Walvis Bay

An overnight sailing saw us in Walvis Bay the next day

Walvis Bay is a city in Namibia and the name of the bay on which it lies. The town has 85,000 inhabitants. The bay is a safe haven for sea vessels because of its natural deepwater harbour, protected by the Pelican Point sand spit, being the only natural harbour of any size along the country's coast. Being rich in plankton and marine life, these waters also drew large numbers of Southern right whales, attracting whalers and fishing vessels. The Dutch referred to it as Walvisch Baye and the English as Whale Bay. The two names eventually merged to get the town of today of "Walvis Bay".

A succession of colonists developed the location and resources of this strategic harbour settlement. The harbour's value in relation to the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope had caught the attention of world powers since it was discovered in 1485. This explains the complicated political status of Walvis Bay down the years.

The Portuguese navigator Diego Cão reached Cape Cross, north of the bay, in 1485. There followed Bartolomeu Dias, who anchored his flagship São Cristóvão in what is now Walvis Bay, on 8 December 1487, on his expedition to discover a sea route to the East via the Cape of Good Hope. He named the bay "O Golfo de Santa Maria da Conceição." However, the Portuguese did not formally stake a claim to Walvis Bay. Little commercial development occurred on the site until the late 19th century.

During the scramble for Africa, the United Kingdom occupied Walvis Bay and a small area surrounding the territory, and permitted the Cape Colony to annexe it in 1878, both to forestall German ambitions in the region, and to ensure safe passage of British ships around the Cape. Walvis Bay was the only known natural harbour on the Namibian coast. The Cape government, correctly predicting a German invasion of the region and desiring protection for its Griqualand diamond fields, originally requested permission to incorporate the whole of South West Africa, but this was blocked by Britain. Consequently when the Germans later colonised the region, only Walvis Bay remained as an exclave of the Cape Colony, and out of German control.

In 1910, Walvis Bay, as well as the Cape Colony, became part of the newly-formed Union of South Africa. Subsequently, a dispute arose with Germany over the exclave's boundaries. This was eventually settled in 1911 and Walvis Bay was allocated an area of 434 square miles. The exclave was overrun by the Germans during the South-West Africa Campaign early in World War I. But South African Forces eventually ousted the Germans in 1915 and Walvis Bay was quickly integrated into the new martial law regime established in South-West Africa. South Africa was later awarded control (a "C" class mandate) over South-West Africa by the League of Nations to administer South-West Africa as an integral part of South Africa.

Civilian rule was restored in South-West Africa in 1921 and administration of Walvis Bay was transferred to South-West Africa by an act of the South African parliament in 1922.

In 1971, anticipating an imminent cession of its control over South-West Africa, South Africa transferred control of Walvis Bay back to its Cape Province, thus making it an enclave. In 1977, in an attempt to avoid losing control of Walvis Bay to a possibly hostile South-West Africa People's Organisation-led government, the South African government re imposed direct rule and reasserted its claim of sovereignty based on the original annexation. In 1978, the United Nations Security Council provided for bilateral negotiations between South Africa and a future Namibia to resolve the political status of Walvis Bay. In 1990 South-West Africa gained independence as Namibia. Walvis Bay remained under South African sovereignty until midnight on 28 February 1994 when South Africa formally transferred sovereignty over Walvis Bay and the Penguin Islands to Namibia.

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Sandwich Harbour across the dunes

Sandwich Harbour is a lagoon on the Atlantic coast of Namibia, about 50km south of Walvis Bay, within the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Formerly a moderately-sized commercial port based around whaling and small-scale fishing, it declined as the harbour silted up, and is now best known for its birdlife. Although called Sandwich Harbour it was never a harbour or even a port. It is a shallow lagoon.

The area was surveyed in the 1880s by the Royal Navy but it was considered very inferior to Walvis Bay and no development took place. Occasional sealing vessels used it as an anchorage, possibly to avoid the authorities at Walvis Bay, and there were some temporary settlements used by seasonal fishermen catching snoek (Thyrsites atun). In the 1930s an ambitious project was started to build a guano island in the lagoon using sand pumps imported from the Netherlands. Unfortunately jackals could cross to the island at low tides and chased the birds away. All that remains of the project is the manager's house.

The marine fauna was surveyed by the South African Museum and the National Museum of Namibia. It was found that the fauna was totally marine. Almost every journalist or documentary maker who has written or filmed the area has incorrectly stated that the lagoon is fresh water. There is some very poor quality brackish water that seeps under the dunes and this allows large reed beds at the water's edge.

We bowled out of Walvis Bay, past the flamingoes and salt works, both of which we had seen on our last visit to Walvis Bay. We headed out to Sandwich Harbour, running close to the coast. I could not possibly have attempted this trip myself, even with a 4x4!

We saw how close the water table was to the surface, by forming a circle and stamping on the sand. Within a few minutes we were up to our knees in a gooey quicksand.

Further on the guide stopped to show us how nocturnal geckos lived under the sand during the day. He found the entrance to a small burro, only a centimetre across, and dug out the little fellow that lived there. This small and strangely coloured gecko is also called “Web Footed gecko” - the feet are a sort of “snow shoes” but in this case rather “sand shoes”. It exists only in the Namib Desert and is night active. Their enormous eyes do not have eyelids. To keep their eyes clean they lick them using a very long tongue. This gecko eats insects. They normally get their need of water from what they eat but can also use their big eyes: the morning fog condenses on the eyes and then they lick it off.

We had lunch on a dune high above Sandwich Harbour, then returned across the high dunes. The delights of a vehicle getting stuck in the sand, another getting a flat tyre, and a drive down a dune that looked too steep to drive down.

We passed wild melons growing in the sand, and saw bocks and ostriches. There were masses of animal tracks everywhere across the sand. A really interesting trip.

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Dinner in the desert

A very spectacular dinner in a desert canyon, about half an hour's drive east of Swakopmund. It was so remote that even our drivers got lost, at night in the middle of nowhere. But eventually we got to this magical setting, with hundreds of lanterns dotting the mountainside. Tables, chairs, tablecloths and food all brought from the coast for the occasion. And entertainment by a local youth choir, whom the boys enjoyed meeting

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A trip round Walvis Bay Harbour

A very touristy trip round the harbour, complete with tame seals leaping onto the boat, pelicans being fed and a drive by a seal colony. Not my cup of tea, but it was, for what it was, well done. The tapas we were given were excellent, with the best fresh oysters I can recall tasting, washed down with a glass of South African sparkling wine. The boat driver was a bulky Afrikaans with a thick Afrikaans accent, which was difficult to understand, but perhaps that was in fact helpful.

After this, it was back to the Explorer, and on north to Angola

On to Namibe, Angola

African Trip