This month, Johan reminisces about a trip he took 10 years ago to the northern parts of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. As part of a governmental research group, he travelled all the way to the Kunene River mouth. Along the way he also came across the remains of the Dunedin Star, a British ship that ran aground in 1942.
On the Namibian coast there are certain places that mere mortals like us are not allowed to visit. These are reserved for conservationists, researchers and perhaps someone with a wallet big enough to buy his way in. But for us, these places are out of bounds. The southern part of the Namibian coast with its well-protected diamond areas are well known. The Sperrgebiet is an area that tourists, 4×4 enthusiast photographers and fishermen know to be the forbidden land. But this, too, is the case further up north. One can travel past Henties Bay, through the gate into the Skeleton Coast Park at the Ugab River, all the way to Torra Bay and even Terrace Bay.
Five kilometres north of Terrace the progress, travelling north, is abruptly halted. To enter this area, you need a permit which is not easy to obtain. About 10 years ago I was fortunate to travel past this barrier. Hannes Holtzhausen of the Namibia Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources took a number of anglers north to go and catch bronze whalers. Hannes was doing research on this shark species, and he wanted to tag four of them with satellite transmitters. I was allowed to accompany them and record an insert for the SABC’s environmental programme 50/50. The project was done during the December, school holidays, and I therefore asked permission whether Streicher, my son and fellow Voetspore member, could join us for the 10 days north of Terrace Bay. The answer was an emphatic “No”.
So my cameraman, soundman and I arrived in Namibia to join the researchers. The officials were very upset about the soundman. “What do you need him for,” they asked. I explained that television is a video and audio medium. Pictures without proper sound are worthless. They reluctantly agreed and so the television crew of three joined Hannes and his party. We travelled north. Compared to some of the southern sections, dome people may find this a boring part of the Namib: it’s mostly beach driving and small, flat dunes. But there are a few interesting landmarks: like the steering wheel of a vehicle left behind on the beach when the Portuguese made use of this stretch of beach to escape from Angola during the war of 1974. Then there are the remains of the Ventura Bomber that crash-landed when it was involved with the rescue of the stranded passengers of the Dunedin Star.
Later on, some wreckage of the Dunedin Star itself. Not much can be seen of the ill-fated ship’s wreck, yet this is a fascinating story of endurance, bravery and of surviving against all odds. Just before Christmas, 1942, the Dunedin Star, a British refrigerated cargo liner, ran aground on the Skeleton Coast. It is not clear whether it struck a rock or was torpedoed by a German submarine. This was during the height of the Second World War. A very complex sea, land and air rescue mission was launched. Most of the crew and passengers survived, yet a tug, an aircraft and two of the tug’s crew were lost in the rescue. The story is very well told in John Marsh’s Skeleton Coast.
In 2003, a television documentary entitled Extreme Survival was produced about the plight of the Dunedin Star and those on board (85 crew, 21 passengers). Rocky Point is another of the land-marks on this route. This is a small out-crop in what is otherwise a featureless desert. It is a prominent landmark on the coast between Möwe Bay and the Kunene River, 250km north of Rocky Point. But the exciting part is to travel all the way to the Kunene River. Namibia has only two perennial rivers: the Orange, forming its southern border with South Africa; and the Kunene, forming its northern border with Angola. To be able to travel along the coastline to the mouth of the Kunene, surrounded by the dunes of the Namib, is very special.
Recently, a few companies were issued with concessions to take clients on this trip. Unlike Hannes Holtzhausen’s team, this trip is not only to the mouth of the river and back, but turning inland, following the Kunene upstream for a while, before turning south through the Hartmann Valley. This is some of the most challenging dune driving in the Namib. A journey that starts as a seemingly boring drive on the beach, becomes one of the most exciting excursions in the Namib.
The operations of these concessionaires are constantly under threat, as there are limited mining activities at the Kunene mouth. As we have seen over the years, mining and tourism seldom go hand in hand. My advice is, if you get the opportunity to travel either with Voetspore Safaris, Desert Magic or Live the Journey, jump at the opportunity. The window for Joe Soap and Friends to travel into this part of the forbidden land may soon close again. For more information, send an email to [email protected].