In the path of the dunes
The port and settlement of Walvis Bay = Mark van Aard

The harbour town of Walvis Bay stands on flat land beside a wide bay and tidal lagoon, sheltered from the open ocean behind a spit of sand with a lighthouse near its tip. The site does not rise much above sea level, but high dunes crowd together on the landward side of town, where desert sands spill into the streets.

Walvis Bay grew from a settlement built in the Kuiseb delta. The water table was so close to the surface at first that buildings had to be set on stilts or sandbags. On occasion the river came down and flooded the place.

As early as 1874 when the settlement was barely 30 years old, the environs were described as "a desolation of sand, sand and nothing but sand". It was thickest south of the Kuiseb where the Great Sand Sea lay. The river seldom ran, but kept the sand at bay. At the time a gravel plain stretched northward and eastward into the distance.

No longer. The rivercourse now ends in a blind mouth, a bridgehead where the sand crosses freely. As a result dunes lay siege to the town and extend up the coast in a narrow belt as far as the Swakop rivercourse.

While dune encroachment is a permanent and costly problem, the crescent-shaped barchans lend a certain magic to the townscape.

Once a typically drab and grey port, Walvis Bay is much changed, with trees and gardens planted in strategic places. Its best feature, the lagoon with its multitudinous birdlife, got special attention. A promenade runs along its edge for about 3km from the yacht club to a lookout called Lover's Hill.

Before a permanent settlement was established on the bay, the only inhabitants were scattered bands of aboriginal foragers.

In addition nomadic pastoralists and huntergatherers from the interior, Khoekhoe and San respectively, visited the bay at times when conditions were favourable after rain in the desert. They had little reason to stay for any length of time until the 18th century when foreign whalers and other ships began to call regularly for fresh meat and water.

On a visit to the bay in 1823 a British missionary, James Archbell, wrote that the "number of (native) inhabitants greatly exceeded our expectations". They bartered livestock, ivory and ostrich feathers with seafarers for "iron and steel ware or for goods pertaining to war", the latter presumably guns.

Similarly in 1837 an army officer and explorer, Sir James Alexander, found a large tribe, "some hundreds in number" with "huts among the sand hills", when he reached the bay in the course of an "expedition of discovery".

Portuguese seafarers beat him to the bay by 350 years. They passed through in 1487 when Bartolomeu Dias dropped anchor as his flotilla of caravels edged ever further south in search of a sea route to India.

Dias named the bay Golfo de Santa Maria da ConšeicŃo (Gulf of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception) which was later changed to Bahia das Baleas (Bay of the Whales). It would not to be the last change of name, although all subsequent names retained the reference to whales, even after they had disappeared from the bay.

Common in the bay in the early days, whales are not often seen nowadays, but show signs of returning. Family pods visit from time to time. When the Dutch unsuccessfully laid claim to the bay in 1793 they called it Walvischbaaij (Whale Bay), a name British seafarers corrupted to Walwich Bay and American whalers to Woolwich. It became Walfisch Bay when the British formally annexed the port and settlement in 1878 and Walvisbaai or Walvis Bay when they put South Africa in charge.

As part of the Cape Colony under British rule, Walfisch Bay was ceded to the newly formed Union of South Africa in 1910, when the rest of South West Africa was still in German hands. After the German colony fell to South African forces in World War 1, Walvis Bay was administered from Windhoek as part of South West Africa.

It resorted under territorial administrations for 62 years until South Africa transferred control of the enclave to its Cape Province in 1977 in a diplomatic ploy intended to assert its rights of ownership. Walvis Bay was finally ceded to Namibia in 1994, four years after the country had gained its independence.

The wetlands

The greater wetlands consist of a tidal lagoon, man-made salt pans and a spit of sand that ends in Pelican Point, as well as adjacent intertidal and flooded areas. The lagoon is the largest sheet of shallow, sheltered water on the Namibian coast.

With extensive feeding grounds in the form of tidal channels, mudflats and sandbanks, Walvis Bay supports some 150 000 birds, exclusive of the prolific Cape cormorant. In terms of total numbers it is the foremost wetland on the coast of southern Africa and probably ranks in the top three in Africa as a whole.

Intra-African migrants constitute 50% the total, Palaearctic migrants 45% and coastal residents 5%. The great majority are shorebirds.

Palaearctic migrants from Europe and Asia usually arrive in September and leave in April.

The intra-African migrants generally spend more time on the Namibian coast. Although they leave to breed a month or two before the Palaearctic birds, as soon as salt pans in the interior hold enough water from summer rains, they return once their chicks are able to fly and stay on the coast until the next rains.

