Many people associate the Skeleton Coast with golden orange desert dunes tumbling into the sea. While this is true of some parts of Namibia-Skeleton Coast National Park, in other areas the landscape is harsh, barren, and frightening, and yet, its starkness can be fascinating.
40 km wide by 500 km long, Skeleton Coast is part of Namibia’s northern Atlantic coast, south of Angola. The contrasts are dramatic in this unique landscape where the wild open seas and Atlantic breakers resound and collide with the time-worn sand dunes of the “world’s oldest desert,” the Namib.
Countless stranded whales have perished along the coast, leaving their bones visible in many places. The Ovahimba people who lived in the far northeastern area of Namibia used to construct their dwellings from whale bones. This, along with the sun-bleached remains of many shipwrecks, gave rise to the name, originally coined by writer John Henry Marsh in his book Skeleton Coast, about the shipwrecked Dunedin Star.
Skeleton Coast National Park
The almost 500 km of barren wasteland is also a National Park, which hosts a plethora of fauna and flora. Tenebrionid beetles, chameleons, and about 75 different kinds of seabirds regard this harsh environment as home, along with Cape Fur Seals, dwelling in huge colonies along the eastern coast of Cape Cross. The Park is also inhabited with black-backed jackals, hyenas, giraffes, zebras, rhinos, elephants, and even lions.
Several plants, such as welwitschias mirabilis, a huge succulent gymnosperm that looks like a large lump of washed-up seaweed, have adapted to be exceptionally suited to the arid climate of the Skeleton Coast.
Relying entirely on the fog from the Atlantic Ocean for survival, Acanthosicyos horridus, or Nara melons, a sweet yet spiny fruit that grows on a thorny woody shrub of the cucumber family; various lithops, a genus of stemless succulent in the Aizoaceae family known as “living stones;” lichen, a plant-like composite organism actually belonging to the Fungal kingdom; and Euphorbia Tirucalli, or pencil plant, a succulent named for its tube-like branching structure; are among the vegetation that relies on the sea mist for hydration.
The world’s largest ship cemetery
Many ships and their crew, and even some aircraft were stranded along this unforgiving coastline with its treacherous currents, reefs, waves, and year-round coastal fog. Ship and crew stood little chance of surviving, and even seafarers who made it to shore inevitably died of thirst. The desert landscape continually shifts and changes, sometimes moving up to 50 feet in a year, thus concealing or revealing a variety of skeletons, animal, ship, and sometimes human.
A group of twelve human skeletons was discovered lined up in a row in the 1940s. A slate was found on which someone had desperately scrawled: “I am proceeding to a river 60 miles north, and should anyone find this and follow me, God will help him.” The remains were from a wrecked ship that met its fate in 1869, 80 years before the discovery.
Kolmanskop is reminiscent of a Wild West ghost town. The ruins of a 19th-century German diamond mining community, it lies just south of Skeleton Coast Park. While the colony grew rapidly after the discovery of its first diamond, it declined after WWI, and intensive mining depleted the area by the 1930s.
In 1928, the town’s fate was sealed when the richest diamond fields ever known were found on the coast to the south. The villagers all left, abandoning their desert homes. By 1956, Kolmanskop was completely deserted. Now, the forsaken houses have faded to the color of the invading dunes, which creep inside the empty domiciles and cover the streets deep in sand.
The southern Benguela current provides world-class surf and long powerful barrels along this coast. Although incredibly cold, difficult to get to, and full of sharks, this does not deter the devoted surfers who brave the frigid waters to catch a good wave.
Most of the best surf locations are located south of Swakopmund, around Luderitz and Walvis Bay. Surfers who are looking for a more daring experience may go north to Skeleton Coast sites such as Cape Cross and Ovahimba Point. Other point breaks are known mainly by word of mouth.
Skeleton Coast Namibia is indeed a land of the brave and the fearless. Despite the severe climate and hostile conditions, it is also a place of life and preservation. While the Portuguese mariners called the coast “The Gates of Hell,” and the indigenous Khoisan bushmen describe it as “The Land God Made in Anger,” the area is known to locals as a Fisherman’s paradise.