For many visitors to Namibia, its vast desert landscape is the subject of striking photos, a backdrop for wildlife watching, a giant playground for off-roading, sandboarding and trekking. But for those who have lived here for centuries, the desert is their larder, their hardware store, their pharmacy… and even their cosmetics counter.
Strewn throughout the arid terrain are valuable plants which produce scented resins, moisturising oils and soothing balms. Himba women – widely regarded for their beauty and incredible hairstyles and body adornments – favour a myrrh resin from the commiphora plant, which they call omumbiri. The resin is gathered during the dry season, mixed with red ochre and animal fat, and stored in small containers made of cow horn. The women rub this paste into their bodies, giving them their characteristic red skin, and the rich, warm aroma of myrrh.
The Himba women stain their skin with the red paste, scented with myrrh, Photo by Mikael Castro
But now the secrets of the Himba perfume are being shared with the world. The Namibian Essential Oil Challenge competition was launched in order to encourage Namibians to create cosmetic products from omumbiri. Working with communities including the Himba, who know how to harvest the resin sustainably, the innovative participants produced an enormous range of products just from this one essential oil, including lip balm, soap, body scrubs, skin oils, body butters, incense and air fresheners.
In order to bring these delicious smelling products to a wider audience, a small factory has been opened in Opuwo, Kunene, to extract the myrrh oil. A visitor’s centre is also under construction, which will educate visitors about the harvesting and extraction process and offer a tour of the factory. There will also be a shop selling cosmetics, oils, incense and soaps produced by Namibian artisans.
A Himba woman grinds ochre to make the traditional perfumed red paste, Photo by Mikael Castro
The project continues to monitor the harvesting process to ensure that it is being carried out sustainably and that the plants are not being over-exploited. At the same time, the income supports local communities who have little other means of income generation, and encourages them to manage their natural resources and environment so that harvesting can continue into the future.
More cosmetics to sample in Namibia
!Nara seed oil: The !Nara melon is harvested as a valuable food source by the Topnaar people living along the Kuiseb River. The seeds of the melon are pressed to extract the rich oils – which have been used for centuries by these desert-dwellers to protect their skin against the harsh, arid climate. !Nara oil is now available in various products such as soaps, creams and skin peels – so you too can benefit from the ancient moisturising secrets of the Topnaars!
- Baobab oil: This characteristic African tree is more than just a pretty sight – the oil extracted from its seeds is rich in vitamins and extremely moisturising. It is also used to treat mild skin complaints, and some women in Africa may use it to treat their hair.
!Nara seed oil products on sale in Swakopmund
The competition was organized with financial support from the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA-Namibia) and the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Greenwich.
The winning products – Sophia Snyman’s “Desert Secret” and Tamarind Nott’s - ‘Rare Scent” will be handed out to delegates during the 2013 Adventure Travel World Summit, held in October in Namibia.
Shop for Namibian essential oil and resin products in Windhoek’s Craft Centre and Maerua Mall, and Swakopmund’s Kubatsirana Arts and Crafts Shop.
Swakopmund is known as Namibia's adventure tourism capital - but in between surfing down sand dunes, kayaking with seals and quad biking across the coastal desert, it's worth taking a day to explore some of the town's more urban pleasures. Here's five of our favourite:
1. National Marine Aquarium of Namibia
Main tank at the aquarium, where sharks swim above your head
The newly-renovated attraction showcases the marine species that thrive in the South Atlantic's chilly Benguela Current. The centrepiece is a large aquarium filled with fish and sharks, and the walk-through tunnel that allows visitors to get scarily close to these fearsome creatures.
Colourful panels give information about Namibia's fishing industry and local species such as Cape fur seals. There is a tank containing rays, and at 3pm each day the fish are fed. Try and visit on a Tuesday, Saturday or Sunday - and you'll see divers in the large aquarium feeding the sharks by hand!
Open: Tuesday - Sunday, 10am - 4pm
Closed: Mondays, Christmas day and New Year's day
Feeding: Daily at 3pm
Feeding by divers: Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays
2. Living Desert Snake Park
Though feared by many, snakes are actually surprisingly hard to spot in Namibia. So it'll be a relief for serpent fans to know that many of Namibia's native species can be seen - and photographed - in Swakopmund, at the Living Desert Snake Park. This compact reptile house has aquariums containing numerous venomous and non-venomous snakes, as well as geckos, scorpions, and even a couple of huge monitor lizards. Stuart Hebbard, who founded the Snake Park almost two decades ago, is happy to chat about the various species he cares for, and visitors can see the snakes being fed each Saturday.
