The Skeleton Coast

I have wanted to go the Skeleton Coast for as long as I can remember. As a boy it seemed to define remote and exotic; a cruel coastline backed by an inhospitable desert for mile upon mile – almost half the length of Namibia right up to the Angolan border. It is every bit as wonderful as I imagined it to be. But first we had to get there.

The Rhino Camp has an acoustic unlike anywhere else we have stayed. The rock faces all around us bounced every little sound off them. There were only a few birds but their song echoed all through the gorges. Today we DID get showers thanks to a fire lit under an oil drum full of water. We have got quite used to showering in the open air and the sunshine, surrounded by a little grass or brush enclosure, watched by the birds and the geckos.
We’ve also got used to cooking over an open fire. Its quicker than the gas burner and more satisfying, and the dense mopane wood catches quickly and stays hot. We started the day with porridge and coffee and let the sunshine warm us up. I set up the solar panels to charge our devices battery and within an hour is was almost a third of the way to being fully charged.

We called in at the main gate to see the rhino displays and also reflect that they really won’t be around for all that much longer because some ignorant, arrogant, senseless idiots are under the ridiculous delusion that their horns will have an impact on their libido. Someone needs to tell these morons that they could just bite their nails. They are made of the same stuff and it would have exactly the same effect – ie none. Can you imagine a more sad and pointless way to eradicate an entire species from the planet.

We left the Rhino Camp along another rutted track which soon became a rutted gravel road, heading southwest towards the coast.

 

There was a Land Rover approaching in the distance. We stopped and they stopped and we compared notes. They were a cheery young German couple who’d been climbing in Spitzkoppe and were thinking about doing our route in reverse. I told them if they could get past the steep, wet bit of track beyond the Rhino Camp they would be OK for the rest of the route, but going uphill there would be a lot harder than coming down it like we did. We compared maps and they told us that the road ahead was very badly corrugated. It was nice chatting to kindred spirits in this empty landscape but eventually we bid our farewells, started the engines and went our separate ways.

The road was very badly corrugated and the gravel so deep that it was hard to get enough speed to glide over the ruts. At every crest we squinted to see the sea but the haze made it impossible to make out where the land ended and the water began. But then, just a few kilometers from the coast we could see blue water and big frothing surf. It was thrilling to drive out of the flat desert to such a dramatic bit of coast stretching away in both directions until it was lost in a milky haze at the horizon.

We needed to go south but wanted to see a shipwreck marked on the map and drove north for half an hour on an eerily smooth salt road that bobbed over the dunes. We turned left at the point marked on the satnav, but the sand had obscured any trace of a track so we made our own – the four wheel drive struggling to pull us through the deep sand. After a couple of K we stopped on a hard bit of beach (so I could turn around) and got out.

I am quite excited about being on the Skeleton Coast

The wind was blowing, the sea was pounding, the sand was almost too bright to look at in the brilliant sunshine.

This was a no-nonsense bit of African beach; no buckets and spades, no donkeys or ice-cream – no people, but the constant threat of being swallowed up by the sea or starved on the beach.

It was littered with the bones of seals and birds, and near the waters edge, the rusting ironwork of the Winston, a fishing boat that ran aground in 1970.

 

A little further up was the skeleton of another – unknown – vessel, being slowly eaten by the waves.

 

We felt tiny in this great big coastline and didn’t want to leave.

 

We had a makeshift lunch sitting in the lee of the truck: lumps of cheese, slices of apple, a few dill pickles, a bag of crisps and some trail mix hit the spot.
Feeling somewhat crispy from the sunshine we got back into the truck and onto the road – south this time, towards Swakopmund. There are odd little fishing camps along the road and a small community  at Cape Cross where the Portuguese navigator Diego Cao landed in 1485 – the first European to reach south west Africa. He built a stone cross which remained there until 1890 when it was nicked by a museum in Berlin. There is a replica there today but what really grabs the eye (and the nose) is the enormous seal colony along the shore.
Eighty to a hunded thousand of them, barking and grunting and shuffling about and riding the surf. Climbing out of the truck was like getting a faceful of ammonia. “Why are we doing this?” asked Tom, who has never been good with olfactory overload. But as soon as he saw the first seal, lolling by the boardwalk he whipped out his camera. And then of course the beach was so full of them it looked like one brown, blobby mass. Youngsters were suckling, older ones were baring their teeth at each other and barking, but most were lazing in the sunshine.

A little further down the road is Henties Bay, a pastel coloured village by the sea with a hole-in-the-wall restaurant called “Fishy Corner” which promised great things… And it delivered! Inside, it was all fishing  nets and white-plank tables with a mounted marlin head on the wall.

The fish was fresh and huge, the beer cold, the waitress jolly. We couldn’t linger though, it was now five and we had an hour left to drive on unlit salt-pan roads in the last of the daylight. Just a few K down the road though we saw a large ship rolling in the surf and pulled off again for a look. It was another fishing boat that ran aground in 2008. We watched it tossed around by the surf as the sun went down.

Back on the road a thin mist was blowing in from the sea and it turned a lot colder. Eventually we could see an orange glow ahead – the lights of Swakopmund which seemed like a huge metropolis in comparison to all the tiny places we’ve driven through. The streets were almost completely deserted – no people, no cars. The fog created a misty glow around the orange streetlights and the wind whipped up the leaves of the palm trees.

The Cornerstone Guest House is a sleek little development in the middle of a walled garden. Six immaculate suites, and ours is like a small apartment. Our faces were toasty from the wind and sun and we went to bed with the sound of the wind blowing outside.

Author: Richard Lister

Chasing horizons...

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