Africa > Southern Africa > Namibia > Namibia Windhoek

Namibia: Namibia Windhoek

2011/07/01

Windhoek

Namibia's capital spreads out in a wide valley between bush-covered hills and appears, at first sight, to be quite small. Driving from the international airport, you pass quickly through the suburbs and, reaching the crest of a hill, find yourself suddenly descending into the city centre.

As you stroll through this centre, the pavement cafés and picturesque old German architecture conspire to give an airy, European feel, whilst street-vendors remind you that this is Africa. Look upwards! The office blocks are tall, but not sky scraping. Around you the pace is busy, but seldom as frantic as Western capitals seem to be.

Leading off Independence Avenue, the city's main street, is the open-air Post Street Mall, centre of a modern shopping complex. Wandering down it, between its bright, pastel-coloured roofs, you'll find shops selling everything from fast food to fashion. In front of these, street-vendors crouch beside blankets spread with jewellery, crafts and curios for sale. Nearby, the city's more affluent residents step from their cars in shaded parking bays to shop in air-conditioned department stores.

Like many capitals, Windhoek is full of contrasts, especially between the richer and poorer areas, but it lacks any major attractions. For casual visitors the city is pleasant; many stop for a day or two, as they arrive or leave, though few stay much longer. It is worth noting that the city all but closes down on Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday, so be aware of this if you plan to be in town over a weekend. Note, too, that during the holiday season from Christmas to around January 10, large numbers of locals leave for the coast, leaving many shops, restaurants and tourist attractions closed. That said, this is the centre of Namibia's administration, and the hub of the country's roads, railways and communications. If you need an embassy, good communications, or an efficient bank, then Windhoek is the right place for you. And to prepare for a trip into the bush, Windhoek is by far the best place in Namibia to get organised and buy supplies.

History

At an altitude of about 1,650m, in the middle of Namibia's central highlands, Windhoek stands at the head of the valley of one of the Swakop River's tributaries. The Nama people named this place Ai-gams ('fire-water') and the Herero called it Otjomuise ('place of steam'), after the group of hot (23–27ºC) springs, now situated in the suburb of Klein Windhoek.

The springs were long used by the original Khoisan hunter-gatherer inhabitants. However, the first recorded settlement here was that of the important chief Jonker Afrikaner and his followers, around 1840. (Jonker had gradually moved north from the Cape, establishing himself as the dominant power in the centre of the country, between Nama groups in the south and Herero to the north.) Many think that the name Windhoek was bestowed on the area by him, perhaps after Winterhoek, his birthplace in the Cape. Others suggest that Windhoek is simply a corruption of the German name for 'windy corner'. Jonker Afrikaner certainly used the name 'Wind Hoock' in a letter to the Wesleyan Mission Society in August 1844, and by 1850 the name 'Windhoek' was in general use.

By December 1842, Rhenish missionaries Hans Kleinschmidt and Carl Hahn had established a church and there were about 1,000 of Jonker's followers living in this valley. The settlement was trading with the coast, and launching occasional cattle-rustling raids on the Herero groups to the north. These raids eventually led to the death of Jonker, after which his followers dispersed and the settlement was abandoned.

The Germans arrived in 1890, under Major Curt von François. They completed the building of their fort, now known as the Alte Feste – Windhoek's oldest building. This became the headquarters of the Schutztruppe, the German colonial troops. Gradually German colonists arrived, and the growth of the settlement accelerated with the completion of the railway from Swakopmund in 1902.

In 1909 Windhoek became a municipality. The early years of the 20th century saw many beautiful buildings constructed, including the landmark Christus Kirche, constructed between 1907 and 1910. Development continued naturally until the late 1950s and '60s, when the South African administration started implementing policies for racial separation: the townships began to develop, and many of Windhoek's black population were forced to move. This continued into the '70s and '80s, by which time rigid separation by skin colour had largely been implemented. The privileged 'whites' lived in the spacious leafy suburbs surrounding the centre; black residents in Katutura, which means 'the place where we do not like to live'; and those designated as 'coloured' in Khomasdal. Even today, these divisions are largely still in place.

The 1990s, following independence, saw the construction of new office buildings in the centre of town. More recently, impressive new government buildings, including a new Supreme Court building, have been constructed on the east side of Independence Avenue, while the open spaces between the old townships and the inner suburbs are gradually being developed as modest, middle-income housin.

What to see & do

Although Windhoek isn't the planet's liveliest capital, there are some beautiful old buildings, a couple of museums and art galleries, and some tours worth taking.