Hebbard hopes to move the Snake Park to a new, larger location this year, including a walk-in cage allowing guests to get up close to the safer species! Watch this space for more information.
Western diamond-backed rattlesnake at Swakopmund's Living Desert Snake Park
3. Swakopmund Museum
This museum, founded in 1951, has some of the most in-depth exhibits about Namibia's flora, fauna, geology, archaeology culture and modern history - all under one roof. The wildlife room exhibits stuffed specied which are almost impossible to see on safari - such as the aardvark and golden mole. Fossils and meteorites are on show in the geology department,and Namibia's many diverse ecosystems are explained in the botanical department.
Ancient culture is explored in the archaeology room, with well-preserved pots and centuries-old jewellery. Contrast this with the exhibits exploring Namibia's contemporary culture - with body decorations, weaving and clothing from the Himba, San and other communities.
Himba cosmetic boxes on display at Swakopmund Museum
Open: Daily from 10am-5pm
Entry: Adults: N$ 25, Students N$20, Children (aged 6-15) N$10
4. Karakulia Weavers
Take a trip to this workshop on the outskirts of town to see the wool of the karakul sheep being spun, dyed and woven into intricately patterned wall hangings and rugs. The talent of the weavers is astounding - as they create patterned abstracts resembling Namibia's dunes, African rock art designs or wildlife scenes on the huge hand-operated looms.
The workshop was founded in 1979, and it has now developed an international reputation. The craftspeople can make custom designs to order, and if you don't have space in your suitcase for a full-sezed rug, they will reliably ship your purchase safely to your home.
Karakulia's staff benefit from training, employment and adult education sessions.
A skilled weaver works on a rug design at Karakulia
5. Kristall Galerie
A unique way to spend your time in Namibia - at a crystal gallery. With exhibits to please the young and not-so young, Kristall Galerie houses the world's largest crystal cluster, estimated to be 520 million years old! Standing 3 metres tall, it took five years to excavate from the Namibian earth. The gallery also has a scratch pit - where you can sift for semi precious stones - and a replica of a mine.
Those looking for souvenirs will love the Gem Shop - selling rough gemstones as well as unique jewellery and carved artworks. Visit the Craft Area to see these pieces being created.
The replica cave. Image from Kristall Galerie's Flickr page.
Find the perfect place to stay in Swakopmund with our accommodations guide.
Get some ideas about more adventurous exploits in the region - download our Adventure Travel Planning Guide.
Discover other cities and towns in Namibia.
For anyone with hard-to-please relatives, in search of last-minute stocking fillers, or simply trying to shop in a more ethical way this Chrismas, a little shop in Swakopmund may just have the answer.
Kubatsirana Arts and Crafts shop sells a range of unique products, including natural creams and salt scrubs made from locally-sourced !nara seeds (used by indigenous people to soothe thhe skin for generations); !nara seed cooking oil; hand-stitched dolls; unusual Chrismas decorations; cushions; silkscreened t-shirts; jewellery; and beautiful lino prints.
But as well as being able to pick up something truly original for friends and family, shoppers at Kubatsirana are also supporting a variety of social projects based near Windhoek and Swakopmund. Kubatsirana means "helping each other", and every dollar spent here contributes to inproving the lives of the craftspeople who made these gorgeous items. Here are some of the projects supported by Kubatsirana:
- Over 4000 people live in the Democratic Resettlement Community (DRC) outside Swakopmund. This residents of this informal settlement have few work opportunities, but women from DRC are taught to make crafts from recycled materials such as newspaper and bottle tops. These are then sold to provide a small income. A soup kitchen now also feeds 120 children nutritious meals twice a week.
- Oasa Taradi means "busy women", and this group of needlework experts provide beautiful, hand-stiched and embroidered items to Kubatsira. Many are single mothers or the main income providers for their family.
- Katutura is the large township in Windhoek. Kubatsira supports various community projects here, including the Opongande Centre for disabled children; Dolam Children's Home for kids with AIDS and tuberculosis; and 40 creches which care for over 2000 children.
