Marching to the beat of its own drum

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Once governed by South Africa, Namibia has a definite South African feel, in no small part because rands are perfectly acceptable currency. But its own identity certainly shines through in its penchant for German street names, friendly people and a relaxed outlook on life. Kate Kennedy spent four days in Windhoek, getting a feel for the place and the lay of the land.

Namibia doesn’t often earn itself a mention, when a discussion regarding Africa’s most prominent business travel destinations takes place. But it quietly gets on with its own business, and has generally earned a reputation as an easy place to do business. Business Traveller Africa decided to put this to the test, sending this writer on a trip that would take in the relevant touch points, with a particular focus on the capital, Windhoek.

FACT FILE
Population:
2.1 million
Time zone: GMT + 2 hours (summer); GMT + 1 hour (winter)
Plugs: Three-prong square
Dialling code: +264
Currency: Namibian dollar; SA Rand – $1=11NAD
Language: English, Afrikaans, German, Portuguese, ethnic languages

Visas

Most African travellers to Namibia do not require a visa, but must ensure that their passport is valid for at least six months beyond the intended stay, and have sufficient pages for entry and exit stamps. All visitors must also have a valid return air ticket. A business visa is required for travellers looking for prospects to set up formal business in Namibia, exploration for business opportunities, business people attending meetings at subsidiaries of their parent companies, official government visits, conference attendance, corporate events (not work) and meetings for which no remuneration is received, attending short training courses (not more than 90 days), sports events, expositions and trade fairs.

Health

The northern part of Namibia is in a malaria-risk zone, so consult a doctor before leaving and take appropriate malaria precautions when travelling to these areas. Compulsory vaccination: yellow fever (dependent on country of origin/stop-over). Recommended vaccinations: Hepatitis A&B, rabies, typhoid, tetanus and polio. Namibia’s medical system is modern and capable of attending to whatever needs the traveller may have. However, this is largely restricted to the main cities.

Airport Experience

Hosea Kotako International Airport is 45 kilometres from Windhoek. It’s a modest single-storey building which process over 800,000 passengers per year.

“It’s small and really quite charming,” says Trevor Ward, MD of W Hospitality Group. “The little departure lounge is right next to the apron, so you know what’s going on.”

I touched down from Johannesburg in an Air Namibia A319 on a warm Monday afternoon, and enjoyed stretching my legs on the walk from the aircraft to the terminal building. Before entering, however, I was subjected to an Ebola virus check in the form of a temperature reading. Once inside, I joined the SADC immigration queue, which was attended to by two officials. The process was efficient and unintimidating.

My luggage beat me to the carousel, and was getting dizzy riding the conveyor belt by the time I made it through passport control. I had to pass my suitcase through a scanner before exiting into the arrivals terminal. Not sure what they were checking for, but I was glad they didn’t take umbrage with the contents of my case!

The airport building houses a small selection of shops – a coffee shop for refreshments, a mobile phone service provider for a local SIM card, a small souvenir shop, a biltong hut and a host of car rental desks, including Avis, Budget, Hertz, Thrifty and Europcar.

You can hire a car from one of these car rental companies or opt for a shuttle into town. An international driver’s licence is only required for visitors who drive on the right-hand side of the road. For those who drive on the left, flashing your valid driver’s licence issued in your country is enough to get you the keys to a rental car.

I collected my Polo Vivo from Avis just outside the building and navigated my way onto the main road with ease.

Airlines

Air Namibia operates two daily flights between Johannesburg and Windhoek, as well as an evening flight on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. There are also three daily services to and from Cape Town, and flights between Windhoek and Luanda (Angola), Maun (Botswana), Harare and Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe), Lusaka (Zambia) and Frankfurt (Germany). It also connects the capital with other Namibian towns – Ondangwa, Walvis Bay, Luderitz, Rundu, Katima Mulilo, and Oranjemund.

Other airlines operating into and out of Windhoek are BA (operated by Comair), SAA, SA Express and TAAG Angola Airlines. Airlink recently reinstated flights from Cape Town to Windhoek with twice-daily flights.

Driving

The road into Windhoek is a mostly single-lane tar road, which opens to two lanes every so often to allow for overtaking. The road is well-maintained, and drivers are mostly patient and well-mannered.

While the majority of roads in Windhoek are tar, the rest of the country isn’t as privileged.

“As much as 80% of the roads in Namibia are gravel roads,” says Keith Rankin, Avis Chief Executive Southern Africa. “The distances between the towns are vast, but the tarred roads that connect the towns are in excellent condition.”

Because of the unique driving conditions, with so many roads being untarred, Avis has many requests for 4×4 vehicles.

“Our customers like to drive Toyota Fortuners and double cabs when in Namibia,” says Rankin. “To make their travels safer and more comfortable, we fit our 4x4s with wider tyres.”

According to Avis, 95% of the accidents reported by its customers are single vehicle accidents, often caused by the unfamiliarity of driving on gravel roads and exceeding the speed limit. Wild animals crossing in front of moving vehicles has also been cited as a problem. So it makes sense to buckle up, keep a safe following distance, and pay attention to your surroundings.

There are a number of taxis in town, and airport shuttles to get you into town, if you’d prefer not to drive yourself. According to Windhoek Tourism, you’ll pay N$10 (US$0.9) for rides between taxi ranks, and double that if you want the driver to take you somewhere off his grid. All taxis are small sedans, and mini-buses are used by tour operators.

Hotels

There are four international hotel brands in Windhoek – Sun International with the Kalahari Sands Hotel & Casino, Legacy Hotels & Resorts with the Windhoek Country Club, the Hilton Windhoek, and Protea with its Fürstenhof and Thuringerhof properties. Except for the Hilton, which is a 5-star hotel, these brands all have 4-star establishments, with enough comfort at reasonable prices.

