For a country almost entirely covered in sand and rock, Namibia has an unexpectedly delicious side. So make 2020 the year you finally take that road trip and gorge yourself on affordable oysters, local game, German pastries and great local beer.
Namibia has always been defined by the Namib, which translates as “vast place”, a name given to this coastal desert by the indigenous Nama people. It has also been called the Land God Made in Anger and a “sh*thole country” by a certain US president. It’s never been ranked high as a food destination though, which is strange when you know what I know about the culinary delights on offer.
Let’s start in the coastal town of Lüderitz. A white Hollywood-style sign on the hillside welcomes me to this odd little outpost, which I’ve chosen for two reasons. Number one is the deserted, much photographed, diamond-mining town of Kolmanskop. Standing here at dawn, early rays sparkling off the sand, it’s easy to see how Namibia earned its name. What used to be a bustling, wealthy town has been reclaimed by the desert. I wander the sandy ruins and wonder how a ghost town comes to be – what made everyone disappear?
The Ghost Town Tour only starts at 9.30 am so I order a cup of coffee topped with a sweet foam spray of cream, and a freshly baked lemon meringue pie in what used to be Kolmanskop’s Champagne Bar. This is breakfast, ghost-town style.
Later, on the tour, I learn that the first diamond was discovered here in 1908 and exploitation of these glittering dunes started immediately. The first miners built the impressive village, sandwiched between the sea and the sand, replicating the architectural style of a traditional German town. There was a ballroom, school, bowling alley, casino and even an ice factory. Back then, in the middle of the desert, you could find the southern hemisphere’s first X-ray station, ice and Champagne. And the last two go perfectly with the second reason for visiting
From ghosts to gourmet ... modernday Lüderitz is the place to get your fix of Namibia’s non-indigenous but delectable oysters. Oyster farming started in the town almost 30 years ago and the molluscs are now one of Namibia’s biggest exports. Luckily, not all of them leave the country. You can also enjoy them direct from the source (a.k.a. the local Seaflower factory) at the humble Diaz Coffee Shop.
Here, in a small back room lined with a wall of wine bottles, chairs fashioned from old orange buoys and tables made from disused kreef traps, you can indulge your oyster fantasies at an affordable R11 a pop. Each shell holds a perfect morsel along with a little clear liquor, the official name for oyster juice. I easily swallow 10, seasoned with just a dash of Tabasco.
The menu also offers a variety of cooked oysters, loaded with butter and garlic or chilli, plus some incredible calamari. A plate of tender, perfectly grilled rings seasoned with lemon and black pepper and served with chips will set you back a mere R30. It’s easy to forget you’re in the desert when you’re devouring platters of oysters with a good South African Chardonnay, but back on the road towards Aus the harsh landscape quickly restores reality.
White sand blows across the tar and in the distance I can see a small herd of the Namib Desert horses that call this severe wilderness home. Like the German expats of Kolmanskop once did, they have somehow carved out a home in the desert, surviving on next to nothing.
Next up is the iconic Sossusvlei. First, I take a drive to Dune 45, so named because it is 45 km and 45 minutes from the gate that marks the entrance to the NamibNaukluft National Park. Unlike the road to Lüderitz, the sand that shapes the enormous dunes here is grapefruit-skin orange, changing tone as the sun sets to better resemble the flesh of the fruit.
I trudge up the spine of a dune where I’m rewarded with a jaw-dropping panorama of the world’s oldest desert. Camping in the National Park at Sesriem is basic and the food menu offers typical toasties and other unimaginative pub grub, but the town’s only fuel station serves up a surprise. After fixing a slow puncture (these gravel roads appear tame, but often strike a leak into even the hardiest 4x4 tyres) I gaze through the glass at the display counter, settling on a springbok sausage roll. The pastry is fluffy and the contents perfectly spiced. This is no factory pie.
Sadly, after spending the morning at Deadvlei and climbing the wall of sand that surrounds Sossusvlei, I find that I don’t have time for my planned detour to the nearby desert winery, Neuras Wine Estate. Disappointed to be missing out on an unusual wine tasting – they are known for their Shiraz and a Merlot, Shiraz and Petit Verdot blend – I console myself with another sausage roll to go. As you do.
Luckily, there’s a sensational star suite awaiting me at the Dune Star Camp to ease my distress. This eco-friendly, off-the-grid experience comes at a great rate for South Africans, and each of the nine units at the intimate satellite camp features a double bed on wheels, so you can roll it out onto the deck for a night under the stars
But first things first. Dinner. As is the case in any Namibian lodge worth its salt, oryx steak is on the menu. Tender and pink in the middle, it reminds me of ostrich and is delicious with the local brew, a cold glass of Tafel lager – a meal that reminds me a lot of home.
