Windhoek Warning: A hard lesson to learn

We were forced into a stopover in the Namibian capital of Windhoek due to a change in our flights back to the UK and we had hoped it would be a nice experience to add to our two weeks in South Africa. It was indeed a memorable visit – but for all the wrong reasons.

Our stay started badly as the pre-booked and pre-paid transfer shuttle from the airport to our accommodation did not arrive and the man at the airport information desk would not phone the company for us unless we paid him R10. Eventually after several phone calls back and forth, a driver from a tour company gave us a lift to our accommodation, Villa Verdi Guesthouse. Our second disaster was that instead of the luxury double room I had booked we were given a large apartment right on the road and next to two villas where very noisy parties were taking place (this being Saturday night). The apartment was dingy, cold, dark with little furniture and very unwelcoming, plus it had hard single beds with worn sheets, no bedside tables, no luxury shower, and no fluffy towels. The whole place needed a good clean too. It was also isolated from the rest of the complex and felt very insecure as a result. I was not happy and after eating second-rate food at a first-rate price on a cold open-air patio I was already regretting not extending our holiday in Cape Town.

The next day I insisted that we changed rooms, and got the “luxury double” that we’d paid for. A comfortable double bed, side tables with lamps, a spa bath and a walk in shower – much more like it, but still the thin worn towels! After this we walked into town, only about 10 minutes away, though it felt very unnerving as cars passed hooting at us and the locals gave us very odd looks. We walked to the Tourist Information Centre, only to find it closed, so headed uphill to have a look at the Christuskirche and the Parliament buildings. There were a few other tourists around, though mostly in groups and on tour buses. But it was broad daylight, sunny and a Sunday and although we didn’t see many other white people, we didn’t feel particularly vulnerable. We really should have known better.

After wandering over to the Bahnhof we decided to walk up Anderson Street to the water tower, where, according to the “Windhoek on Foot” guide, you get a fantastic view over the whole of the city. Unfortunately we got rather more than that. As we approached the scone shaped water tower, which is only minutes away from a residential district with people mowing their lawns, two black men strolled out of the bush in front of us. My stomach did flips as I acknowledged that we were on an isolated stretch of the road and I glanced backwards at my husband who was photographing the city sights. The tallest, biggest man approached me and muttered something under his breath, as I looked at him and asked “what?” he grabbed my wrist and muttered the word I had been dreading, “money”; without waiting for a reply he grabbed the straps of my rucksack and began to drag it off my shoulder. The other, smaller man went for my husband and began punching him and trying to pull off his camera and money bag.

Without going into too much detail, we were well and truly “mugged” and the worst of it was that for the first time during the holiday we hadn’t taken our usual precautions when venturing out. Every day in South Africa we had carefully allocated around R100 each, carried only one credit card between us, and carried very little in the way of valuables. Of course in South Africa we’d also had a hire car so didn’t need to walk anywhere except where it was reasonably safe. Fortunately we had left one credit card, our passports and a camera back at the villa. Unfortunately we were carrying both mobile phones, a camera, camcorder and all the rest of our cash as we’d not unpacked properly after the flight from Cape Town.

Immediately we retraced our steps to the police station which was no more than five minutes away. The police woman taking my statement seemed rather bored and inconvenienced. She was not concerned about any injuries we might have had, she didn’t offer to help us back to the villa and she didn’t offer us the details of the British Consulate. Although the incident had only just occurred it was obvious that she wasn’t going to send out a patrol car to see if there was any sign of the thieves. On top of that she couldn’t even provide me with a copy of my report, necessary for insurance purposes, as the room with the photocopier in was locked on a weekend! My husband and I were both bruised and badly shaken, but had to walk back to the villa as we had no means of getting back any other way. Contacting the British High Commission in the evening I spoke with a very kind lady who was the only person to express concern about the event. She was shocked that this had happened in broad daylight, though said it was a notorious trouble spot in the evening – a pity the guide-book didn’t mention this fact. Her theory was that Namibia was being overrun by refugees from Zimbabwe and as a consequence the petty crime rate was escalating.

Although this incident happened in 2008 I feel it might serve as a useful reminder to those travellers who may be heading to Southern Africa. Do not walk anywhere, even in broad daylight, without making sure the area you are walking in is completely safe. Even in affluent residential areas it is easy to find yourself isolated within minutes, as we were. My best advice is to check with staff at your hotel or villa, or call the consulate and find out if there are any no-go areas and always take taxis even if the route looks safe and the distance is short.

I love Africa, I have lived in South Africa and I have travelled throughout Namibia in a group – but this incident shocked me as I had thought we’d taken sufficient care. I can only say that being at the end of the holiday perhaps we let our guard down – an unfortunate way to end what had up to then been a fantastic experience. And a hard lesson to learn.

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I have lived in the UK for most of my life, but when young I definitely had wanderlust and even ended up living in South Africa for several years which was a wonderful experience. I now look forward to a long and leisurely retirement doing what I like most - gardening, photography, walking and travelling.

11 thoughts on “Windhoek Warning: A hard lesson to learn”

    1. We were very shocked and very bruised. It wasn’t the best end to our holiday. It left me feeling quite nervous when visiting a new place for some years, even now I am conscious of areas that could be risky, and carry a camera I can put in my pocket so as not to look like a tourist. I even cancelled a trip to Barcelona because I was worried about pickpockets. So it did have an affect on me. I think I’m reasonably OK now (well it has been 6 years) but will never be that confident wandering as I used to be. I was so annoyed with myself too though, because I felt a bit nervous and we could have turned back so easily. But Sunday, midday? Who would have thought it would be risky.

      1. I agree it is always easier to look back and say one should have doesn’t this or that. Mid day on a Sunday we just wouldn’t think it was an issue. It is totally understandable that you were left affected to some degree. I am pretty cautious already but your story bring goods learning for us all. So sorry that learning comes at your expense.

  1. Oh no! What a horrible story, Jude. How frightening. You’re lucky that you weren’t killed or more seriously injured. It is a good lesson to learn. What’s also so demoralizing is the lack of concern shown by officials. I have Namibia on my list, but I find your story disheartening. Good words of advice. I’m sorry this happened to ruin your holiday.

    1. It took me several years to get over the shock Cathy and to venture out in a strange place on my own with a camera. I’m over it now, but the incident lingered far too long, knocking my confidence. Namibia is well worth seeing though I’d avoid Windhoek.

  2. A terrible experience for you both. It could easily have ended much worse but the traumatic effect would always be at the back of your mind colouring all your travels in the future with uncertainty and taking away a certain amount of trust.

    1. It did rather sour travel for me for several years and I still get anxious when carrying a camera in an unknown location.

      1. We haven’t travelled overseas for years now (I don’t class NZ as overseas) feel very safe here but think I would be looking over my shoulder anywhere else now

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