Namibia’s National Parks: Where Do All the Skeletons Come From?

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Aerial shot of the coastal strip at the Skeleton Coast in Namibia, Paul van Schalkwyk.

Text and photographs Dirk Heinrich

Travel News Namibia explores the outliers. The off-the-grid, lesser known parks each of which are a unique slice of nature well-worth the often troublesome visit. In this second instalment of the series, Namibian journalist Dirk Heinrich explore the infamous and tumultuous desert coastline, its secrets and epic natural phenomena. Explore the hidden wonders of yet another ‘park on the fringe’, be regaled by epic stories of survival and enthralled by the wildlife and nature that not only survives but thrives in one of the least-explored, most enigmatic and mysterious corners of this majestic land, the Skeleton Coast.

Map of the Namibian National Parks

The sky is dark and eerie. A south-westerly gale is howling. Waves are pushing towards the coast, their crests several metres high above the boiling sea. The wooden ship dances to the tune of Mother Nature. Sails are torn and the men on board fear for their lives. A huge wave capsizes the ship and breaks it. Clinging to one of the wooden planks a sailor tries to reach the beach. Wehn he awakes, the sun is shining, the sea is calm and a painful silence surrounds him. Exhausted, the man gets up, thirsty. Ther is nothing but sand on one side and the Atlantic Ocean, which has spared him, on the other side. No sign of life around him, only a few bones. The sailor has survived the sea but the barren beach and desert do not offer anything for survival.

Tufted Ghost Crabs (Ocypode cursor) feed on a seal carcass. These crabs are scavengers and head for the water as soon as they sense danger. They live in burrows above the high-water mark.
A Black-backed Jackal has been feeding on a seal carcass while a kelp gull waits its turn in the background. These two species are the most common scavengers found on Namibia´s coastline.

This could have happened a few hundred years ago on Namibia’s notorious Skeleton Coast in the northwest of the country. Some human remains have been found, also a number of shipwrecks or parts thereof. Nobody will ever know how many ships have sunk off these hostile shores. How many ship-wrecked sailors made it to the beach and then perished is not known either.

Most of the bones found on that coastline are not of human origin but mainly from marine mammals. For hundreds of years the carcasses of these animals, some of them colossal, have washed up on the beaches. The death of one means life for others. Black-backed jackals and brown hyenas scour the beaches to scavenge on opportune food sources. Even lions have been seen enjoying a meal of whale meat in this barren part of Namibia. Gulls and crabs, too, survive on marine animals. The northern beaches of Skeleton Coast National Park are the only place where ghost crabs (Ocypode cursor and Ocypode africana) are found in Namibia. They move around the beach in large groups, feed on carcasses and scurry into the water at the first sign of danger.

The bones of whales, dolphins, seals – and in a few cases humans – have been deposited on the coast, the Skeleton Coast, for centuries. Sometimes, when travelling along the beach of Skeleton Coast National Park, which extends over a length of 500 kilometres from the Ugab River in the south to the Kunene River in the north, you will not spot a single carcass. At other times a number of dead whales and dolphins can be seen above the high-water mark. Orcas (also known as killer whales), pilot whales, humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins and Heaviside´s dolphins have been washed up in recent years. Even the skeleton of a crocodile was once found a few kilometres south of the Kunene River mouth. It is not known why many dolphins, whales, seals and other marine animals and forms of life die on this particular part of the African coast and find their last resting place there. The cold Benguela Current is full of secrets.

And there are other kinds of skeletons along this stretch of coastline, too, such as those of trees swept along by the rare floods of normally dry rivers like the Ugab, Hoanib and Hoarusib. The trees are carried out to sea and eventually washed ashore again many kilometres north of the respective river mouth. And then there are also the skeletons of civilisation, such as shipwrecks and the remains of heavy machinery, left in the desert after hopes to strike it rich by exploration – mainly for diamonds – turned out unsuccessful. Some skeletons, like the rusted, bent and twisted parts of aeroplanes, are the result of disasters.

Dead whales and dolphins are sometimes found above the high-water mark.
The skull of a seal between rocks and sand.
A ghost crab digs a tunnel next to the spine of a dolphin, with the remains of a cormorant on the other side
Lichens grow on the jaw of a rhino which must have died a few decades ago in this harsh environment, after moving down one of the river courses and then getting lost between the sea and the sand dunes.

A well-documented disaster happened in 1942 when the MV Dunedin Star ran aground off the Skeleton Coast north of Möwe Bay and the Hoarusib River. The biggest rescue operation to date was launched to save the 63 people who made it ashore and the 42 who remained aboard ship. All but two men were saved. The Skeleton Coast kept the remains of the two drowned men, the Dunedin Star, the tug Sir Charles Elliot, the wreck of a SAAF Lockheed Ventura aircraft and the shelter built by the survivors. It was the very first time that vehicles ventured into this part of the Namib Desert and their tracks remained visible for decades.

The dangers of the Namib Desert are manifold, sometimes even surreal. Although those shipwrecked who survived the strong current, the heavy surf and the thick mist and made it ashore at the mouth of the Kunene River, had the good luck of having fresh water and greenery around them, they found themselves in danger of being eaten by a crocodile on the edge of a desert. There are big and hungry crocs in the lagoon at the river mouth. 

But it is not all mystery, secrets, death, horror and skeletons in this part of Namibia. The scenery of Skeleton Coast National Park is unique. Like green life-giving arteries, dry rivers cross the desert on their way to the sea. Along their vegetated banks desert-adapted giraffe, elephant, gemsbok, springbok and baboon thrive. Some of them are followed by predators such as lion, leopard and cheetah. Fresh-water springs in the riverbeds, and a few in the gravel plains or between the sand dunes, enable the animals to roam the desert.

The Skeleton Coast with all its drama is a fascinating place, where secrets are kept and surprises guaranteed. 

In the background, the skeleton of a hide built a few decades ago to shelter a researcher who was counting waves in a bay.
An unusual skeleton was found only seven kilometres south of the Kunene mouth. The skull of the huge crocodile was partly visible, the rest was covered by sand
An unusual skeleton was found only seven kilometres south of the Kunene mouth. The skull of the huge crocodile was partly visible, the rest was covered by sand
One of the few fresh-water springs between the dunes of Skeleton Coast National Park. Without these waterholes many of the animals would not be able to survive in this harsh area. Animals in the area know where the life-sustaining springs are, shipwrecked sailors of yore didn´t.
One of the many shipwrecks on the Skeleton Coast. How many ships have sunk at that part of the coast will forever be a secret.
A skeleton of civilisation: a rusted heavy earthmoving machine, left in the desert next to the sea. Now it is a shelter for a pair of black-backed jackals.
This article was published in the Winter 2018 edition of Travel News Namibia.
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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