Welcome to Windhoek

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One of the perks of working for a safari company (of which there are quite a few) has been being invited on famils and press trips to other countries to Africa looking to expand their customer base.

When my boss at Shadows of Africa asked me if I would be interested in representing them at the annual Namibian Tourism Expo, I leaped at the opportunity. After reading about other people’s adventures in this starkly beautiful country, I was eager to explore it for myself.

And so it was that my Chinese trip ended not with a direct flight to Tanzania, but with a very welcome detour via this beautiful southern African country.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing my adventures exploring Sossusvlei, going on a desert safari, falling in love with Swakopmund, sandboarding in the Namib Desert, going on safari in Etosha National Park, and more.

A big thanks to Shadows of Africa, the Namibian Tourism Board, and Pack Safari for such a fantastic opportunity.

A moving memorial to Namibian independence looks out over WIndhoek's bright future.
A moving memorial to Namibian independence looks out over WIndhoek and the nation’s bright future.

Arriving in Windhoek

After the long flight from Shanghai (via Ethiopia and Johannesburg), I was picked up at the airport and whisked off to my Windhoek accommodations, Moni Pension.

I’ll save the full-blown review for my TripAdvisor, but Moni was acceptable accommodation. It had dodgy WiFi, a dirty pool, and an only somewhat functional bathroom, but this was countered by a comfortable bed and a pretty damned good breakfast spread with bottomless coffee. Both a Godsend when you are spending all day out and about.

Having arrived too late to join them for dinner, I didn’t meet my travel companions until early the net morning: Caren the bubbly Oregon hippie, Don the well-traveled and well-educated East Coast California transplant, and warm and enthusiastic Astrid from Seychelles.

All of us were in Namibia representing different tour companies, but Don also maintains a fascinating blog entitled Adventure Transformations that I’d thoroughly recommend.

Introductions done and friendships beginning to take shape, it was time to get started.

Don, Astrid, myself, Caren, and our guide, Stefan enjoying the Namib Desert.
Don, Astrid, myself, Caren, and our guide, Stefan enjoying the Namib Desert.

The 2015 Namibian Tourism Expo

Our first two days in Windhoek would not be spent exploring it, sadly, but we did get to have a good time and meet some great people at the Namibian Tourism Expo. We spent our first day at a fun speed-networking event and the second paying a visit to the Namibian Tourism Expo proper.

Day 1 – Networking

Despite being perennially single and an experienced online dater, I’ve actually never been speed-dating. When the speed networking event organiser told us that “it’s just like speed dating”, that wasn’t a whole lot of us to me.

But by the end of 4-5 hours, I’d met some of the movers and shakers of Namibian tourism as well as quite a few tour operators from around the world. I chatted at length with a Chinese tourism agency about the things we missed most about China, shot the shit about Dubai with another guy, and got to have a good chat with the irrepressible Birgit from Ultimate Safaris.

It was also an inundation of information. I left with a head buzzing with information and a little red backpack so stuffed with pamphlets, business cards, and info packs that my boss¬†still hasn’t gotten around to reviewing them all two months later.

Day 2 – The Namibian Tourism Expo

Ostensibly the reason for our presence in Windhoek, I was a bit surprised to find that we were actually leaving town before the official opening of the festival. Instead, we attended the media and exhibitioner day which amounted to a buffet spread of finger food, a hell of a lot of speeches delivered by nervous minor political figures, and a rushed tour of what few exhibitors were open for the evening.

Caren and I, the ‘young whipper-snappers’ of our group, rushed around trying to see and do as much as possible. We enjoyed a glass of wine with the manager of the Protea hotel, made friends with the manager of a white water rafting company, and donned silly hats for the launch of Gondwana’s upcoming Swakopmund property.

It wasn’t a particularly informative or networking appropriate visit, but as my first travel & tourism expo, it was certainly an eye-opener.

A Windhoek Day Tour

While our visit to Windhoek also included some fantastic restaurants that I’ll comment on in my next entry, the highlight of our three days in the Namibian capital was a half-day tour of the historic city.

With our knowledgeable guide Stefan guiding the way, we paid a visit to some of the city’s most historic buildings and districts.

Our first port of call was the Christuskirche, a beautiful 105 year old Lutheran church situated on a hill that overlooks the city. I’m a real sucker for churches and the architecture that religious belief has inspired, so I had a good time snapping pictures of the stained glass, the marble altar, and the interesting contrast of tropical palms next to very European architecture.

The picturesque Christuskirche is one of Windhoek's most well-known landmarks.
The picturesque Christuskirche is one of Windhoek’s most well-known landmarks.
Some of the beautiful stained glass within the Christuskirche.
Some of the beautiful stained glass within the Christuskirche.

Just across the road from this quaint place of worship is the Namibian Memorial Museum, a titanic golden monstrosity built by the North Koreans to commemorate Namibian independence. It is an eyesore of a building for such a solemn and proud occasion, and in stark contrast to the humble church it casts its long shadow over.

The futuristic Memorial Museum is certainly eye-catching.
The futuristic Memorial Museum is certainly eye-catching.

Our journey through Namibia’s often bloody history continued as we stopped by Alte Feste (Old Fortress), a German colonial fortress that harkens to the days when Africa had been subdivided by warring European powers. While here Stefan regaled us with stories of the nation’s first white settlers and the transition to Namibia’s status as a modern, dynamic country.

Alte Feste (Old Fortress) cuts a rather striking figure atop the hills overlooking modern WIndhoek.
Alte Feste (Old Fortress) cuts a rather striking figure atop the hills overlooking modern WIndhoek.

From here it was a quick trip past the Ink Palace and the Parliamentary Gardens, which I’d have sorely loved to explore with a camera and a good book. They looked positively serene!

The delightfully appealing Parliamentary Gardens. I could have spent an entire day just relaxing in this shady haven.
The delightfully appealing Parliamentary Gardens. I could have spent an entire day just relaxing in this shady haven.

Our last stop would be Katatura, a former township whose name literally translates into: place where we do not want to be. While townships conjure up images of abject poverty and South African-style apartheid, we were stunned by what a colourful and vibrant area this former township had become.

“Years ago, you would not have been safe driving through here,” Stefan told us proudly, “Now you see how happy everybody is”.

He wasn’t kidding. Everywhere we looked were brightly painted houses and smiling faces. It was not at all what I pictured, and is a testament to Namibia’s remarkable steps towards greater equality.

Why Windhoek?

Like Arusha in Tanzania, Windhoek is more gateway than tourism destination in its own right.

It certainly has a charm all of its own, this melting pot of African cultures and German colonial architecture. Its quaint markets and oddly-named streets (“Take a left on Fidel Castro, and then continue straight along Mugabe Avenue”) are something that is sure to catch the eye.

But people don’t travel to Namibia for its adorable capital. It’s where you land before heading off to Etosha, Sossusvlei, or Swakopmund.

It’s definitely worth a day tour and maybe a couple of nights to tackle some of its fantastic restaurants, though.

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