OUT OF AFRICA
THE LAID-BACK CHARM OF WINDHOEK
The history of Namibia is at odds with its sleepy demeanour and nowhere is this more apparent than its capital, Windhoek. Sitting slap-bang in the centre of the country, the city of about 350,000 people accounts for a large percentage of the 2.3 million-person Namibian population, making the country the second-least populous in the world (behind Mongolia) and Windhoek the country’s political, business and tourism hub.
So with so few people overall, sleepy is the name of the day with Namibia, and despite being the capital, Windhoek does little to dispel this. If you are looking for nightlife and a vibrant, pulsing city, this is not the place for you. If you like order, cleanliness (Windhoek has been voted the cleanest city in Africa on a number of occasions), and a laid back vibe, then you’ve come to the right place.
Its history is entwined with Namibia’s past. There were attempts to settle the site a number of times, but it took the Germans to establish a permanent community at Windhoek in 1890. From there it grew until the Germans were pushed out at the end of World War 1, replaced by the South Africans, who claimed the area as South West Africa, bringing it into the British Empire.
The following years are a sorry tale of war, a battle for independence and the usual economic mess that always carries in its wake. But regardless, Windhoek continued to grow at a steady pace, and now free of its colonial shackles, the city has prospered and grown under a stable and organised government. That’s not something you write about an African country very often.
Many of the streets are named after revolutionary heroes, including many that have nothing to do with Namibia’s struggles. One favourite is Fidel Castro Street, which runs close to the Namibian museum, which was built by the North Koreans, in a 1970s Soviet style. Namibians clearly love an underdog.
The city centre is pretty low-rise, with the tallest buildings only around 20 floors, and these number very few. It does lack many of the big chain hotels,
but there are a few that serve up the standard fare of a big city stay. There are also a number of small, boutique-style hotels, which are a handy option for travellers, although these tend to be in the residential areas and not near the city centre.
There are, of course, a large number of safari lodge-style hotels outside of Windhoek, towards the north of the country, especially around the Etosha National Park.
In the centre of town, the two main hotels to choose from are the Hilton and the Kalahari Sands Hotel and Casino, as well as the slightly away from the centre Windhoek Country Club Resort, which, interestingly, was originally built as the host venue of the 1995 Miss Universe pageant.
Business visitors tend to opt for one of the first two, with the Hilton being the better choice, due to its newer finish and better facilities. The Kalahari is pleasant enough, with very attentive staff, but it has no gym and a very basic roof top pool for guests. It’s also built as part of a small shopping centre and includes a small casino in its lobby.
The two hotels virtually face each other across the street, so either is well located for anyone on business.
Nearby places worth a visit are the Christuskirche, due to the stunning gardens surrounding the dominating building overlooking the city centre. This is also a short stroll from the main parliament building, which looks more like a plantation house, than a seat of government. If the sun is out (which it often is) this walk is worth it for the fresh air alone.
Away from the city centre, the more traditional shanty towns of wood and corrugated tin start to make an appearance, but even in these poorer areas it’s somehow more friendly and welcoming than in places such as South Africa. Crime is fairly low for Africa and the people are friendly and optimistic.
One thing to bear in mind is that the Internet across Namibia is poor. Most hotels and guesthouses have a connection, but it is desperately slow. It’s strange as the rest of the country’s infrastructure, such as the roads, schooling, and government, is far better than most other African nations.
So to sum up Windhoek, it’s quiet, clean and compact, making it easy to see in a day. At night there are some basic nightspots that require a laid back approach to an evening out. If you want a jumping club this is not the place. But if a leisurely stroll around in the sunshine on beautifully manicured streets appeals then Windhoek is spot on.
Switch off the phone, cancel your meetings and sit back in one of the city’s many streetfront coffee shops and watch the world go by at a new, slower pace.
You are in Africa, after all.