Namibia’s Skeleton Coast received its name for a good reason: it is a harsh and desolate landscape that has been responsible for more than its share of deaths and broken hearts. You need only look at the abandoned machinery and shipwrecks that dot the coastline to understand.
When we recently travelled from Hentiesbaai all the way to the Kunene River Mouth, which forms Namibia’s border with Angola, we realised why this barren and merciless stretch of desert is known as the Skeleton Coast.
The road from Henties goes to Torra Bay. From there you need a permit to enter the Skeleton Coast Park. And only a few kilometres into the park you come across the remains of an oil rig that represented the dreams of a brave and adventurous Mr Du Preez. He was sure there was oil under the sand and started a prospecting company funded by various organisations. Even Aristotle Onassis came to have a look, but decided not to get involved.
When the tower of the rig was about half complete, the main cable broke and the whole thing plunged to the ground, destroying the tower and all hopes of finding oil. There wasn’t enough money to start over again, and the rig was abandoned without a drill ever being used.
We passed the old rig and headed for Terrace Bay, the last place where you can get fuel. From there we headed to Mowe Bay. Here the road ended, so we had no option but to drive on the beach. This was not easy at all, since the sand was loose, with a steep slope towards the sea, preventing us from driving on the stiffer wet sand.
About 5km north of Mowe Bay stood a bulldozer that had been there for more than a year. It had been on its way to a diamond mine at the Kunene River Mouth, another 400km north, but it was abandoned right there, where it had broken down. Although the engine had been removed and the hydraulic rams were covered with grease, I very much doubted it would ever move again.
I couldn’t help thinking that it would end up like another bulldozer we had stumbled across on a previous trip. This one had been brought in by diamond prospectors, but was also abandoned. Leaving it behind was easier than trying to get it back to civilisation. It has been there for decades, and only a skeleton remains.
A few kilometres north of the bulldozer, we encountered evidence of the biggest rescue operation in the history of Namibia. All that remains now are two rusting engines and some body panels from a Ventura bomber sent to drop off water and food for the survivors of the Dunedin Star – a ship that had run aground about 100km farther north in 1942.
The captain reported that the ship had struck something hard and was taking on water. It was 30 sea miles off shore, and the captain was going full throttle towards land to beach the ship before it could sink.
He made it to the shore all right – stranded on the Skeleton Coast. A tug was sent to help, but it ran aground about 50km south. Another rescue ship ended up on a sand bank, but was eventually freed. In the meantime, the Ventura was sent to drop off water and food.
The pilot saw a flat piece of land not far from the wreck site and landed there. But it was a salt pan and the plane got horribly stuck. Then there was a sandstorm. After the storm, the pilot and flight engineer cleaned the sand out of the engines and the stranded people helped get the plane freed from the salt pan. They insisted that the pilot make a test flight before they would board.
Imagine their feelings when the plane crashed into the sea, though the pilot and co-pilot made it safely to shore.
The wreckage of the Dunedin Star has just about disappeared in the sand, but the engines and pieces of the Ventura can still be seen.
The survivors eventually made it back to civilisation after several rescue attempts. They were lucky. Many others have perished on these shores. The Skeleton Coast is not a place to be trifled with.