Skeleton Coast

Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is a national park between the mouth of the Ugab River in the south and the mouth of the Kunene River in the north, which also marks the border to Angola.

On the coast, the rising cold deep waters of the Benguela Current cause dense fog for much of the year, which the Angolans in the north call ‘Cassimbo’. Precipitation usually remains below ten millimetres per year, strong surf whips the banks and a constant offshore wind blows. In the days of non-motorised shipping it was possible to land on the coast, but it was no longer possible to set sail against the surf.

The Skeleton Coast got its terrifying name when the journalist Sam Davis set out in 1933 to search for the Swiss pilot Carl Nauer, who was lost over the coast while trying to set a new solo flight record on the Cape Town London route.

At the end of the 17th century, the coast north of the later Swakopmund had already attracted the attention of the Dutch East India Society, but after the first exploratory expeditions had found only bare landscapes in front of impenetrable fog walls, the interest slackened. In the 19th century British and American whaling ships operated from Luderitz, but avoided this stretch of coast, which the Portuguese had christened “Sand of Hell”. Dangerous currents and unmapped sandbanks, which shifted like the dunes in the inland, still let ships run aground again and again. Their remains joined the skeletons of stranded whales, which faded in the salty desert sand, with increasing shipping traffic and commercial fishing. Seamen who had survived such an accident were still facing the worst. They found themselves on an uninhabited, over 1000 km long and obviously hostile coast, which offered hardly any fresh water to survive. Only the four ephemeral rivers, which cut through this part of the Namib Desert from east to west, offered watering places and pools after rainfalls in the interior, but they also attracted dangerous wild animals such as lions, leopards and elephants and posed a further threat to the shipwrecked.

What once deterred sailors – loneliness, remoteness and superficial hostility to life – today makes the Skeleton Coast so attractive to visitors. While the southern section between Ugab estuary and Torra Bay is characterised by a grey rocky landscape, the north of Torra Bay is dominated by extensive dunes that extend far inland. Torra Bay itself is a seasonal fishing campsite open only in the winter months.

A much more inviting stop on the Skeleton Coast is the Uniab Delta, about halfway between Torra Bay and Terrace Bay. The delta forms a small reed overgrown canyon at the mouth of the sea and is a mecca for ornithologists, photographers and geologists. The area is also rich in game, including springboks, jackals, oryx antelopes and even the rare brown hyena. The Uniab Delta consists of five main arms, and the first is easily recognized by the lush green of its vegetation. The second arm is wider. From here, a six kilometre walk leads to a narrow gorge through which water ripples over red and yellow rocks into a pond close to the sea. Springboks, oryx antelopes and ostriches are often found here, right on the coast. The third arm of the Uniab Delta is often home to entire herds of springboks, and this part of the river also has a waterhole that attracts antelopes as well as jackals, brown hyenas and lions. From a hidden shelter you can watch the game comfortably and unnoticed. The car park on the hill at the fifth Delta arm overlooks several waterholes, which are populated by water birds of all kinds and of course also frequented by game. The hiking path through or along the small canyon of the Uniab is very recommendable and represents a welcome change within the scope of the trip. Under normal weather conditions it is still half an hour from here to the rest camp of Terrace Bay.

Terrace Bay, which makes a rather inhospitable impression on arriving visitors and does not resemble a hotel building at all, looks back on an interesting history of failure. In the early 1960s, a certain Ben du Preez and Colonel Jack Scott dug for diamonds here. Legend has it that in order to win the Greek shipowner and billionaire Onassis as a sponsor, he ‘planted’ five diamonds at the prospecting site, which were then promptly found… . Since Onassis didn’t fall into du Preez’s trap and no more diamonds were found, the latter went bankrupt and the buildings at Terrace Bay passed into the hands of the state. There’s not much to do in Terrace Bay – except for the surf anglers – and fourteen kilometres north of the rest camp the coastal road ends up in nothing. During a short walk along the beach, the view of the ground is worthwhile: it is littered with pebbles of quartzes of various colours, including agates, granite and lava.