MARINERS call it “Skeleton Coast” and dread it. Treasure seekers know it as “The Coast of Diamonds and Death”. Maps mark it merely as the Kaokoveld, which, freely translated, is Herero for “Coast of Loneliness”.
Although the entire coastline of Namibia was formerly called The Skeleton Coast, more commonly today it refers only to the Skeleton Coast National Park. The park stretches from the Kunene River in the north for approximately 500km to the Ugab River in the south, and protects about one-third of Namibia’s coastline.
The Kunene River rises in the remote Angolan highlands and is one of Namibia’s few perennial rivers and forms one of the country’s two permanent estuaries. The crocodile population is still as large and aggressive as ever, even though the wildlife population has declined over the centuries. The strong flow of the Kunene resists tidal excursion and the fresh water pushes several kilometres out to sea, and beware, the crocodiles follow!
The landscape includes sand dunes, canyons and mountain ranges all of which are synonymous with Namibia. The climatic conditions are not necessarily what you would expect in a desert country like Namibia – dense fog and cold sea breezes – and this is caused by the cold Benguela Current which flows offshore, meeting with the extreme heat of the Namib Desert.
The Skeleton Coast is is normally associated with famous shipwrecks, and stories abound of sailors walking for hundreds of kilometres through this barren Namibian landscape in search of food and water. The name came from the bones that lined the beaches from whaling operations and seal hunts, but more than a few of the skeletons were human. The Bushmen called it The Land God Made in Anger and the Portuguese knew it as The Gates of Hell. Ever since European navigators first discovered it, ships have wrecked on it’s off-shore rocks, or run aground in the blinding fog. While small boats could land, the strong surf made it impossible to launch, hence the stories of sailors walking through the murderous terrain.
The coast has scores of shipwrecks, some are barely recognizable, other are still in remarkably good condition. Perhaps these tragedies were meant to happen, as the wrecks provide excellent environments for Cape fur seals, living side by side with seabird colonies, offering unequaled maritime photographic opportunities.
Some wrecks of note are the Dunedin Star (a crouching skeleton was found buried nearby) Islander, Suiderkus, Sir Charles Elliot and Kaio Maru. The Seal and Luanda can be seen near Toscanini and the Atlantic Pride lies near Torra Bay. For the best views of these shipwrecks, you would need to visit the Skeleton Coast Park either on a fly-in safari or alternatively on a scenic flight.
Despite its arid and deadly appearance, the Skeleton Coast has a greater variety of species than many other parks in Southern Africa. Large mammals include Namibia’s famous desert-adapted elephant, black rhino, lion, cheetah, giraffe, gemsbok, zebra, springbok and spotted and brown hyena, are found in the dry river beds which flow from the interior of Namibia, through the Namib Desert to the Skeleton Coast.
It is not just the larger mammals that can thrive in a desert environment and reptiles provide many curiosities in the park. Watch out for the near endemic Gerrhosaurus skoogi, an armour-plated lizard that prowls the sand-dune sea in search of vegetation detritus and !Nara melon bushes. This large, striking reptile can measure up to 30 centimetres long and can weigh up to 120gms.
The mouth of the Kunene River marks the southernmost breeding territory of the 1m long green turtle. and the same river is also home to the only Southern African population of Nile soft-shelled turtles, which have large, long necks. Caution is advised in their company, as they can be aggressive.
As many as 247 species of birds have been recorded in the Skeleton Coast Park, including the near endemic Damara Tern, which nests and breeds on the gravel plains adjacent to the coast.
The fishing along the Skeleton Coast is spectacular, and during the December vacations the campsite at Torra Bay are packed with fisherman. Cetaceans off-shore include endemic Benguela dolphins, killer whales and humpback whales. Occasionally beach-combing lions scour the area in search of marine carrion, and it has been recorded that in one instance a pride of lions were seen feeding on a beached whale at Torra Bay. There are only 2 places to stay in the park boundaries, the campsite at Torra Bay and for those seeking more comfort, Terrace Bay which has bungalows. Both of these places requires prior booking and are very popular during the summer holidays.
Interest is not just confined to the living. Geological features of note include gemstone beaches, salt/brine pans and dunes. The gemstone beaches are polished and smoothed by wave action and particularly around Möwe Bay, gleam with a multi-coloured carpet of semi-precious stones, including red and maroon garnets, agate, quartzes, amethysts, magnetite (a form of gleaming black iron ore that is magnetic,) ilmenite (which contains titanium) and carnelians. They are sometimes to be found scattered amongst the remains of shattered remains of whale skeletons and shipwrecks up to 500 years old. Taking anything out of the park is prohibited.
The most easily visited salt/brine pans are those just south of the park at Cape Cross where subterranean rock salt can reach depths of 25m. The salt pans form large, attractive and complex crystal blocks. Other pans occur further north, notably at Cape Frio, where they extend to roughly 90km in length. At Angra Fria some brine pans are over 100m deep.
Although there are no large dunes in the southern portion of the park, the massive dunes begin in earnest just north of Torra Bay. They are paler than their counterparts in the Namib-Naukluft Park, but are nonetheless extremely dramatic, particularly the crescent-shaped barchan dunes. Dunes constantly reinvent themselves (even more then Madonna!) as wind and sand-slides alter their shape and location. Where the wind remains constant, the barchans are slowly shunted along in almost military fashion.