- I recently spent several days in the southern African nation of Namibia for Christmas, taking an overnight train for $US12 across the desert from Windhoek to Walvis Bay.
- Though there was not much to do on the train, and it was surprisingly cold, the scenery was jaw-dropping.
- Once in Walvis Bay, I was invited to Christmas dinner by friendly locals.
- It’s a trip I won’t forget anytime soon – and would highly recommend.
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Slowly, my eyes opened. All around was nothing but golden sand, underneath a brilliant blue sky. In the distance were enormous sand dunes literally the size of mountains. Oh, and I was also on a train.
Dominated by some of the oldest deserts in the world, the southern African nation of Namibia is unlike almost anywhere else. Many street signs are still written in German, the language of the former colonizer.
I recently spent a few days in Namibia over Christmas – and found that as spectacular as the scenery was, the friendliness of locals was even more incredible. Staff at the hotel I was staying at even invited me to join them for Christmas dinner because they saw I was alone.
Here’s what it’s like to visit this country that almost doesn’t seem real.
My trip began in Windhoek, the capital. The morning of Christmas Eve, I bought a train ticket for $US12. My destination: Walvis Bay — about 250 miles away.
Windhoek Station dates to 1912, and it has been preserved to look the way it did when it was first built. For being the largest passenger station in Namibia’s largest city, it was surprisingly empty. It was, of course, Christmas Eve, and all the shops were already closed.
Buying a business-class ticket for the Starline Express for later that evening was simple – I was glad I brought cash though, since they didn’t take credit cards. At 174 Namibian dollars, it converted to about $US12.
Because of rare heavy rains, we left the station late.
Only three faded blue carriages of the train were for passengers – the rest were for hauling freight westward, toward the forbiddingly named Skeleton Coast.
As passengers – mostly families with young children – made their way to the train, it was raining. In fact, locals said it was the most rain they’d seen in years. There was thunder and lightning too, and the air was filled with the fumes of the train’s engines.
The train was not modern, but still comfortable.
It may not have looked like much, but my seat (No. 111, in middle of the middle wagon, on the left side) was very comfortable. But with no charging ports, I was glad I brought a book for entertainment.
Because it was after dark when we left, I was unable to see much outside.
There was, however, a light that was kept on all night and could not be turned off. Still, most people slept. I did, too – and quite soundly, since the ride was surprisingly smooth.
But all that changed Christmas morning.
As the dawn’s rays filtered through the windows and the sounds of other passengers stirring woke me up, there was only one way to describe the scenery: It was unlike anything else I’d seen.
As the train chugged loudly along through the desert, it didn’t feel real.
There was nothing but sand, sand – and more sand. I was surprised by just how cold the morning was, and the train didn’t seem to have heating.
As the sun rose higher, we made our first stop, in Swakopmund.
Swakopmund was not large. Its low, grey buildings looked a lot older than they probably were – most likely because of the constantly blowing sand. Almost everyone got off at the dusty platform, which, like the rest of the town, the sand seemed to be slowly devouring. Within about 15 minutes, we were rolling along again.
Continuing onward, I felt as if I were on my own private train ride.
I was alone in the carriage – and the carriage behind me, too. In fact, I only knew there were other people on the train because at one point, when I stuck my head out the window, I saw someone else doing the same thing in the carriage in front.
I did not see any wildlife during the journey.
No large mammals like elephants (even though the top news story on Google News the day I left Windhoek was about an elephant seen in the area around Swakopmund, which was first reported by The Namibian), no birds flying in the sky. Just sand piled high in dunes literally the size of mountains.
A few hours after Swakopmund, we arrived in Walvis Bay — the end of the line.
According to the schedule I saw at the station in Windhoek, we were supposed to arrive in Walvis Bay at about 7 in the morning, but it was closer to noon by the time the train slowly screeched to a stop at the small station, which looked like a strip mall with a railway platform attached.
Grabbing my backpack, which was the only luggage I had during my trip (which would continue for several more days after I left Namibia), I was sad the train journey was over, but I was also in a way thankful the nearly five-hour delay had allowed for extra time to marvel at the surreal surroundings.
There was no one to greet me — not even a taxi looking to pick up weary tourists.
As it was Christmas morning, the streets were deserted. Like Swakopmund, Walvis Bay and its mostly one-story houses seemed to be fighting a losing battle in avoiding becoming swallowed by the sand. It was also eerily quiet, though I could faintly hear ocean waves in the distance.
A friendly motorist who saw me walking picked me up and took me to my hotel, which was right by the water and a famous restaurant called The Raft.
The weather was warm, but not overly so. I eventually arrived in the medium-size lobby of the vaguely art-deco-style Pelican Bay Hotel, which was right on the water.
But it was the overwater restaurant next to the hotel, The Raft, that really blew me away. It really did look like a large raft on the water – it seemed several small wooden shacks had been constructed, then connected to form one restaurant. I very much wanted to have a drink there – but unfortunately, I was told it was closed for Christmas.
The view from my ground-floor room was stunning.
My room had everything a hotel room usually would: a large bed, a desk, chair, lamps, a coffee maker, a bathroom, and plenty of power outlets. There was even free WiFi.
But it was the view of the Atlantic from the balcony that was really great. The blue water seemed even bluer after travelling across the sand. There was wildlife to see, too – in this case, flocks of seagulls and pelicans.
When hotel staff saw I was alone, they asked if I would join them for Christmas dinner.
The next thing I knew, I was at a buffet in an adjoining restaurant. The food was excellent – fresh grilled seafood caught from the waters just outside, meats from local Namibian farms, fruits and vegetables that tasted as if they’d just been picked, home-baked breads, a collection of various juices, South African wines, and water. But it was the people I was with who made it truly memorable.
It was a Christmas dinner I won’t forget soon — probably because it was so unexpected.
Mini Christmas trees on tables, poppers to pull open to find gifts – those were a lot like other Christmases. But that it was happening thousands of miles from where I lived, in a town on the edge of an enormous desert, felt very special.
I flew out the next morning. Namibia was everything I’d hoped it would be. I’d recommend it to anyone.
Thanks to the new friends I made and their unexpected kindness – and the jaw-dropping surroundings – it had been the best Christmas I’d had in many years.
I can’t wait to return and even explore some more of the desert. But if I could only go to Windhoek or Walvis Bay again, I’d do that too – going back to any part of Namibia would be better than not going back at all.