Coffee is brought to my suite early the next morning so that I can experience the luxury of watching the dawn from beneath the covers, the rising sun gradually spreading its rays across the sands. In this sprawling landscape, it really does feel as if time has slowed down. But my journey continues to the settlement of Solitaire, where I find Namibia’s busiest bakery.
Fragrant with the smell of home-baked goods made fresh every day, McGregor’s Bakery is located beside an old trading store and fuel station, littered with rusted classic cars, decades of character and, more often than not, a parking lot full of 4x4 vehicles. The drawcard? Moose’s apple pie.
A Scottish adventurer who found his way to Namibia, Percy Cross McGregor (known as Moose), baked this treat for travellers for over 20 years. Although he’s no longer with us, Moose’s famous apple pie recipe lives on and continues to pull crowds. Now there’s also berry pie, an array of sweet pastries and wood-fired pizza (if you’ve got time to spare). McGregor’s Bakery is the halfway point on my road trip and the single heavenly slice of apfelstrudel reminds me what I’ve learnt so far. Namibia was colonised by Germany after 1884 and despite the relatively short period of occupation, 30 years was all it took to leave a lasting impression – beer and strudel are just the beginning.
In Swakopmund, it’s easy to see the Bavarian influence. The streets are lined with half-timbered German architecture and Lonely Planet likens this seaside oasis to holiday towns along Germany’s North Sea and Baltic coasts. It’s undeniably quaint and delightfully pedestrian friendly after having spent so much time in the car.
I walk to Slowtown Coffee Roasters at the bottom of Daniel Tjongarero Avenue, which operates with a 100% Namibian team. Chic and trendy, there’s iced coffee, pasteis de nata, cheesecake and more on the chalkboard menu, plus wonderful views of the lighthouse. From the promenade, Swakopmund feels like a beachside paradise, but the surrounding sands of the Namib-Naukluft National Park mean it’s still undeniably a desert destination.
For dinner, it’s an easy stroll to one of the reputable eateries overlooking the sea. There are three restaurants from which to choose (seafood, pub-style grub and wholesome farm deli), but I opt for The Fish Deli after reading about it in international travel magazine AFAR. Feeling a little oystered out, I choose something more unusual from the menu – a red curry calamari stir-fry.
Generously portioned and beautifully presented, my plate is the perfect representation of what this restaurant is all about: everything is locally sourced, with bright and appealing colours and flavours that are refreshingly international yet still unmistakeably Namibian
My last meal also proves there are many unexpected pockets of deliciousness to be found in this country, even “in the middle of nowhere”
Where to eat and drink in Namibia
Diaz Coffee Shop A true hidden gem. Home to affordable seafood such as fresh oysters and calamari cooked to perfection, it’s open every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Ghost Town Tavern Before or after the Kolmanskop Ghost Tour, be sure to take a seat in what used to be the Champagne Bar in the town’s old casino hall for coffee and home-made cake. Tours range from R100 to R300 per person.
Seriem & Surrounds
Neuras Wine Estate Explore the desert vineyards on a wine tour and tasting, which includes a cheese platter. R340 per person.
Sossus Oasis Service Station An unassuming fuel stop, there are mouthwatering German sandwiches, springbok sausage rolls and more at the deli counter.
McGregor’s Bakery The one pitstop you cannot miss. Pick up a tray of Namibia’s famous apple pie and hold an impromptu photoshoot among the classic cars.
The Delight It’s worth staying here for the sumptuous breakfast buffet alone because it includes Champagne and fresh oysters. The hotel is perfectly situated for easy access to the waterfront, shopping strolls and the beach.
Strand Hotel Most of the restaurants at the waterfront belong to this hotel. The Brewer and Butcher is a particularly good pub-style restaurant and home to great Namibian craft beer.
The Fish Deli A favourite with locals, there’s everything from fresh oysters and calamari to takeaway brötchen, sausages of every flavour, pickled fish and more.
Slowtown Coffee Roasters Sip artisanal Namibian coffee and watch Swakopmund go by.
Travel tips for Namibia
FLIGHTS & VISAS Fly to Windhoek or Walvis Bay (flights are cheapest from Cape Town) with Air Namibia and South African Airways. South African passport holders do not require a holiday visa.
GETTING AROUND Hire a car with clearance or a 4x4 if you can afford it. Although Namibia’s gravel roads are good, they are famous for causing punctures in inadequate tyres. If you do hire, definitely take the tyre and windscreen insurance.
EXCHANGE RATE The Namibian dollar is the official currency, but the value is always the same as South African rands, which are widely accepted too
This story first appeared in Taste magazine.