the main reason we came to Swakopmund was to go kayaking with seals. For this we got up early and drove 40 minutes south to the old whaling port of Walvis Bay. On one side we had the rugged Atlantic coast while on the other we had seemingly endless rolling yellow dunes of the Namib desert. As the morning mist slowly peeled way we felt like we could have been somewhere in the middle east.
At the Walvis Bay marina we met up with our guide Jens and three other fellow kayakers, picked up a beach comber and then drove out out onto Pelican Point. This isthmus of sand has been steadily growing north over the years just off the main drag of Walvis Bay. It plays home to a massive salt farm and a luxury hotel in a lighthouse; lots of pelicans and flamingoes; the odd Black Backed jackal, and a long right hand surf break which attracts surfers in their droves. It’s quite a surreal and desolate place which has a real post apocalyptic, end of the world kind of vibe. That’s if it wasn’t for the 50,000 Cape Fur Seals which make it their home.
Just as the seal colonies came into view we parked and got kitted up for kayaking in our ridiculously oversized spray jackets. The morning’s mist had been burnt off by the sun leaving a picture perfect day and glassy water. About 100m from us we could hear the seal pups yelping and the big bulls snorting and grunting as they milled about. After a quick safety briefing we pushed out into the water and soon had playful seals coming to see what we were all about. At first there were only the bravest of the bunch but it didn’t take long before we had 5, 10, maybe 20 seals playing with our kayak. 100s more were in the water all around us. Some would just follow us, others would playfully try and grab our paddles while others seemed determined to get us as wet as possible by leaping right next to the kayak. If you trailed your hand in the water for more than a few seconds you would quite likely get a gently nip. They were so inquisitive and human like it really was like being in the water with a bunch of boisterous toddlers.
We were in the water for about 2 hours before it was time to get out. The wind was picking up and while gutted to leave the beautiful seals it was amazing to get out of the freezing water. Steaming cups of tea and coffee and a big mound of sandwiches awaited us on the beach. After the morning’s sensory overload we were suddenly ravenous and happily hopped in. The whole experience was quite mind blowing and definitely worth the NAD630 per head. Being less than a metre away from a creature who is eyeing you off with mutual curiosity as it swims on it’s back is not something to forget in a hurry.
That afternoon we strolled the streets of Swakopmund and enjoyed what would be our trip’s last view of the Atlantic. The initial disconcerting feel of the place was replaced by a relaxed contentment that comes from being in a lazy beach town. Sure it’s weird seeing all the old German colonial buildings set against a vast desert sky but we rather enjoyed it. We finished the day with a few sundowners and then dinner in an old tugboat that was beached in the middle of town. The sun went down, the candles flickered to life and we all felt rather pleased with ourselves.
Kayaking with seals: places to stay and eat in Swakopmund
- We stayed at Desert Sky Backpacker’s in Swakopmund which is only a few minutes walk from the centre of town. Overlanders have to camp in their car park so it isn’t exactly scenic but it’s under cover and has power. There are good hot showers, a great shared kitchen and the whole place just has a really nice homely feel. Price: NAD160/person.
- We did our seal safari with Pelican Point Kayaking who were a bit kookie, but professional, friendly and good fun. The half day trip cost NAD630 / person which included all gear, an ample morning tea (tea, coffee, bottled water, biscuits and sandwiches) and transport from the Walvis Bay marina. Own transport needed to be organised between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay.
- Swakopmund has some great eating options in the Brauhaus and the Tugboat and quite good coffee at Slow Town Coffee Roasters. The Brauhaus serves up huge plates of typical German fare from bratwurst and saurkraut, schweinebraten and mash potato and of course pork knuckle. We were mildly disappointed that they had no German beer on tap but they seemed to have a decent collection available by the bottle. The Tugboat combines excellent views across the Atlantic and an interesting and tasty menu featuring plenty of seafood.
- The Super Spar in town is a good place to stock up on a good range of quality bread, cured pork products, cheese and other treats which aren’t as easy to find like pickles. We also find a surprisingly impressive (if not expensive) range of Asian goods.