Walvis Bay is a feeding site for 83% of the lesser flamingos in southern Africa and 49% of the greater flamingos. It also supports 70% of all chestnutbanded plovers and 40% of all blacknecked grebes. In early 2001 some 28 000 greater flamingos, 15 000 lesser flamingos, 8 000 chestnutbanded plovers and 5 000 blacknecked grebes were counted.

Eastern white pelican = Mola Mola SafarisWalvis Bay is one of a few places where the African black oystercatcher, the only oystercatcher endemic to southern Africa, is seen alongside the European oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), a rare summer visitor from as far north in Europe as Siberia.

Some 1 000 eastern white pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus) are resident in the lagoon. Unusually for eastern white pelicans, which prefer to breed in fresh water, they seldom leave their saltwater habitat. Other residents include Damara, Caspian and swift terns, whitefronted plovers (Charadrius marginatus) and Hartlaub's gulls (Larus hartlaubii).

Commercial salt pans to the south of the lagoon, on the road to Sandwich Harbour, mainly support flamingos and other intra-African migrants. In summer Palaearctic migrants such as rednecked phalaropes (Phalaropus lobatus), Eurasian curlews (Numenius arquata), European oystercatchers and common redshanks (Tringa totanus) are also seen.

Ponds with reed beds off 13th Road hold 40- 50 waterbird species at any one time. Maccoa ducks (Oxyura maccoa), Cape shovellers (Anas smithii), dabchicks (Tachybaptus ruficollis), purple gallinules (Porphyrio porphyrio) and great crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus) are among the resident species. Others like pelicans and gulls come to bathe in the ponds and roost beside them.

The coast

Playing with seals

Motor launches ply out of the lagoon, past Pelican Point, into the bay and along the coast to "Bird Island", an offshore platform about 9km from Walvis Bay, where seabirds such as whitebreasted, crowned and Cape cormorants roost in large numbers.

Possibly the only place in Namibia where eastern white pelicans breed, the platform was built for guano production.

Dolphins often accompany the boats, while seals come alongside and even on board to be hand-fed. Whales are sometimes sighted in the bay.

To round off the trip fresh oysters, canapes and snacks are served with sparkling wine and other beverages.

Levo Seal & Dolphin Cruises,
P O Box 1860, Long Beach, Namibia
Tel & fax +264 (0)64 20 7555
Cell +264 (0)81 129 6270

Mola Mola Safaris,
P O Box 980, Walvis Bay, Namibia
Tel +264-(0)64-20 5511
Cell +264- (0)81 127 2522
Fax +264-(0)64-20 7593

With a narrow beach on one side and desert dunes on the other, Sandwich Harbour is a unique lagoon on the Namib coast, as fresh water seeps into it from aquifers under the dunes while salt water spills in from the sea. It is situated about 50 km from Walvis Bay at the end of a sandy track that is suitable only for 4x4s.

The road to Sandwich Harbour = Mola Mola SafarisAlthough the lagoon is much smaller than it used to be, as a result of natural sedimentation, it still attracts waterbirds (particularly African and Palaearctic shorebirds) in large if variable numbers. Its tidal mudflats usually teem with birds.

Sandwich Harbour is a scenic wilderness without tourist amenities. It is in a corner of the Namib-Naukluft Park that is in effect the only marine reserve in Namibia as the park boundary extends 1,6 km into the sea along a 45 km front. A permit is required for visits between sunrise and sunset. Overnight visits are not allowed.

Guided tours
Full-day guided tours are available in a 4x4 from Walvis Bay to Sandwich Harbour. A picnic lunch is provided.

Mola Mola Safaris,
P O Box 980, Walvis Bay, Namibia
Tel +264-(0)64-20 5511
Cell +264- (0)81 127 2522
Fax +264-(0)64-20 7593

15 km of sand
Long Beach is a 15km stretch of sandy coast with a gradual gradient into the surf. As the beach is on the sheltered side of Pelican Point, which is located down the coast at the entrance to Walvis Bay, the water is not nearly as rough as it gets off beaches exposed to open ocean. It is safe for swimming.

Just off the black-top route B2, Long Beach is wide as well as long. Despite its proximity to traffic, it retains a natural character. The rare Damara tern roosts and breeds in the vicinity. In sight from the water's edge and an easy stroll away, high dunes form an unbroken chain along the coast. The sunsets over the ocean are truly memorable.

The beach is singularly uncluttered and free of commercialism. The only development is a small resort at its southern end, named after the beach, with a promenade and jetty, tidal pools, picnic spots, a restaurant and houses.

The resort is situated midway between Walvis Bay and Swakopmund.

The desert

Except for a wedge of land on the coast that stretches northward to Swakopmund, all of the desert accessible from Walvis Bay lies within the Namib-Naukluft Park. In addition to Sandwich Harbour, the principal sights are the Kuiseb delta, rivercourse and canyon, the dune sea across the Kuiseb and granite inselbergs on the Tumas plain.

