The Skeleton Coast, Namibia
We began our drive at midday, careful to remain on the road so as not to disturb the lichen covered earth. Vehicle tracks will leave marks that last for decades and the delicate vegetation can remain damaged for hundreds of years, testament to the highly sensitive nature of this environment. Extreme care is taken by the camp and its guides to tread as lightly as possible; roads have been rehabilitated, there are only 11 guest rooms in the Wilderness Area’s two camps, all waste is removed and precious water is used sparingly. Even laundry is washed outside of the concession. From our narrow stretch of road, we were able to marvel at the undisturbed gravel plains, glittered with the magnificent green and rose hues of lichen clinging to particles of sand and rock. An awareness of the fragility of this canvas gave us pause; we were fast running out of superlatives to describe our surroundings.
Our guide Gert soon spotted tracks in the sand; a cheetah had a chased a springbok here in an unsuccessful pursuit. In awe of the stories the earth’s imprints could reveal, we left the vehicle to search for an end to this tale. We were standing in the aptly named Southern Moon landscape, examining the spot where the cheetah, three cubs in tow, had spent the previous night. I felt incredibly lucky to be so close to even the remnants of such creatures- predators accustomed to life in a place far beyond inhospitable. Indeed, the Skeleton Coast is named for the unforgiving wrath of its landscape. Those unfortunate enough to be shipwrecked here found no relief on these shores. What hope was there for souls trapped between the rough waters of the Atlantic and the bone dry sands of the Namib Desert? Accounts of lost crewmen searching in vain for water sent a chill down my spine and left me with the sense that I was in a place that should have been beyond my reach. It was in this moment of overwhelming solitude that I looked up to see that we were being watched. My eyes met the gaze of a brown hyena, the lone desert wanderer. Marvelously adapted to survive without meat or water when necessary, it appeared like a wolf on the horizon.
Saddened to see our new companion disappear over the crest of the dunes, we set off in its footsteps. Here the wind would erase our tracks with ease, and we rose and fell with the shifting sand. Alone atop a barren sea of dunes, we left the vehicle to feel the ground between our toes. We sat together at the precipice of a crater of sorts and in unison pushed ourselves to the bottom. By now I was familiar with the joys of sliding down sand dunes, but I was not expecting the enormous bellow that emanated around us. These were roaring dunes that called out when disturbed, as if they were massive boulders being pulled apart. It is meaningless to attempt to convey the emotion of this moment, suddenly aware of the life that was present in every particle of sand, the echo of ancient earth ringing in my ears.
Leaving the dunes in peace, we continued until we reached the shore. The sight of the ocean often evokes powerful sentiment, but on this afternoon, having been touched by the enormity of the desert’s power, I felt the impact of the waves as never before. Just as the sun’s rays began to fade, we stopped at the coast’s Rocky Point to share our drinks in the company of two cape fur seals, one of whom swiftly retreated to the water to fish, its busy fins visible above the misty surf. Perhaps inspired by its playful abandon, I climbed down to stand in the waters edge. How was it possible that in the space of a few hours I had faced the elusive brown hyena, heard the dunes roar and been dazzled by the glistening of rose coloured lichen, only to watch the sunset with the sea beneath my feet? Night was coming quickly, and there was little light left when we reached the grave of Mathias Koraseb, a man who died in 1942 attempting to rescue passengers on the shipwrecked Dunedin Star. Here was another reminder that we were privileged to be reveling in the splendor of this coast instead of battling its elements for survival.
A few hours later I went to sleep certain that we had only cracked the surface of this place, and sure enough, for the next three days we remained ensconced by its magic.Words, like the pictures I took, do little to capture the essence of our journey. We saw desert elephants dust bathing, oryx and springbok climbing against towering dune peaks, seals frolicking at our feet in Cape Frio, curious jackals running alongside us on narrow stretches of sparkling plains. I stood in the shelter of mountain faces, walked in fertile springs, slid down angry dunes and met Himba tribesmen who eke out a life in a place that has claimed many unfortunate visitors. More than a safari, these days were an ephemeral glimpse of some forbidden realm, akin, perhaps, to nature’s great masterpiece. Stronger than my desire to return to the Skeleton Coast is a sincere hope that it continues to be protected, its pristine beauty and ruthless extremes preserved. To know that such a place exists provides a certain comfort in the earth’s continued survival; to visit it is a gift of magnificent proportions.