On Africa’s southwestern coastline touching South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, and Angola, is the massively beautiful and empty land of Namibia — the least-populated country in the world. Its 976-mile coastline is mainly desert, and includes three national parks. We will hone in on the Skeleton Coast, one of these sprawling wonderlands that holds many secrets and is often a setting for danger, adventure and death.
Sources: cnn.com, telegraph.co.uk, dailybeast.com, en.wikipedia.org, southernafricatravel.com
From Namibia and Angola’s border-making Cunene River going south all the way to the Swakop River is a long, skinny area known as the Namib-Skeleton Coast National Park. It covers nearly 310 miles of coastline — blue Atlantic waters crashing up against an endless shore of sand dunes. The desert stretches from top to bottom of Namibia and occupies two million hectares (almost four million acres) of sand and gravel. Namibia is the most arid country in southern Africa, it’s climate more akin with the Sahara region than the generally-lush bottom half of the continent. Here’s 10 things you didn’t know about Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.
Braving Namibia’s persecuting hot weather for centuries, the Himba people — population 50,000 — live mainly in the northern part of the country, and on the other side of the border in Angola. Himba are Namibia’s last nomadic herders, and their diet is strictly meat. They apply an ocher-and-butter mix on their skin to protect it from the harsh rays. Part of the Himba, the Ovatwa people are in a human rights struggle, held in camps by the Namibian government and getting no recognition.
Just 800 visitors are allowed each year to visit the Skeleton Coast. Strict, guided safari excursions are the only permitted way to visit the national park. Besides the $6,000 fee for a four-day tour, visitors must also pay to fly to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. Just two safari companies operate in the Skeleton Coast, and if you go, you have to fly into their base camps. A long dune drive in a Land Rover brings you into the Ugab River Park entrance, where large gates decorated with skull and crossbones announce your arrival.
This is the only place on Earth where a lucky, well-timed visitor can hear the roar of the sand dunes. Air trapped between billions of grains of sand creates a low rumble that has many tourists looking up thinking there’s a jetliner passing above.
One of the first stops in the Skeleton Coast national park is a massive cemetery of animal bones. And what a Noah’s Ark of Death it is: elephant rib cages mixed with turtle shells, topped with whale vertebrae and seal skulls. The Portuguese called this stretch of coast lined with skulls and life’s remnants “The Gates of Hell.” Indigenous folk describe it as “The Land God Made in Anger.”
The creepy landscape is not a final resting place for animal bones. It also keeps as trophies the ghostly remains of ships it has murdered. One of the most prominent and haunting examples is the Dunedin Star and its enormous, rusty corpse. In 1942, the 530-foot long British liner crashed on the shore — some blame a reef, others say it was a German U-boat. For 26 days the survivors waited for relief on Namibia’s inhospitable coastline. It came in the form of a South African rescue bomber crashing into the sea in front of them. Two crewmen attempting a rescue mission were drowned in the process.
Sailors have been marooned on the shores of the Skeleton Coast, and have trekked in search of salvation. In the 1940s, a dozen human skeletons were found, headless, lined up in a row. A slate was found on which was scrawled: “I am proceeding to a river 60 miles north, and should anyone find this and follow me, God will help him.” The skeletons were the remains of a ship that had wrecked 80 years earlier, in 1860.
Just south of Skeleton Coast Park is Kolmanskop, reminiscent of an old wild west ghost town. It is indeed a ghost town — what’s left of a former German diamond mining settlement at the turn of the 20th century. One of the workers found a shiny rock, and a colony was quickly built. The town was designed to reflect the feeling of a German town, and had a movie theater, a hospital, Africa’s first tram, and the southern hemisphere’s first X-ray machine. After World War I, the town decayed. Now visitors walk knee-deep through sand on old city “streets,” witnessing houses that have turned the color of the desert.
Forty-plus years ago, the Suiderkis trawler sank on her maiden voyage. Down the way at Möwe Bay is the world’s most isolated police station. The few police staffers actually pass the time running a shipwreck museum. The museum’s display cases may make your stomach churn. Items include life vests from drowned Japanese whalers, human skulls, and remnants of wrecked ships such as chains, cannons and rusted metal galore.
Life holds its own in the Skeleton Coast. One can stumble upon the Cape Cross Reserve, and its 250,000 Cape seals, roaring and lazing in the sun. There are also black-backed jackals, and deeper into the park, giraffes, zebras, ostriches, rhinos, and elephants — all adapted to the elements. Still, life isn’t easy on land or sea. The number of beached whales here is reportedly enormous. You’re bound to find on the shoreline a spindling shelter of humpback ribs, with ghost crabs scuttling around the remains of a carcass.