A permit is required for excursions into the park, but not for transit on main roads -- routes C14 and D1982 -- between the coast and the interior. Gravel roads in the park are good enough for sedans, but sandy tracks to offroad sites require a 4x4.

As the Kuiseb rivercourse approaches the coast south of Walvis Bay, it disappears in a maze of silt deposits at the foot of the dunes, where water collects on rare occasions when the river comes down in flood. Short-lived and brackish springs sometimes well up among the dunes.

Archaeological remains indicate that Khoekhoe nomads lived in the area at various times over the past 2 000 years and that they relied heavily on shellfish for sustenance. They were actually pastoralists, but left their cattle and sheep upriver, as fodder was scarce in the delta. Animals were only brought to their encampments for slaughter.

The sites of the encampments, known as kitchen middens, are still found all over the delta. Pottery shards and beads remain in some of them.

The middens mostly contain mussel shells, sometimes with the remains of whales and fur seals, as well as those of cattle and sheep. They also reveal that early inhabitants picked wild fruit, as their descendants still do, from nara bushes (Acanthosicyos horridus) that grow extensively in the delta.

On occasion desert winds expose skeletons in the graves of people buried long before foreigners first visited the Namib coast.

Elephant tracks in petrified silt, dated to the late 18th century, are preserved in the delta. Elephant do not now range into the Kuiseb and perhaps never did in the past except as strays from herds in the Swakop rivercourse where historical records place them. The silt also contains zebra, ostrich and cattle tracks.

Kuiseb Canyon = Clive CowleyIn the early days the Namib isolated the coast from the interior. Only ephemeral rivers joined the two, until 1844 when the "bay road" -- an ox-wagon trail for trade -- was built from Windhoek to Walfisch Bay. It ran along the south bank of the Swakop rivercourse, turned south across the Tinkas Plain and on the last stretch entered the Kuiseb delta, where old ox-wagon tracks are still visible.

A monument to the first missionary sent to Walfisch Bay, Heinrich Scheppmann, stands at Rooibank where the bay road passed into the Kuiseb. He built a mission station there in 1845, known for a time as Scheppmannsdorf.

Homeb is located 125 km south-east of Walvis Bay, beside the Kuiseb rivercourse, with the Great Sand Sea on the far side. A small community of the Topnaars or ‡Aonin, a remnant of the Khoekhoe people who originally inhabited parts of the Namib, lives in the vicinity. A riverine forest with camel thorns, wild tamarisks, ebony trees (Euclea pseudebenus) and even two species of wild fig, the Namaqua (Ficus cordata) and sycamore (F. sycomorus), grows along the rivercourse.

Not as big as the Fish River Canyon, the Kuiseb Canyon is nevertheless deeply incised in rock, with extensive badlands around its rim. It was formed five million years ago when a wetter climate prevailed in the interior and the ephemeral river opened a narrow gorge through the escarpment as it rushed into the desert. The canyon is over 200m deep in places. It is located about 135 km from Walvis Bay on route C14 to Windhoek. It can be viewed from a lookout on the rim or entered on foot from the Kuiseb bridge.


Tourist information
Walvis Bay Info,
Theo-Ben Gurirab Street,
Shop no 6 in Spur complex
P O Box 926, Walvis Bay
Tel +264 (0)64 20 9170
Fax +264 (0)64 20 9171

Walvis Bay is located on the central coast about 390km from Windhoek along tarred routes B1 and B2 via Swakopmund. The gravel-surfaced road via the Gamsberg and Kuiseb passes (routes C26 and C14) is about 40 km shorter and scenically superior. No fuel is available on the latter routes. The nearest town to Walvis Bay, 35 km to the north on tarred route B2, is Swakopmund.

Transport to Walvis Bay
By air from Windhoek and South Africa (Cape Town);
By motor coach and rail from Windhoek.
Motor-vehicles are available for hire.

Similar to Swakopmund

Lover's Hill, Pelican Point, Dune 7, sand dunes on outskirts of town

Public pool
On the Esplanade.
Open daily from November to May
Monday, Wednesday & Friday 15:00-18:30
Tuesday & Thursday 10:00-12:30 & 15:00-18:30
Saturday 09:30-12:30 & 14:30-18:00
Sunday 11:30-18:00.

Walvis Bay is the principal seaport for Namibian imports and exports.
It is also the centre of the fishing industry, with a fleet of trawlers which catch hake, horse mackerel and pilchards for land-based processing factories.
In addition to industries and services ancillary to the port and fishing, an export processing zone or free-trade area is based in the town.
Salt is produced in evaporation pans on the coast.
Tourism is growing apace.
The estimated population is some 50 000.

The highlands ......

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