The surreal beauty of the Skeleton Coast leaves Darrel Bristow-Bovey spellbound
Rolf the German pushed the hat back on his forehead and mopped his brow. This was not how he had expected to spend his birthday.
‘I decree that there will be no more problems!’ he boomed to the empty sands. ‘The Steppenwolf decrees it!’
Then he lowered his shoulder to the back of the vehicle and we started pushing again.
There was nothing wrong with the car, but when you’re on the Skeleton Coast, you can be scooting along on firm ground one minute and the next, sunk to your axles in sand like soft-sieved baking flour.
That night we sat around the fire and sipped fine German beer and toasted Wolf’s 65th birthday. For all his life he had been dreaming about being here, ever since he was in school and read an adventure story about shipwrecks and castaways. He’d been looking forward to this for half a century. Earlier, his wife had whispered to me that her biggest fear was that it would be a let-down for him. Now I was worried too.
The Skeleton Coast is the remote strip of almost unreachable northern Namibian coast, 500 km-long, stretching from the Ugab River, just north of Cape Cross, up to the Kunene River and the border with Angola. Other than some remote cattle-station outposts made by the nomadic Himba, no one lives there. It’s a coast of bones and bleached ships’ planks, of broken hopes and yet-to-be-discovered diamonds, of black sand, white and bright yellow sand, blood-red garnet sand, and many massive golden coastal dunes that walk and whisper.
That morning, I had been lying on my belly on a dune, marvelling at how far we were from the rest of the world. The beach stretched away into the far pearly distance in both directions, and there were no roads or cars or any signs that any human beings had ever even seen this place. There were no ships on the hard sea, only rows of white-ridged waves, kilometres long. On the beach in front of me was a bleating, honking colony of fur seals, thousands strong, and there, carefully padding along the shoreline with her head lowered and yellow eyes fixed on her prey, was a dark- shouldered lioness.
Behind the lion was a black-backed jackal, and after the kill, a pair of brown hyenas would come snuffling out from the dunes, sleek as porcupines, to forage on what remained or to steal any seal pups left behind.
It felt surreal to watch a lion hunt a seal on a beach, but the Skeleton Coast is one of the most surreal places on Earth. It is like nowhere else I’ve ever seen, like something very old and very new, like a location from a TV series set in outer space, or like the visions brought on by eating some psychotropic local fungus. There are combinations of colours and shapes, wind-hewn rock and purple-silver lichen fields, elephants sliding down sand dunes, giraffes wading up to their bellies in the electric-blue water of desert oases, that still come back to me when I close my eyes at night, making me wonder if I dreamt the whole thing.
My lodge was in an elbow-bend of the dry Khumib River, sheltered from the moaning, ghostly wind by two granite hills and a sheer rock wall. From the sky, coming in on a light aircraft, the camp was almost invisible in the landscape; up close it was all beautifully weathered wooden walkways and sturdy canvas and nautical rope.
My guide was a long-haired wild man named Chris, who had lost an arm in an incident with a crocodile. He could roll a cigarette and open a beer and start a fire and shoot a rifle one-handed, all at once if necessary, and in his spare time he composed poetry for his ex-girlfriend.
We explored the Khumib riverbed in a Land Rover in the mornings, and every thirty minutes we seemed to come upon new sights and more enchanted places. One minute we were on the edge of an endless plain of gravel made misty and floaty by grey-green lichen; the next we were in a towering honey-coloured canyon surrounded by stone formations like the carved gargoyles of a gothic cathedral – there were sharks and elephants and the twisted faces of the damned. ‘It’s like Dante’s Inferno!’ said Chris. ‘And the works of Edvard Munch!’
We scrambled up a hill and gasped at the land stretching empty into the mountains. There’s a sense of wideness and wildness that enters you and opens you up, something in the sheer, empty farness that thrills the soul. ‘We must always answer the call of the far horizon,’ said Chris to the fresh air.
We found cheetah spoor and had lunch beneath a solitary tree in a sea of yellow sand. We came upon an oasis of mopane trees and makalani palms, with oryx and springbok wandering peaceably between them, like an illustration from some exotic children’s Bible.
The next day, we crossed to the dry bed of the Hoarusib and followed it down to the sea. The Hoarusib sees water more often than the Khumib – sometimes as often as once a year – and it’s broad and lush. We followed lion tracks into a grove of trees and came upon a troop of desert elephants with their babies. Desert lions, giraffes and elephants are all smaller than their savannah cousins, and darker, almost as though scorched by the sun. They seemed like mirages.
We made a pilgrimage up the wide beach beside the cold Atlantic, with its blue deeps and olive-green breakers to the loneliest grave in the world. In 1942 a passenger ship called Dunedin Star was torpedoed off the shore and a rag-tag group of passengers were stranded, just like in Wolf’s story. A second ship, the Sir Charles Elliott, came to rescue them, but the rescuers themselves were soon in trouble and wrecked, and a deckhand named Mathias Korabseb drowned trying to save his fellow shipmates from the waves. His grave-marker stands on a beach strewn with sun-bleached wood and shells and seal skulls, and the great white ribs and jawbones of baleen whales.
There are tyre tracks in the lichen fields near the beach, made by lorries that came overland from Windhoek to rescue them, arriving weeks after they set out. The tracks look as fresh as though they were made this morning. It’s an eerie, magical place: there are Welwitschia plants more than
2 000 years old; there are legends of diamond prospectors coming across the wrecks of ancient Phoenician galleys in the dunes kilometres inshore, covered and uncovered for centuries by the sands. We drove between the Roaring Dunes, which give a visceral, groaning sound, like a fog-
horn or a dinosaur.
Around the campfire, we sang happy birthday to Wolf in English and German, and he waved at us happily to shush.
‘Well,’ I asked him. ‘Is the Skeleton Coast what you were expecting?’
Wolf sipped on his beer and looked up at a bright glittering sky and a silver moon. ‘It is so much more,’ he said, ‘than I could ever have imagined.’