Great Escapes

03.05.14

Namibia’s Spooky Skeleton Coast

For centuries, a stretch of Africa's shore has lived up to its sinister name. From whales to ships to unlucky explorers, the Skeleton Coast has become the graveyard of many.

A barren stretch of shore in Namibia maintains a reputation as one of the harshest places on earth…and it has an ominous name to match. The Skeleton Coast owes its appellation to the whalebones that peppered the shoreline when the whaling industry was booming, as well as, more ominously, to the hulking carcasses of sea-wrecked ships buried in the sand and disintegrating in the water—more than 1,000 have met their end on the deadly coast.

But Skeleton Coast isn’t even the region’s most foreboding title. First encountered by daring Portuguese explorers in the 15th century, the region was dubbed “The Gates of Hell” because of its harsh conditions. Locally, Namibia’s Bushmen tribes know it as “the land God made in anger.”

And it’s not hard to see where these nicknames come from. The 310 miles of the Namib Desert’s shore comprise a national park that is divided into a northern and southern section by rivers. Between the northern border of Angola and one of the park’s intersecting rivers, the most extreme and delicate portion of the coastline is known as the Skeleton Coast Wilderness. Puddle-jumping Cessnas are the only way in, and Land Rovers are the only way to get around. A mere 800 travelers are allowed to visit the northern area of the park each year through safari tours, and prices are steep.

Even entering the Skeleton Coast is a foreboding task. Visitors arrive to the park at the Ugab River and are welcomed by gates bearing two skull and crossbones. Once inside, death is omnipresent: the desert’s yellow sand and sloping dunes are littered with animal graveyards and are only overshadowed by the skeletal ship remains that rise out of the bleak landscape.

For centuries, offshore rocks, strong surf, and dense fog have cursed boats landing and launching in the Atlantic. The first documented victim of the Skeleton Coast was Portuguese navigator Diego Cão, who died sailing from the coast in 1486 after erecting a massive stone cross that would attract later ships, many of which met similarly disastrous fates.

Famously, the Dunedin Star, a British liner, crashed on these shores in 1942. When two rescue boats went to its aid, they sank as well, killing two crewmen, and stretching the rescue attempt into a 26-day affair. Another ship, the Eduard Bohlen, currently rests half-buried inland after crashing in 1909. And an unnamed vessel that hit the brutal coastline in 1860 has a particularly dark story. In the 1940s, a dozen skeletons were found along with a slate reading, “I am proceeding to a river 60 miles north, and should anyone find this and follow me, God will help him.” Tales like this, of sailors wandering the desert for miles searching for food and water, abound amid the brutality of the region.

“Under the harsh sun and roaring sand of the wild Namib Desert, even the most intrepid find it impossible to stay put.”

Skeleton Coast is also sprinkled with living oddities. There is a remote police station where officers man a museum of wreckage, including curiosities ranging from human skulls to brass cannons and life vests from whaling ships. One lively stretch hosts a smelly community of some 250,000 Cape fur seals.

The brutal terrain also hosts a surprising array of animals. Elephants trekking through the sands have adapted to the desert, and have even been said to enjoy sliding down the dunes, while giraffes, lions, zebras, black rhinos, and hyena can be found in various areas, vying to survive.

The northern, inaccessible area of Skeleton Coast is home to a tribe of the country’s last nomadic herders who live in mud huts and subside solely on meat. Their skin has an earthy sheen from the ocher and butter mix they use to protect themselves from the sun’s harsh rays. The Himba people are thought to have originally come from East Africa, but have been traveling the Skeleton Coast for centuries.

The coastal dunes are also one of the only places in the world where visitors can experience the phenomena of “roaring dunes,” where a perfect storm of sand grains and air creates a rumble as loud as a low-flying plane.

But the barren wilderness isn’t the only thing that’s ripe for exploration along this coastline. Just south of Skeleton Coast Park, remnants of German colonizers remind explorers of a time when the Namib Desert was prime hunting ground for fortune-seeking diamond miners. Kolmanskop was a thriving mine town after the first diamond was found in the region in 1908. The last residents moved out in 1956, and, now, the once-luxurious infrastructure (replete with a theater hall and a hospital with Africa’s first X-ray machine) has been overtaken by the elements. Sand has pushed through the stately houses in great waves, pouring through the doorways and filling the rooms.

Under the harsh sun and roaring sand of the wild Namib Desert, even the most intrepid find it impossible to stay put.