Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, graveyard to a thousand ships, is still one of the wildest and most dangerous places on earth. You will need expert guidance in unravelling its mysteries, writes Chris Coetzee.
The seductive allure of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast has beckoned seekers of fame and fortune down the years. Many have responded and failed and some have perished.
Most of the early adventurers came back empty-handed, their hopes and dreams abandoned to the ravages of this cruel and beautiful desert.
The strong Benguelle current, thick fog and often brutally rough seas have ushered more than 1000 ships to their graves.
The rules are clear in this magical place, still largely untouched and preserved by the elements. Come prepared. Adapt. Be constantly aware of its might and dangers, and be cautious at all times. If you are not, the outcome will invariably be perilous.
In December 2013 we entered the Skelton Coast on its terms. Omalweendo Safaris is a Nambian tour operator and one of the few that have a concession to take a limited number of visitors into the protected park.
Dekker Smit, a competent, responsible and knowledgeable man, led us on an unforgettable six-day, self-drive, 950km adventure along the coast from Swakopmund to the Kunene River mouth. We returned via Puros, Orampembe and Sesfontein.
We left Swakopmund early in the morning in a 15-vehicle convoy and headed north to Mowe Bay, 450km away. All the vehicles, mostly privately owned, were Toyotas, ranging from 2.5-litre diesel Hiluxes to a Land Cruiser VX8 200.
Each driver had to ensure that his vehicle was mechanically sound, equipped with 60 litres of water of which 20 litres was to be given to the kitchen. We also needed 250 litres of fuel, two spare tyres, camping and recovery equipment and enough firewood for the journey.
The vehicles were all fitted with two-way radios supplied by the tour company, and this gave us some degree of comfort as we headed into the unknown. Dekker used the radio to provide us with fascinating facts, historical information and many stories about the surrounding area. At all times there was a back-up vehicle, bringing up the rear.
The road on the first leg was excellent, mostly salt surfaced, which made for relatively easy driving. We reached the entrance of the Skeleton Coast Park, and after some paperwork we were on our way.
This was the point of no return — once we were in the park, there was no turning back. Vehicle recovery in the desert can take days and is very costly and potentially dangerous in this harsh environment. The knowledge that the tour leaders had a satellite phone gave us peace of mind. It was our only link to the outside world.
We crossed the Ugab River where scatterings of springbok were feeding off the grassy riverbed. This is one of Namibia’s major rivers and home to a variety of animals including lions and the elusive desert elephants, as well as many bird species.
The dangers of desert travel were soon brought home to us when, frighteningly, one of the vehicles lost its rear axle, and as a result we were unable to reach our planned destination. Fortunately no one was injured, and thanks to the satellite phone, Dekker had a replacement and recovery vehicle despatched from Swakopmund that evening so we would be ready to continue the following day.
At Terrace Bay it was decided that instead of continuing to Mowe Bay we would stay the night. This was the last refuelling point until Sesfontein, some 750km away.
The tour operators made sure we were well fed on the trip by providing three excellent meals a day. Shower and toilet facilities and even hot water were provided at each camp site – very welcome after a tiring day’s travel.
On our first evening I decided to do some exploring and ventured about one kilometre away from camp on foot. The endless gravel plains and undulating landscape drew me farther away. Buck and hyena spoor were plentiful, and I was spellbound by the vast lichen garden on the ridges of the hills, looking fresh and apparently undisturbed in various shades of orange to dark grey. These plants grow where no others can, surviving in the harshest conditions. I felt like an intruder, and tiptoed from one rock to the other, careful not to leave a foot print or step on any of these beautiful plants. This place seemed like a barometer of the good health of the region.
A full day lay ahead of us, with 300km to cover if we were to make up for lost time due to the damaged vehicle. We began our journey straight after breakfast, and travelled along the exquisite coastline. As we crossed the Hoarusib River we saw springbok in abundance. There had been reports of lions, elephants and hyenas in the area, and we scanned the landscape anxiously, hoping to catch a glimpse of these elusive animals.
Today, our off-road driving skills were to be tested as we entered the Skelton Coast proper. The desert sand can be treacherous for even the most powerful 4×4 vehicles and the most experienced drivers. By maintaining momentum, ensuring you are engaged in the correct gear ratio, that tyres are at the correct pressure and that not too much weight is shifted from one axle to the other, you should be fine. Some of the drivers, though, had to be towed out of the sand.
We passed the shipwrecks of the Karimona and the Sir Charles Elliot and the graves of Mathies Koraseb and Angus McKintyre, who died in attempting to save the survivors of the Dunedin Star. They were crew members of the stricken Sir Charles Elliot.
We progressed well and our first stop was at an abandoned diamond mine. The remains of a bulldozer and a tractor can be seen, along with various bits of rusted mining equipment protruding from the sand. This is known as Jack‘s Camp.
The next point of interest was the remains of a Ventura bomber that crashed close to the shore while attempting to drop food and water for survivors of the Dunedin Star in 1942. The pilot and two crew members — Immins Naude, Aleric Duncan and Bernardus Bloemhoff — survived. All that remains of the aircraft is the two Lockheed engines.
Lunch was at Sarusas, an amethyst mine for many years. It was deserted when we were there, but is still mined from time to time. Fibre glass igloo-shaped huts provide accommodation for the miners.