Windhoek's historical buildings

Most of Windhoek's historical buildings date from around the turn of the century, and are close to the centre of town. Walking is the obvious way to see these. Starting in the Post Street Mall, here is one suggested sequence, taking about two or three hours:

Gibeon meteorites
On the middle of the mall is a sculpture, incorporating 33 meteorites that fell around Gibeon, some 300km south of Windhoek. These were part of what is thought to have been the world's heaviest shower of meteorites, which occurred around 600 million years ago. About 77 meteorites, with a total mass of 21 tons, have been recovered so far; many of these are in museums around the globe.

Clocktower
At the junction of the Mall with Independence Avenue is a replica of the clocktower that was once on the old Deutsche-Afrikabank. The original was constructed in 1908.

Now turn southeast, towards Christus Kirche, and cross Independence Avenue into Zoo Park. From here, you can get a good view of three fine buildings on the west side of Independence Avenue. They were designed by Willi Sander, a German who designed many of Windhoek's older landmarks. The right one of the three, Erkrathus Building, was built in 1910: a business downstairs, and a place to live upstairs. Gathemann House, the building in the middle, was designed for Heinrich Gathemann, who was then the mayor of Klein Windhoek, and built in 1913 to a basically European design, complete with a steep roof to prevent any accumulation of snow! Again, it originally had living quarters above the business. Kronprinz Hotel was designed and built by Willi Sander in the years 1901 and 1902. It was extended in 1909, and refurbished and extended in 1920. It is now overshadowed by the Sanlam building, but a plan has been made to modernise the shops (one of which is Nakara, see page 148) whilst preserving the façades.

Continuing into Zoo Park, on green lawns under its palm trees (among the Christmas decorations!) you will find two features of note:

Elephant Column
A sculptured column over a metre high marks the place where primitive tools and elephant remains, dated to about 5,000 years ago, were found. Scenes of an imagined elephant hunt kill are depicted in bas-relief (by Namibian sculptress Dörte Berner), and a fossilised elephant skull tops the column.

War memorial
On the south side of the elephant column is this memorial, about a century old, crowned by an eagle, and dedicated to German soldiers killed whilst fighting the Nama people led by Hendrik Witbooi. As yet there is no memorial for the Nama people, led by Hendrik Witbooi. (Recently the Namas killed have been remembered as part of the general monument at Heroes' Acre; see page 164.) Now head south on Independence Avenue a short way until your first left turn, up Fidel Castro (Peter Müller) Street. On the other side of the corner are Windhoek's best street-sellers for baskets, and the Grab-a-phone/bus/taxi terminus. On the left, on the far corner of Lüderitz Street, you will see:

Hauptkasse
Used as the house of the Receiver of Revenue, as well as officers' quarters and even a hostel, it is now the Directorate of Extension Services, within the Ministry of Agriculture.

Ludvig Van Estorff House
Opposite the Hauptkasse, on the south side of Fidel Castro (Peter Müller) Street, this was simply built in 1891, as a canteen, and is named after a commander of the Schutztruppe who lived here in 1902–10. It is now the National Reference Library.

Christus Kirche
In a commanding position, now on its own roundabout, this 'fairytale' Evangelical Lutheran Church is Windhoek's most famous building. It was designed, by Gottlieb Redecker, in art nouveau and neo-Gothic styles, and built between 1907 and 1910 of local sandstone. Kaiser Wilhelm II donated the stained-glass windows; his wife, Augusta, gave the altar bible. Originally this church commemorated the peace at the end of various wars between the German colonists and the indigenous people of Namibia, and inside are plaques dedicated to the German soldiers who were killed. (As yet, there's no mention of the losses of the indigenous people...) The church is normally open 07.30–14.30 during the week. However, if it is closed and you wish to see inside, the key can be borrowed during office hours from the church offices, just down the hill at 12 Fidel Castro (Peter Müller) Street.

Kaiserliche Realschule
On the west side of Robert Mugabe Avenue, just near Christus Kirche, this is now part of the National Museum. However, it was built in 1907–8 as a school, and became Windhoek's first German high school.

Walking further south along Robert Mugabe Avenue, you'll see the new Bank of Namibia building. On your right, just before crossing Sam Nujoma Drive, is:

Office of the Ombudsman
Built as a dwelling for the chief justice and his first clerk, this was originally erected in 1906–7, and has much decorative work typical of the German 'Putz' style of architecture. The original stables are now a garage and outbuilding.
Now turn around and walk back towards Christus Kirche, on the right (east) side of Robert Mugabe Avenue.

Alte Feste
The large building on the right is the old fort, built by the first Schutztruppe when they arrived here around 1890. It is strategically positioned, overlooking the valley, though its battlements were never seriously besieged. A plaque on the front maintains the colonial view that it was built to 'preserve peace and order' between the local warring tribes – which is as poor a justification for colonialism as any. Inside is now the main historical section of the National Museum (see page 156 for details).

