Text and photography: GG van Rooyen
The gate that blocks the entrance to Namibia’s Skeleton Coast Park is decorated with two large skulls. The name of the park has been painted on a weathered plank – possibly the last remnant of a long-forgotten shipwreck – and sits atop a whale bone just to the left of the gate. The walls of the office where we sign in are covered with posters that show the large number of poisonous snakes, spiders and scorpions that can be found in the region.
There is an ominous feel about the place. This is definitely not your average national park. Rather, it feels as if you are entering some desolate no-man’s-land.
Of course, all of this is slightly theatrical. There is no real reason why the entrance should be decorated in this way, but it adds to the area’s appeal. And there is no denying that the Skeleton Coast is indeed a harsh and hostile environment.
In fact, the region was originally known simply as the Kaokoland Coast, but as more and more shattered ships and sun-bleached bones were discovered along the coastline, it became the Skeleton Coast. The San had their own name for it. They called it “the land God made in anger”. Portuguese sailors referred to it as “the gates of hell”.
But while most people were intimidated by this unforgiving landscape and avoided it at all costs, others saw it as a land of opportunity. They were confident that they could find diamonds and oil here.
Not long after passing through the gate, we arrive at an old drill dating from the 1960s. Prospectors had hoped to find oil, but weren’t successful. Millions of dollars were lost.
Despite the fact that the drill has stood here for only a few decades, the ruthless environment has transformed it into a twisted and severely rusted hunk of metal that is at odds with its pristine surroundings.
As we travel farther up the coast, we soon find another old mining site – Toscanini Mine. It is right on the beach and must have been in operation until fairly recently. One of its fuel storage areas has a warning sign that indicates that no cellphones are allowed. We stroll through the site and take pictures of the old equipment.
How should one feel about the old mining plants that dot the coastline? While most of it is wild and untouched, prospecting at the southern end of the Skeleton Coast has left an indelible mark. But for these remnants of the mining ventures, the coast would be utterly unspoiled.
At the same time, however, these sites are also fascinating and add to the allure of the region. They form an important part of the Skeleton Coast’s history.
From Toscanini we travel to Terrace Bay (roughly 260km from Swakopmund). It is a popular fishing destination and also the last place that you can find fuel. The town (if one can call it that) consists of a few houses, a shop, a police station and a handful of chalets.
Once you exit Terrace Bay, you leave civilisation behind. While we encounter a fair number of fishermen on the road to Terrace Bay, the route north of it is completely deserted. We see no people or vehicles as we head out on a small track.
A couple of hours later, we arrive at M?we Bay. It acts as the administrative centre of the Skeleton Coast’s protected wilderness area and isn’t open to visitors. Only a handful of officials and researchers are based here.
For most people, the area above M?we Bay is off limits, but thankfully, not for us. We are allowed to drive all the way to the mouth of the Kunene River.
We are travelling with Desert Magic Tours – a company that offers self-drive 4×4 trips to the very north of the Skeleton Coast.
“This is the first time that overland travellers have been able to venture as far north as the Kunene River,” says the tour company’s Volker Jahnke. “It is a unique opportunity to explore a region that has been visited by very few people.”
Volker – a respected guide in Namibia – scouted the Skeleton Coast personally, and created a route that showcases the best that Namibia’s north-western edge has to offer.
The route starts in Swakopmund and leads all the way to the top of the Skeleton Coast where the Kunene enters the ocean – a distance of more than 500km. From there, it turns inland and traces the river for about 40km. Finally, it heads south towards the Kaokoveld and places such as the Hartmann Valley, Orupembe, Purros and Sesfontein.
A UNIQUE EXPERIENCE
How did Desert Magic Tours manage to gain access to this heavily protected area? It has entered into a partnership with Otjipupa Investments – a community-owned company that has been awarded an exclusive tourism concession in the region. A representative from the company, Katjimuina Tjozongoro (since his name is a bit tough for most Westerners to pronounce, he simply uses the name Katz) is travelling with us and driving the backup vehicle.
He is very excited about the fact these guided self-drive trips are now in full swing.
“This route allows you to experience a bit of everything. You drive on the coast, you traverse dunes, you cross rivers. There are even a couple of rocky passes to negotiate. What more could 4×4 enthusiasts ask for?” says Katz.
After we sign in at M?we Bay’s office and permits have been checked, we continue onwards. It is late in the afternoon and the sun is starting to dip below the horizon. After a short while our guide, Wittes Beukes, decides to stop for the evening and set up camp. We spend the night a couple of hundred metres from the beach.
The next morning we continue our journey. There is a long day of driving ahead of us. We have to travel roughly 200km to Bosluis Bay, where we will spend our second night.
While we still encountered people at Terrace Bay and M?we Bay, we are now completely alone. There’s nothing between us and the Kunene but untouched coastline. A wilder and better preserved area in southern Africa would be hard to find.
The drive along the coast takes all day. Most of time, we drive on the beach. The sand is firm, which makes it easy to traverse, and more importantly, driving here ensures that our tracks will quickly disappear once the tide comes in.
The scenery is breathtaking. Open coastline waits in front of us. Immaculate dunes dappled with sunlight guard the interior to our right. Countless seals, birds and crabs laze on the beach. The hours fly by.
After a while, we encounter another victim of the Skeleton Coast. It is an SAAF Ventura bomber that crashed just off the shore in 1943. The fuselage washed ashore and chunks of the plane can still be seen.