- Address: Libertina Amathila St and Brucken St, Swakopmund
- Telephone: +264 64 404806
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Monday-Friday: 9am-1pm, and 3pm-6pm
- Saturday: 9am-1pm
- Sunday: 4pm-6pm
Namibia’s capital is Windhoek: a small, yet bustling city with a population of 300,000, known as the ‘city of many faces’. Here you will see people of all colors and cultures, each possessing a wonderful sense of pride, hope and ambition. It's not only the perfect place to start and finish your holiday, but well worth a visit in its own right.
Top 3 things to do in Windhoek
1. The Namibia Craft Centre
Situated in Windhoek's historic Old Breweries building, the Namibia Crafts Centre is the buzzing market and design hub for contemporary crafts in Namibia. The Centre has been a great launching pad for contemporary craft ideas, like the Pambili Association’s karakul wool and organza scarves and vibrant textile ranges incorporating contemporary San (Bushmen) artwork. Traditional crafts available at the centre range from Owambo drinking vessels to Himba milk baskets, from Herero walking sticks to ceremonial San ‘love bows’ and perfume pouches. The Craft Centre creates opportunities for artists, low-income craftsmen and communities to build profitable businesses, by offering market linkages to local and new markets. It is a must stop for grabbing souvenirs as you will be sure to find the right gift here – for yourself or friends and family back home.
Several operators give visitors the opportunity to learn about the history, development and people of Katutura. The suburb on Windhoek’s northern outskirts was established in the 1950s; today, Katutura is a diverse, lively and historical place to visit. Most tours stops at places of interest such as the Old Cemetery, Augustineum School, the Single Quarters where contract workers used to live, the open markets, shebeens and cuca shops.
Wanderzone Tours offers half- and full-day tours to Windhoek and Katutura, looking into the nature and background of the people who comprise this melting pot of cultures (contact them at email@example.com). Hello Namibia Safaris, Red Earth Sunny Tours & Transfers and Orupuka Transfers and Tours also offer excursions through Windhoek and Katutura. A relatively new initiative is Katu-Tours, which takes guests through the township on bicycles. Tours depart at 8:00, take 3.5 hours to complete and cover a distance of about 7 km at a relaxed pace.
3. Joe's Beer House
Joe’s Beerhouse has reached legendary status in Namibia and throughout Africa. With its rustic décor, open-air, kraal-style rondavel-and-thatch seating and live music at night, Joe's is well patronised by visitors and locals alike. The restaurant is filled with relics of old and collections of new, each artifact with its very own story. Joe's is the perfect place to stop in upon your arrival and get your first sense of something truly Namibian. It doesn't take long for visitors to get lost in their surroundings as they dine on delectable Zebra steak, alligator skewer, tasty Bushman Sosatie (Kebab), or any number of world-famous plates. After your meal, pull up to the bar for an ice-cold Windhoek Lager and wait the local Namibians to brag to you about our amazing beer and equally amazing country.
Conservation is a cornerstone of the Namibian experience. Here are a few steps you can take as a traveler to help ensure the sustainability of Namibia's wildlife and natural resources.
Personal - Bring or buy biodegradable toiletry products for use while camping, to ensure that you leave no harmful chemicals behind.
Driving - Switch off your vehicle's engine while viewing wildlife - it saves on fuel, fumes and noise, and prevents disturbance to other game-viewers.
Camping - Take away everything you brought with you and camp only in designated campsites.
Lodging - Switch off the air conditioning and lights every time you leave your room. Keeping curtains and windows closed during the day helps to keep the room cool in summer. Opening windows and curtains in winter lets the warm, fresh air in.
Shopping - Don't accept plastic bags for your groceries. Plastic bags can take up to 1,000 years to disintegrate and become 'plastic dust' - they never truly biodegrade. Bring a soft fabric bag for buying groceries or even use your backpack/daypack.
Eating - Buy organic vegetables and eggs where possible. The biomarket on Uhland Street in Windhoek is a good place to find these products. Its open every Saturday from 8:30am - noon - treat yourself to fresh coffee and homemade cakes in the cafe!. Nearly all game meat you will find in Namibia will be free-range, organic and local.