The Equestrian Statue
To the left of the Alte Feste is a large statue of a mounted soldier, commemorating the German soldiers killed during the wars to subdue the Nama and Herero groups, around 1903–7. (Here, too, there's no mention of the Nama or Herero people who died.)

Parliament (formerly Tintenpalast)
Once back at the Christus Kirche, turning right (east) leads you to what were originally the administrative offices of the German colonial government. The building became known as the Tintenpalast, or Ink Palace, for the amount of bureaucracy that went on there, and has housed successive governments since around 1912. The Germans occupied it for only about a year, before losing the colony to South Africa after World War I. Now this beautiful double-storey building is home to Namibia's parliament. When the assembly is not in session, you can book a place on a 45-minute tour by phoning 061 288 2627, which integrates well into this short walking tour, perhaps 11/2–2 hours after the start.

State House
As you continue north along Robert Mugabe Avenue, on the left is the president's official residence. This was built as recently as 1958, on the site of the old German governor's residence. Until 1990, this was used by South Africa's administrator general.

It is now a short walk left, down Daniel Munamava Street, back to join Independence Avenue by the main post office.

 

Museums, galleries and libraries

 

Windhoek has, perhaps after Swakopmund, some of the country's best museums, galleries and libraries, though even these state collections are limited. The South African regime, which controlled the museums until 1990, had a polarised view of the country's history, understandably, and undesirably, slanted towards their involvement in it. It remains difficult to find out much of the history of Namibia's indigenous peoples. That said, the museums are gradually redressing the balance.

Alte Feste and State Museum
Robert Mugabe Av; tel: 061 293 4362
This is the capital's best museum, concentrating on Namibia's history over the last few centuries. There's an exhibition of historical photographs, including shots of many important leaders, and displays of household implements of the missionaries and the country's indigenous peoples. There's also a special exhibit on the independence process, and the transition to majority rule in 1990.

Open: Mon–Fri 09.00–18.00, Sat, Sun 10.00–12.30 and 15.00–18.00. Admission is free.

Owela Museum
Robert Mugabe Av; tel: 061 293 4358
North of State House, almost opposite Conradie Road, Owela Museum houses the natural history sections of the State Museum, with a good section on cheetah conservation, and a little on the country's traditional cultures.

Open: Mon–Fri 09.00–18.00, Sat and Sun 10.00–12.30 and 15.00–18.00. Admission is free.

TransNamib Museum
Bahnhof St; tel: 061 298 2186
Housed upstairs in the old railway station building, this museum is run by the parastatal transport company, TransNamib. It shows the development of transport in the country over the last century, with particular emphasis on the rail network. Ring the bell when you arrive; the museum is probably open, even if the gate is locked!

Open: Mon–Fri 08.00–13.00 and 14.00–17.00. Admission is N$5 per adult. Closed weekends and public holidays.

National Art Gallery of Namibia
Robert Mugabe Av and John Meinert St; tel: 061 231160; fax: 061 240930
Namibia's small National Gallery (also see page 157) has a permanent exhibition of Namibian art – some historical, some contemporary – and also hosts a variety of visiting exhibitions. It's well worth checking out.

Open: Tue–Fri 09.00–17.00, Sat 09.00–14.00. Closed Sun, Mon. Admission is free.

National Reference Library
11 Peter Müller (Fidel Castro) St; tel: 061 293 4203
Housed in Ludvig Van Estorff House (see page 157), this is really of more relevance to serious researchers than casual visitors.

Bushman Art Gallery
Erkraths Bldg, 187 Independence Av; tel: 061 228828/229131; email: bushmanart@iafrica.com.na; web:www.bushmanart.com
At the front this is purely a curio/gift shop, with a good selection of books on Namibia (in German and English), as well as T-shirts, jewellery, gemstones, cards, hats, and even socks. Behind, through the shop, a museum area displays Bushman tools, clothing etc, various African masks and Karakul carpets. Many items on display are for sale, except the Bushman tools.

Open: Mon–Sat 09.00–17.30, Sun 10.00–13.00. Admission is free.

 

Other options

 

City tours
Various small agencies offer tours of the city, some walking, some by vehicle. Often an afternoon tour will be combined with driving out on to some of the mountains overlooking Windhoek for a sundowner drink. It is also possible to visit the township of Katutura as part of a Windhoek city tour, though these aren't as popular as Jo'burg's tours of Soweto. The companies running day trips seem to change often. Current favourites are:

Face to Face Tours
PO Box 22389, Windhoek; tel: 061 265446
A three-hour trip at N$150 per person covers the centre of Windhoek and out to Katutura, including stops at the markets, local homes to see how food is prepared, a shabeen, and the co-operative at Penduka.

