Travels May 2007

The Skeleton Coast

A safari by air over Namibia’s haunting sands
From Atlantic Unbound:



Slideshow: "Above Namibia"

Atlantic senior editor Clive Crook narrates photos from his journey to the beautiful and desolate Skeleton Coast.

Also see:

Southern Africa: The Travel Advisory
A guide to hotels and safari services.

Can you imagine a more pitiable fate? Your ship reels broken in the storm. Implacable winds and currents run you aground, but by a miracle, you do not drown. You overcome and drag yourself exhausted onto the sand—and then realize that drowning is not the worst way to go. You cheated death, only to find yourself cast upon one of the harshest places on Earth. You can choose to stay where you are and die of exposure or thirst. Or else you can trek hopelessly into the endless desert, to perish there instead.

All along the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, in southwestern Africa, you see the hulks of dead ships, ancient and modern. You cannot help but reflect on the fate of the shipwrecked sailors. In many cases, what remains of their vessels now stands far back from the sea, partly covered in sand. Sometimes these relics are almost entirely buried; all you can see is a mast. Countless more, you think, have vanished altogether. What must have befallen their crews, in the days before radio and airborne rescue, requires little imagination. Sand, salt pan, and arid mountain stretch inland for a hundred miles. Away from the sea, there is little or no water—no sustenance, it seems, of any kind. When you see an animal—which you do, now and then—you are astonished that it can eke its existence from this nothingness. No human unused to such a place ever could.

Conditions for visitors, it must be said, have improved lately. (And I am not speaking of the hulk that, during an early-20th-century spell of diamond prospecting, became what was presumably the remotest brothel in the world.) The Skeleton Coast is a bit more accessible than it used to be, and it is beginning to be recognized as a vacation spot, though other parts of the Namib Desert, to the south, still get more visitors.

illustration


Photographs by Clive Crook

It was chiefly the southern Namib, in fact, that my wife and I had traveled to see. Landscape photography is an avocation of ours, and we had wanted to bear our tripods in homage to the famous, fabulously photogenic dunes of Sossusvlei. You are sure to have seen the pictures, perhaps without realizing where they were taken. The sand there is a vivid ocher, and it rises vertiginously 1,000 feet and higher. Strong southwesterly winds sculpt it into immense longitudinal dunes, with smooth, undulating surfaces and edges like blades. Compositionally speaking, the setting is perfect: Dry watercourses give flat approaches, with trees positioned just so, to provide scale. At sunrise or sunset the dunes cast shadows that are deep and long, and the color blazes.

Sossusvlei did not disappoint—which, given our expectations, is saying a lot—but much to our surprise, it was not the highlight of the trip. After we saw the red dunes, we flew north, via Swakopmund, on the first leg of a four-day “flying safari” over the Skeleton Coast Park. The southern section of the park, roughly between the Ugab and Hoanib rivers, is open to the public, with a couple of access points by road; and fishermen from South Africa visit the coast south of the park. But the northern section, between the Hoanib and Kunene rivers (the Kunene forms part of Namibia’s border with Angola), is accessible only by light aircraft, operated under concession. Our pilot-guides flew us and our companions over the length of the park in two six-seater planes. We hopped up the coast, driving each day by Land Rover from improvised landing strips to explore the dunes and mountains. We slept each night in a different campsite.

From the air, flying low, you are surrounded by breathtaking scenes. The beauty is unrelenting, and almost too much; you experience a kind of aesthetic overload. In the evenings, we were dazed. You don’t see much wildlife, though you are low enough to get a good look at what is there: seals and flamingos along the coast, and further inland the occasional oryx (a large antelope that seems able to subsist on nothing). We spotted just two desert elephants from our dune-skimming Cessna. Apparently, these rare creatures like to surf the sands; I have seen them do so on video, but cannot vouch for it firsthand.

photo

The sands of the Skeleton Coast desert are paler than those in the southern Namib. The dunes are not as high, and the sculpting of the wind is less regular. The patterns are more chaotic and harder to photograph—yet, to my mind, even more beautiful. The expanse is awe-inspiring. We drove to high points in the dunes and, despite the modest elevation, gazed out for what must have been 20 miles. To the horizon in every direction, there was nothing but pristine, curving planes of sand—precise edges that might have been cut with a scalpel, and surfaces minutely poised at the limit of what the laws of mechanics allow, before they flow, fall, and cascade.

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