The Kalahari Sands offers 173 rooms, a thriving casino, and eight fully-equipped conference and meeting rooms that can accommodate everything from small private meetings to extravagant wedding receptions.

The Windhoek Country Club has 152 rooms with complimentary Wi-Fi, an 18-hole golf course, and the Desert Jewel casino. There is also a range of function rooms to choose from for meetings and conferences.

The Hilton Windhoek, a stone’s throw from Kalahari Sands, has five meeting rooms, five restaurants and a small spa.

The smaller Protea Hotel Fürstenhof, along with its 33 guest rooms (including two executive suites), has conferencing and banqueting facilities for between 70 and 120 delegates, as well as a boardroom that can seat up to 10 delegates. It also offers free Wi-Fi to guests, as does the Protea Thuringerhof, which has 26 rooms and is five kilometres from Eros Airport, a secondary airport in downtown Windhoek and an important hub for air charter traffic.

There are also a number of independent hotels and guest houses catering to both business and leisure travellers. Hotel Thule, a little way from the city centre, offers 25 rooms with en-suite bathrooms and meeting and conference facilities for up to 100 people. Roof of Africa, with 27 guest rooms, can also accommodate up to 100 people for conferences or meetings.

There’s also the Palmquell and Safari hotels, and the Olive Exclusive Boutique Hotel, which comes up fairly often when preferred boutique properties are discussed. It’s situated close to the Windhoek city centre in a quiet, peaceful area of town.

Eating Out

Along Independence Street, you’ll find a host of shops and eateries, as well as the Kalahari Sands. I sampled fare at a few cafes and restaurants and can recommend Café Zoo, where I had a delicious plate of marinated chicken and salad served on an oversized plate. The menu includes a number of African dishes, in addition to traditional western food. A great venue if you’re looking to get out of the hotel – the veranda is shaded by large trees and overlooks a park.

A little outside of the main business district, on a hill overlooking the city, is Hotel Thule. The hotel restaurant, On The Edge, is open to the public and serves a blend of Namibian and international cuisine. I was impressed with the hake and salad I ordered. The prices here are very reasonable and the view makes it worth the effort to reach.

Joe’s Beerhouse, on Nelson Mandela Avenue, is a local favourite and a must for visitors. The eclectic décor holds immense charm, even as it boggles the mind. Farm equipment is displayed alongside empty alcohol bottles. Tables are illuminated by hanging bulbs encased in straw lampshades draped with plastic ivy, and bar stools are made from disused toilets. The pub offers a relaxed meal, in generous portions, with a varied menu.

Card Acceptance

American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa are all widely accepted in Namibia. Travellers should check with their credit or debit card company for details of merchant acceptability and other services. On a few occasions the card machines took issue with my chip and pin card and I was forced to draw cash to conclude a couple of purchases. It’s worth noting that service stations in Namibia do not accept credit card payment for petrol.

Connectivity

Mobile phones are very common and run on the GSM network, using the same frequency as Europe and the rest of Africa. There are Internet cafes in Windhoek, Swakopmund and Opuwo, and hostels often have access as well. Many of the hotels offer free Wi-Fi.

Airport Departure

My return flight was scheduled for 07h05 on Friday morning. It meant a pre-dawn departure from Windhoek, along 40-odd kilometres of unilluminated road. I left plenty of time for the journey and was grateful that I didn’t have to rush.

While the airport service I received on entering Namibia from Johannesburg was good, I wasn’t overly impressed with what I received on my return journey. I felt the people, from the lady at the check-in desk to the security personnel, could have been more helpful. I was sent away at passport control to fill out a form that really could have been given to me at the check-in counter. I struggled to get my laptop and other electronic devices through the security checkpoint while those on duty lounged against the wall, watching as I removed my computer, picked a basket from above the scanner, placed everything on the conveyor belt and had to repack my bags with a queue of impatient passengers stalled behind me. Maybe it was the early hour?

Nonetheless, I eventually made my way to the Oshoto Lounge, which unfortunately opened late on my day of departure, so I spent 30 minutes in the coffee shop ordering my early morning caffeine fix.

Oshoto Lounge

HKIA has a single lounge, with access granted to Business Class passengers or anyone willing to part with N$150 (US$13.50). It offers an array of comfy seating, complimentary Wi-Fi, and a selection of newspapers. There is hot water for tea and coffee and pre-packed snacks, such as muffins and breakfast bars, and a plate of fresh open sandwiches to nibble on. I enjoyed watching the airlines prepare for the first departure of the day through the floor-to-ceiling window.

Secondary Cities

Walvis Bay, slightly north of the coastline’s midway point, is the seat of the fishing industry. It sits in a natural deep water harbour which offers a safe haven for ships. Swakopmund is a three-hour drive from Windhoek and about 35 minutes’ drive north of Walvis Bay. The town has a booming tourist industry with many hotels, night clubs, coffee shops and bars. Activities in the area include hot air balloon rides, sea cruises, quad biking, sky diving and golf at the Rossmund Golf Course – one of only five desert golf courses in the world.

Interesting Observations

Coming from the eternally fast-paced Johannesburg, I was initially frustrated by the slow speed of service in Namibia. I never felt snubbed, but there was no rush to seat me, take my order or process my purchase. But once I’d adjusted to things happening at a more leisurely pace, I was able to enjoy my time. Further to that, while almost everyone does speak very good English, I found Afrikaans to be the language of choice at the restaurants. However, as soon as I was heard speaking English, they switched over with ease. German is also widely spoken.