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.
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.
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.
There is a wonderfully poetic technical term for that limit: the angle of repose. Wind blows sand up a dune and drops it, at the crest, onto the leeward side, until the angle of the leeward surface to the horizontal exceeds the angle of repose; when that critical slope is reached, the sand drops away on the leeward side, leaving a perfectly defined edge, until the angle of repose is restored.
When you disturb the sand on one of those edges, it moves like a viscous liquid, pouring over the surface beneath. From an edge, say, a hundred feet up, this film of excess sand may take minutes to move slowly but unstoppably all the way down. It is mesmerizing. All the while, of course, the dunes themselves are traveling down the wind, in endless pursuit of the angle of repose—six to 10 feet a year, it is reckoned, on average. Though it all depends: There is so much more to sand than you might think. The properties of a dune—including its angle of repose—turn on many different factors: wind, depth of material, size of the grains, shape of the grains, sorting of the grains (one size or many), dryness or dampness of the grains, and so forth.
When conditions are just right, something peculiar can happen: Sand can sing. Perhaps you are thinking I was in the dunes too long. (The grains! The grains!) No doubt some said the same of Marco Polo, after he wrote in The Travels about the singing sands of the Gobi Desert. Nothing but sand, he said, and yet he heard “the sounds of all kinds of musical instruments, and also of drums and the clash of arms.” He put it down to desert spirits. The people who know the Skeleton Coast talk of roaring dunes, not singing sands, but I think they are referring to the same thing.
When the sand has exactly the right characteristics, and when the correctly constituted surface forms part of a bowl with the right acoustic properties, a small flow of disturbed sand can cause a sound that builds almost immediately to a noise like rolling thunder. The phenomenon has been recognized by physicists, but the precise causes are not entirely clear. Indeed, the leading researchers seem to have fallen out over it. An editor of Physics World reports that two of the foremost authorities on the matter, once friends, now “tend to avoid one another.”
That must be awkward, because dunes roar in only a few places. Our guides in the Skeleton Coast knew of one. They told us to sit with our companions on the edge at the top of the dune in question, and then, on their signal, to begin scooting down, “moving as much sand as you can.” The moment we did so—rolling our eyes and thinking, Do we really have to do this?—a deep mechanical thrumming started in the dune. The whole thing was vibrating. It felt like a small earthquake. At the same time a great noise began. I took it for a low-flying aircraft directly over my head. It was far too loud to hear each other speak. We all looked anxiously around the sky; I literally ducked. We had moved, so it seemed, just a few shovelfuls of sand. It was the strangest thing I have ever encountered. Take it from me, Marco Polo was right. Drums and the clash of arms.