Namibia's Lighthouses - Still Showing The Way For Seafarers

21 Aug 2020

Brigitte Weidlich

Beach, surf waves from the Atlantic, howling seagulls and the view over the endless sea, the silhouette of a ship disappearing on the horizon - for many visitors to the Namibian coast this is the epitome of vacation.

Ships and boats arouse wanderlust, you only need to drive 30 km from Swakopmund to Walvis Bay and visit the harbour, or deep in the south the small idyllic harbour town of Lüderitzbucht.

Swakopmund used to have a harbour, as the lighthouse, visible from afar, reminds us of, the symbol of the coastal city. “Why does Swakopmund have a lighthouse, but there isn't a port here?” tourists often ask this question when they take photos of the round, red-and-white painted lighthouse near the beach and the living quarters next door that used to house its workers.

The lighthouse of Swakopmund with the living quarters of the staff dates back to 1902. Photo by: Swakopmund Collection

The port existed during the German colonial period (1884-1915) and it began with the construction of the pier. It silted up very quickly. Therefore, the iron jetty was later built further south. The nearby Walvis Bay was British territory and the German Empire needed its own port.

In November 1898, the government master builder Wilhelm Ortloff came to what was then German South West Africa with a construction team. A landing site was to be built, that was the pier, which still exists today and is a popular lookout point.

A lighthouse was also planned for the port facility to show ships the way. Before, there was only one metal beacon on the pier, which was torn away after a few months during stormy seas.

The Swakopmund lighthouse

Construction began in July 1902. A hill a little further away from the pier and the beach was chosen as the location. Because of the rough surf, the lighthouse was not built directly on the beach or even off the coast. The basic form of the 11.5m high lighthouse was built from hewn stones. On top of it came the light cabin with a dome roof, in which the light work, consisting of strong glass lenses, was built. Several lenses were placed vertically and arranged side by side in a circle. The circle is rotatable and the light bundles of the lenses generate the blinking pattern characteristic of lighthouses. A gallery outside allows a complete tour. The staircase is inside the tower.

The lighthouse in Swakopmund is the landmark of this charming coastal town. Photo: Gondwana Collection

A few years later, in 1910, the lighthouse was raised by ten meters. It was later increased to over 30m by dismantling the dome and then putting it back on again.

For many years, lighthouse keepers kept the beacon strong and flashing. The light signals have been sent automatically since 1956. Since there is often heavy fog in Swakopmund and the surrounding area, the lighthouse was and is also very important for ships, fish trawlers and sailors. He has also served Swakopmund's citizens as a guide at night for 118 years. After a long drive, its light beams are a comforting sign for travelers in the evening that you will soon be at your destination.

In 1940, a radio beacon was added to the dome roof to send additional signals to ships at sea. A new set of lights was installed in 1982, which emits two white flashes of light every 10 seconds at intervals of 2.3 seconds. The lights can be seen up to a distance of 33 kilometers, very earlier the range was 14 kilometers. In 2011, the lighthouse was thoroughly renovated.

Steadfast in changing times

After the German era, all lighthouses on Namibia's coast were managed for decades by South Africa's port authorities (South African Harbors & Railways, later PortNet). Namibia gained independence in 1990, but only established its own port authority, NamPort, in 1994.

Namibia's new government negotiated with South Africa's then apartheid government for several years until in February 1994 the port of Walvis Bay, the urban area and the enclave, as well as all the coastal islands, finally became Namibian territory. The inventory, including that in Lüderitzbucht and the lighthouses, were also transferred.

The old lighthouse on Shark Island in Lüderitzbucht is attached to the staff quarters. Photo by: Peter Stenglein

How long the Swakopmund landmark will be visible from afar is in the stars. A bulky new building is to be constructed below the lighthouse, with apartments, shops and restaurants. It is to be built so high that the light beams towards the sea will be blocked. The Swakopmunders were outraged. The port authority NamPort then announced that it would not allow ships to lose their navigation point.

The architects quickly drafted a new plan with a mini lighthouse protruding from the roof of the planned new building. That would then generate the beacon. However, this design was not very popular. For now, the project is on hold.