Gourmet Tours
PO Box 2148, Windhoek; tel/fax: 061 231281
Half-day city tours in the morning or evening take in the centre of Windhoek, a viewpoint looking over the city, a drive through Katutura and coffee at the Heinitzburg Hotel. Tours cost N$180 per person. Other half-day options include trips to the leopards at Dürstenbrook (N$310 per person), Daan Viljoen (N$210), Okapuka (N$290), and Auas Game Lodge (N$310). Full-day tours feature Midgard (N$450) and Oropoko (N$480), while longer tours to Gamsberg and Etosha are available on request.

Pack Safari
109 Papageienweg, PO Box 29, Windhoek; tel: 061 231603, cell: 081 124 6956; fax: 061 247755; email: info@packsafari.com; web: www.packsafari.com
Pack Safari runs a range of day tours, including a 3-hour city tour (N$240 per person) taking in historical buildings, the affluent suburb of Ludwigsdorf and the less affluent Katutura, where a development project is visited. Other options include a half-day visit to Daan Viljoen (N$280), a full day to Rehoboth and Oanab Dam (N$690), the Gamsberg Trail (N$1,320), or a visit to the leopards of Dürsternbrook (N$590). Rates are per person, with a minimum of two people per trip normally required. Pack Safari also offers scheduled and guided tours through the region.

If you prefer to drive yourself, and want to head off the beaten track, it is worth contacting the Windhoek tourist information office in Post Street Mall (see page 118), who can arrange for a local community guide to accompany you. Guides are accredited by the City of Windhoek,

 

SPORTS FACILITIES

 

Gym
Virgin Active
On Centaurus Rd, just off Jan Jonker, and by Maerua Mall, this has a big indoor pool, plus a large gym with lots of training machines, an aerobics studio, several glass-backed squash courts, and steam and sauna rooms. Day membership as a casual visitor is N$50, so if you need to relax and have a shower in town before travelling, this is the perfect place. The club is open Mon–Thu 05.00–21.00, and Fri/Sat 07.00–20.00. Note that the car park is not patrolled, so don't leave your luggage unattended in a car outside.

Nucleus
Centrally located in the Old Brewery Building on Tal St, by the Namibia Craft Centre, this fitness gym has been operating for 12 years. The gym is at the top of several flights of stairs (getting there is a workout in itself), and offers full changing facilities, basic running/cycling machines and general fitness apparatus. It is open Mon–Thu 06.00–21.00, Fri 06.00–20.00, Sat/Sun 09.00–13.00, 16.00–19.00. The daily rate is N$50, monthly N$120.

Swimming
Immediately next to Virgin Active is the stunning open-air Olympic-size 50m swimming pool and a professional diving pool, which is run by the municipality. The latter was closed for refurbishment in 2002, with no date available for its re-opening. Surrounded by grassed areas with shaded picnic benches, this is a great place to unwind. Officially it's open Nov–Mar, Mon–Fri 10.00–20.00, and weekends 10.00–18.00; Aug–Nov and Apr/May, 10.00–18.00; closed Jun/Jul. In reality, it usually closes every year at the end of April, and reopens Sept 1. Costs: under 16s N$0.50, adults N$1.50 (N$1.50/3 weekends and holidays).

Golf
Windhoek Golf and Country Club
PO Box 2122, Windhoek; tel: 061 205 5223; fax: 061 205 5220; email: wcc@iafrica.com.na; web: www.wccgolf.com.na
This 18-hole golf course next to Windhoek Country Club Hotel offers the usual facilities you might expect from such an upmarket club: a resident professional, motorised caddies, a driving range and a well-equipped pro-shop. The clubhouse has a bar area and a restaurant, the Eagle's Nest (tel: 061 205511), which is open Wed–Sun. Next door is the Windhoek Bowls Club, which has its own clubhouse, bar and swimming pool.
Golf rates for visitors: non-affiliated N$90 (9 holes), N$180 (18 holes); hotel residents N$70 (9 holes), N$140 (18 holes); driving range N$15 (30 balls), N$30 (60 balls).

Horseriding
Guided rides into the mountains around Windhoek, including breakfast and sundowner rides, may be taken with Auas View Trails (PO Box 80312, Windhoek; tel: 061 223865; fax: 061 214901). Costs are from N$160 per person for an hour and a half, to N$280 for three hours. Transfers from Windhoek cost N$50 per trip. Hard hats are available on request. There are also several game farms that offer horseriding to guests.

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