From Sarusas we left the coast and drove for about 65km behind the mountains and through the valleys on our way to Cape Fria.This region is something to be seen – splendid views from horizon to horizon, and nothing but peace and tranquillity. Omalweendo Safaris is the only concession holder permitted to enter this area with visitors.
Late that afternoon we arrived at Cape Fria, which is a seal colony. Thousands upon thousands of Golden Seals stretched out along the coast.
These are large animals, with males weighing up to 250kg. The pups face invading jackals and often human hunters seeking their soft jet-black fur. I noticed the pups were in small groups a little distance from the adults. To my surprise I was able to enter their space, very slowly, and soon I was surrounded. They were so close I could touch them, but when I tried they immediately warned me NOT to try that again!
The seals dozed in the warm sun and I left feeling content that I had been allowed to enter their world. I suppose this colony had not yet experienced the seal pup harvesting, in which 86 000 seals are slain in Namibia every year.
We camped in the desert for the night, 20km north.
Our aim was to reach the Kunene River mouth, 140km away, and then back-track to Bosluisbaai and camp in the seclusion of the dunes.
The first half of the day was a spectacular and easy drive, with ghost crabs and seals everywhere. It is remarkable how fresh and clean the environment can be in a desolate area — a sign that it is coping very well without us!
In 1942, about 50km south of the Kunene, the 160m cargo vessel, the Dunedin Star, was forced aground by the captain in an attempt to prevent it from sinking and losing passengers and crew. Some survivors managed to get ashore in a lifeboat and others were rescued later. There are poignant stories of many failed attempts to rescue women and children stranded in the desert. (The accompanying picture shows the remains of the shelter where they were stranded for 26 days.)
Until a few years ago the shipwreck was still visible, but it has since been consumed by the sea.
We were greeted by a strong, hot wind as we arrived at the Kunene River mouth at about midday.We had been warned not to venture to the water’s edge because of the danger of crocodiles. The river was in full flood, though, and we felt a little safer. The mouth was probably a kilometre wide.
After lunch we proceeded on Stage One of the 45km journey through the dune belt, using dune crossing methods that had been explained to us. The dunes were easily 50m high and very daunting.
Dekker was on hand to guide us. The instructions were to keep in second gear low range, move in a straight line, accelerate only if the vehicle moved off course and “keep your cool”. With this good advice, I had little difficulty and found the entire experience utterly exhilarating as the dunes groaned and moaned as we made our way through. Make one mistake, though, and your vehicle could roll… easily and suddenly.
That evening we camped near Bosluisbaai in the shelter of the dunes. It was a wonderfully quiet evening, as much rest was needed to prepare us for the next day.
Our first challenge was to cross a 40km stretch of dunes. Patience was needed. To mobilise 15 vehicles of varying power and driver skills was no small feat.
Dekker, in his usual calm manner, guided each vehicle by radio from a vantage point above us. The back-up vehicle was kept busy helping drivers, but at no time was there any sign of chaos or panic.
Our abilities were tested and the obstacles were difficult. In fact, one of my tyres almost jumped off the rim, but people came to the rescue, a hot air jack was provided and the tyre was repositioned within minutes.
Some vehicles suffered minor body damage and many become sand-bound. High lift jacks, spades and kinetic ropes where the order of the day. It was a huge team effort and everyone cooperated and helped where they could. It was a thrilling experience
The convoy finally emerged from the dune belt and headed for the Hartmanns Mountains (1390m). We stopped at the edge of the Hartmanns Valley — a most beautiful sight. The landscape is almost too big for the camera.
We were now in Kaokoland and rested for the night at yet another spectacular camp site after enjoying a great meal of oxtail potjie.
After a good night’s rest we started on the next leg of about 150km. We stopped at Orupembe, which is a very old watering hole and a vital resource for this dry area. This was Himba territory and a family appeared in their traditional dress ready to be photographed — at a fee, of course!
We no longer had the luxury of a cool Atlantic breeze and temperatures were climbing.
We set up camp in the Khumib riverbed and were eager for sunset to arrive to give us some respite from the heat.
We looked forward to Day 6 with much anticipation. The highlight would be a 21km route in a northerly direction up the Hoaruseb River. This was an absolute pleasure — an entirely new world of green, tree-lined river banks, reeds and a stream of clear water, and absolute serenity everywhere.
We encountered a herd of elephants and saw plenty of bird species. This was a beautiful place, permanently etched in my memory.
We travelled via Puros and made our way to Sesfontein for our first refuelling after 750km. Then it was on to the Khowarib Community Camp, which was our last stop. This was a beautiful and well equipped site on the banks of the Khowarib River, with plenty of shade and great toilet facilities.
A dip in a beautiful clear pool at the base of a waterfall, and a great dinner, marked the last night of our trip.
The final leg of the journey took us back to Windhoek, where we returned our hired vehicles and caught our plane to Cape Town the next day.
While there were hundreds of kilometres of nothing but sand and mountains on this journey, it was broken by pockets of incredible beauty that cannot truly be described in words or even pictures. The most remarkable revelation for me was that life can flourish in magnificent abundance in one of the most cruel and harsh environments on earth. I was humbled by this experience — a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Costs: About R7800 per person for the trip, which included the guide, permits/entry fees, dinners and breakfasts but not fuel.
Our rental 2.5-litre Double Cab Toyota Hilux, which was fully equipped with roof-top tent, recovery equipment, fridge, cooking utensils, bedding, water tank and double fuel tanks, cost R1575 per day (unlimited milage) – including an all-inclusive insurance package. (www.keacampers.com)