Far from the port - the Walvis Bay lighthouse

In contrast to Swakopmund, Walvis Bay has a harbour but no lighthouse - at least not at first glance. You can only see its light beams at night and the lighthouse of 1915 during the day when the weather is very clear, which is quite rare. The then British-South African port authority decided 105 years ago to build the lighthouse on the tip of a distant peninsula - Pelican Point. Walvis Bay can only be recognised as a bay from the air because the bay is so huge. The narrow peninsula can be reached by car at low tide - all-wheel drive is recommended - and with prior permission. It is a bird sanctuary. There is now a tourist lodge next to the lighthouse.

The lighthouse near Walvis Bay is painted in black and white and is situated on a peninsula at Pelican Point. Photo by: Hans de Graaf

The first beacon at Pelican Point was erected in June 1915 and consisted of a small automatic acetylene gas lantern mounted on a wooden post driven into the sand. Seventeen years later, in 1937, this installation was replaced by a prefabricated round

tower made of cast iron. This had been constructed in 1913 as a replacement for a lighthouse in Durban, South Africa. It was never used there and was brought to Walvis Bay.

The 30.7m high lighthouse was originally painted gray, but the sailors complained that it was hardly visible during the day, especially in the often cloudy and foggy weather. After a few experiments with different colors, the tower was finally painted black and white.

New developments

As the port of Walvis Bay grew and port operations increased, the existing light source of the beacon was no longer sufficient. It was replaced in 1955 by a 500mm acetylene gas lantern and four years later by a 250-watt lamp.

As the port continued to expand rapidly, the lighthouse had to send stronger even light. In 1961, for example, the beacon was equipped with an automatic rotating base that provided a more powerful flashing light. It sends out three flashes (short-long-long) every thirty seconds. The three flashes are sent 3.6 seconds apart.

The lighthouse was also equipped with a modern electric fog signal. An engine room and living quarters for the lighthouse keepers were built and rebuilt several times to avoid the formation of sand dunes against the buildings.

While the lighthouse has lost some of its navigational significance due to the introduction of modern positioning systems, its light beams still show seafarers the way.

Three lighthouses in Lüderitz

In the southern port of Lüderitzbucht, there are actually three lighthouses that are very different. On Shark Island in front of the small port there is the square lighthouse with a height of only 12m. It was built in 1903 and shut down again in 1910. The lighthouse keeper's house is directly connected to the tower. The lantern has been removed. The tower with the caretaker's house is now part of a lodge owned by the state tourism company, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, and overnight stays can be booked there.

The old lighthouse on Shark Island in Lüderitzbucht is attached to the staff quarters. Photo by: Peter Stenglein

Nearby is a 15m high steel scaffolding tower that serves as a lighthouse and is known as the new lighthouse. Depending on the direction of the compass, it sends a red or green light every 7.5 seconds for 2.5 seconds over a distance of eight nautical miles (about 15 km).

A shirt way outside Lüderitz is the Diaz Point and there the third lighthouse is situated. This is where the Portuguese seafarer Bartolomeo Diaz erected his stone cross over 500 years ago.

The lighthouse at Diaz Point near Lüderitz. Foto by: R. Stoldt

The lighthouse has been sending out its light signals since 1915. It is 28m high, round and painted red and white. The base is curiously hexagonal and consists of hewn rubble stones.

What actually is pharology?

For seafarers, lighthouses have always meant orientation, safety and the proverbial light in the dark. Since modern satellite navigation has made their role less relevant, there are international efforts by various associations to preserve historical lighthouses. Amateur radio operators connect once a year to send signals to lighthouses and thus draw attention to their preservation.

The Swakopmund lighthouse also participated a few times. The various light signals are entered in registers for seafaring.

Pharology is lighthouse science. The word ‘pharos’ comes from the Greek language after the Egyptian island of Pharos near Alexandria. There, about 279 years BC the construction of a 100m high lighthouse was completed, to aid sailing boats with their navigation into the harbour with huge fires for almost 1,600 years. This huge tower was known as Pharos. In 1303, it collapsed during an earthquake.

Sorry, we can’t seem to find any matches for your search. Have a look at our popular searches below.