An Enclave no more – Walvis Bay

As a kid I looked at a map of Africa and saw this little speck of darker cartographer’s red on the coast of “Southwest Africa.”  It was Walvis Bay.  The rest of Southwest Africa was a lighter pink, identifying it as a UN trust territory attached to a Commonwealth nation.  I always wanted to know why this spot was separate from the hinterland.  And because it was different I wanted to go there.

Walvis Bay means Whale Bay.  It was a whaling port for the Brits and Americans and a British Colony, before the Germans colonized the rest of Namibia.  It is the only good deep water port on the Namibian coast.  In my post on Swakopmund I write how it changed hands twice in World War 1, ending up controlled by South Africa.  At the end of the war South Africa was awarded the League of Nations Mandate for German Southwest Africa (Namibia) but Walvis Bay, having been British before the war, remained part of the Cape Colony in the Union of South Africa, although for practical purposes it was administered as part of the mandate although it did send a representative to Parliamant.

The port infrastructure for Namibia is all at Walvis Bay, the railroad terminates there and it is the main port for the country.  After World War II the UN renewed South Africa’s mandate in Namibia and it became a Trust Territory.  South Africa tried to annex Namibia but the UN did not recognize this.

After an independence war South Africa surrendered its trust territory and in 1990 and Namibia became independent.  But South Africa held on to Walvis Bay so, again, it was an enclave of around 450 square miles cut off from its hinterland by a border.  In the 70s a UN resolution stated that Walvis Bay was part of Namibia.  South Africa did not recognize this.  Finally in 1994 South Africa relinquished Walvis Bay without a vote of the people there.   According to one Afrikaner I spoke with in Walvis Bay, it just wasn’t worth the hassle and expense for South Africa.  He says that after independence and the end of apartheid relations between races in Walvis Bay have been “easy.”  Namibian currency is the Namibian dollar, on a par with the South African Rand.

The city is growing with more people from the hinterland moving in.  There are also a lot of new holiday developments, second homes for in-landers.  Unlike Swakopmund the city does not have a compact town center, there is a port, the salt works, a small downtown, neighborhoods, townships just out of town and a new mall where most of the retail takes place.  There is also a resort beach and suburbs stretching toward Swakopmund.  The formally all black townships have been refurbished with new homes that are not unlike the holiday cottage colonies close by except that many of the township houses have additions.  Some look more like the shacks of the old townships, others are well done, sometimes adding a second story.  One strange feature of Walvis Bay is the outsized palm trees.  They are actually camouflaged cell phone towers.

The town’s main business is the port, which handles all of Namibia’s and much of Botswana’s trade, the salt works, commercial fishing, and adventure tourism.  Within Walvis Bay’ limits is Dune 7, the area’s largest sand dune where people ski and “snow” board.  There is  nature tourism. The lagoon is chock a block with flamingos and other migrating birds according to the season.  Someone has erected a bird platform in the water which does double duty, drawing birds and tourists to watch them.  While being watched the birds deposit guano on the platform which is harvested and exported supporting the economy.

The salt works is particularly interesting.  Herman, our guide, says, look snow, Alaska!  Salt water is pumped into holding areas and then, after some evaporation, is pumped into broad ponds where wind evaporation is more effective than sun, and, according to locals, produces a higher grade of salt.  Because of material in the water Herman says bacteria, some of the salt pans are red or pink.  This produces a particularly prized salt.

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