Leaving the plane behind, we eventually reach the Hoarusib River. We had already crossed a number of rivers such as the Huab and the Hoanib, but they were dry. The Hoarusib, however, is flowing all the way to the ocean. In the middle of the desert, we cross a fast-flowing river. It is a surreal experience that we won’t soon forget!
We spend our second night just south of the Kunene River at Bosluis Bay, and the next day, we drive the remaining 10km to the river mouth.
As you approach the river, you realise that the ocean has changed colour. The water is now brown and dirty. It is, of course, the Kunene pushing into the Atlantic. And across the wide expanse of the river is Angola.
Not many people have stood at the mouth of the Kunene. As far as overland destinations go, it is pretty unique. Most destinations in Africa, even those out-of-the-way spots, have seen plenty of tourists. But not the north of the Skeleton Coast. As a protected wilderness area, access has always been very restricted.
The good news is that the Namibian government appears intent on keeping it this way. It isn’t interested in mass tourism. Sure, it wants tourists to experience the beauty of the Skeleton Coast, but not at the expense of the environment, so it will never be overrun with lodges, curio shops and tour buses. And this makes it the perfect overland destination for off-road enthusiasts.
After admiring the river for a while, we drive on. We head south for a few kilometres, and then turn inland. It’s time to tackle a few of Namibia’s famous dunes.
Rather than simply retracing our steps to the Skeleton Coast Park’s gate, we were now venturing into the Kaokoveld. Our aim was to reach the Hartmann Valley where we would head south to Sesfontein, but first we would travel 40km east along the Kunene.
As always, traversing Namibia’s dunes is very exciting, especially for those who have not driven on sand before. Thankfully, the route isn’t too difficult, though it does still take most of the day to reach our camping spot.
We approach our destination at sunset. It is a lovely site in a deep valley right next to the river. To get to it, we travel down a long, steep and sandy hill.
“Things will probably get very interesting tomorrow,” says Wittes. “There’s no escape route. We have to get all the vehicles back up this hill. It won’t be easy. We’ll probably have to tow quite a few of them.”
The two heavy-laden diesel Cruisers in our convoy worry him in particular. Will they be able to get back to the top?
The next morning, the entire group studies the sandy track with apprehension. The vehicles gather at the bottom, and Wittes starts his ascent.
His powerful petrol Land Cruiser charges up the slope with ease. Within seconds he is at the top.
“Okay, let’s send up the first car,” he says over the radio.
Katz’s backup vehicle – also a petrol Cruiser – ambles up after him.
“Next,” says Wittes.
Another Cruiser climbs the hill.
Now it’s the diesel Cruisers’ turn. The first one (a bright red vehicle that everyone jokingly refers to as the Coke Truck) charges at the hill. The driver puts all his weight on the accelerator. Black smoke billows from the exhaust pipe. A large cloud of dust trails the Cruiser.
The Coke Truck climbs…and climbs…and climbs. The small crowd at the top cheers as the big red Cruiser joins them. Everyone is amazed that it made it.
The second diesel Cruiser fares equally well. The engine has to work hard, and at one point the vehicle seems on the verge of embedding itself in the soft sand, but it scales the slope. Once again, the crowd goes wild.
“We were very lucky,” says Wittes. “It rained here recently, which has made the surface a bit firmer than usual. Last time, only two vehicles made it out of here on their own steam. Climbing this hill is always very exciting.”
We travel south towards the Hartmann Valley. The scenery is spectacular. The recent rain has transformed the often arid region into a lush wonderland.
We pass Green Drum, Orange Drum, Blue Drum and Red Drum. Eventually, we reach our overnight spot – Marble Campsite. It is a community-run site that offers much-appreciated luxuries such as flush toilets and hot showers. These community sites are clean, affordable and well maintained – definitely worth visiting.
It is the fourth day of our trip and we are heading south towards another community campsite at Purros. Much of the day will be spent driving in the Hoarusib River. Ordinarily, the river is dry, so travelling in it is easy. However, since we crossed it while heading north and found that it was flowing near the coast, Wittes and Katz are a little worried. Along our route, the Hoarusib flows through a deep valley, and once you’re in it, there’s no turning back.
As we approach the river we see that it is flowing rapidly. We make our first crossing. Wittes searches for possible routes. Since the river meanders through the valley, you are forced to cross constantly from one side to the other. And the banks are lined with thick bushes. Finding a way through the maze isn’t easy.
The valley continues to narrow and the foliage thickens, forcing us to spend more and more time in the river. Like a pod of hippos, our convoy plods upstream.
After what seems an eternity, the landscape starts to open up. We’re out of the river valley!
We arrive at the Purros campsite shortly afterwards. We’re told to be careful – elephants regularly pass through the camp. Unfortunately, we don’t see any, but still enjoy Purros’s flush toilets and hot showers.
Next morning we head for Sesfontein. The track is in good condition and we make excellent time. From Sesfontein we travel to Palmwag, where our guided trip officially ends.
Everyone says goodbye and reminisces briefly about our experiences. It had been an amazing trip. Of course, visiting the mouth of the Kunene was a highlight, but there were many other highpoints as well. Most importantly, we had travelled for days without seeing other people, vehicles or even large rural settlements. For a few glorious days we were truly alone in the wild. And nowadays, that’s a rare privilege.
DESERT MAGIC TOURS
For more information about joining a guided self-drive trip to the mouth of the Kunene River, contact Desert Magic Tours in Namibia. Tel. +264 63 202824; e-mail [email protected].