Text and photographs Ron Swilling
Between desert and sea, a piece of windswept coastline featuring Cape Cross has drawn people over the centuries – for various reasons. A place that is littered with whale bones and flotsam and jetsam from many a shipwreck has also proven to be rich in treasure. Once attracted to this bleak coastline to reap its bounty, people are now drawn to it to rest, view seal antics, discover the rich history, explore the desert surrounds and listen to the sea dancing on the golden shore, far from the noise of the city.
As I drove north from Swakopmund on the salt road that cuts across the desert plains like a vein of dusky dolerite, I thought of the first intrepid Portuguese explorers who braved the infinite expanse of ocean, treacherous coastline, storms and scurvy in their small wooden caravels. With only rudimentary equipment, they would have watched the stars and, perhaps, prayed to their god. In my mind’s eye I could see them in their small wooden vessels with white sails emblazoned with red crosses, looking ashore for signs of promise. They would be away from home for years, some never to return, as they searched for new trade routes and planted their crosses (padrões) in the name of their king. Diogo Cão erected a cross amidst the rocks at Cape Cross in 1486, calling the place Cabo do Padrão, before his fleet set sail for home without him. He mysteriously disappeared from the pages of history, believed to have died in the mountains to the south-east. His pioneering spirit and the name Cape Cross live on.
Driving past the small settlement of Wlotzkasbaken with its colourful houses equipped with water tanks, I wondered about life in these bleak desert surrounds. The journey to Cape Cross that now takes one and a half hours, took one and a half weeks a century ago. Without any fresh water it was an arduous journey for those who tested life’s resilience, seeing how far they could test providence. The road is flanked by gravel plains, a ribbon of blue sea towards the west and anging sites that are dotted down the shoreline, some marking the miles from Swakopmund, others with names harbouring colourful stories of their own.
Signboards announcing lichen fields became visible between puffs of mist that floated in from the ocean to gift the desert flora and fauna with life-giving moisture. Pulling onto the verge, I wandered between this symbiotic harmony of algae and fungi that delicately carpets the desert floor, paying my respect to the ingenuity of life, before continuing northwards past Henties Bay.
A rustic display of tables began to appear on the roadsides – proof of an honesty system in practice. Small tables were festooned with pale-pink clusters of salt crystals and an assortment of old containers for buyers to deposit their donations. Leaving the road to those travelling further to Torra and Terrace Bay, I followed the signs to Cape Cross to explore this intriguing strip of desert that caused such a huge commotion more than a century ago.
Diogo’s cross had stood sentry to crashing waves for nearly four hundred years, weathering the elements, battered by the wind and caressed by the Benguela mist as whalers pillaged the sea. In the late nineteenth century, the Damaraland Guano Company established an industry here for the rich bird droppings referred to as ‘white gold’, prized as fertiliser in Europe, and for seal pelts. Cape Cross boasted a police station, post office and the first stretch of railway (21 km of track) in the country, constructed to transport pelts and guano to awaiting ships. It can even lay claim to the first highway robbery when the postman was accosted between Henties Bay and Swakopmund. Who would have guessed?
A mixed cocktail of desert and sea
The history continued to be detailed on the walls of the small museum cum curio shop at Cape Cross Lodge, which has several whale bones propped at its entrance in honour of its mighty cetacean visitors. It fuses with the refreshing feel of the lodge that entices guests with a mixed cocktail of desert and sea – and a salty plump olive of a story for those wanting a bite. Noticing a ‘whale room’ next to the entrance, with interesting snippets of information (definitely a place to return to for a better look), I made my way to the reception desk. A list of facts and figures was neatly displayed on a blackboard with all the information needed for a coastal retreat: tides, water temperature, prime fishing times, sunset and sunrise. Now this was my kind of place!
I had a few moments to appreciate the peace of my room, painted in the colours of sand and sea, and, thankfully, free of clutter, before going to the neighbouring seal reserve, a visit that always leaves me with the strong smell of seals in my nostrils and tons of tender images of seal accord. Once again I filled up memory cards, finding the quiet and perfect pictures in the cacophony. It reinforced some personal belief of an inner stillness in the hustle and bustle of life.
This I felt again at the lodge as I watched a ruby sun sink slowly into the sea and allowed the clean colours and space to wash through me. The sun dipped and a flock of cormorants flew overhead. Cape Cross’s mysteries and secrets lay waiting to be discovered and the irresistible peace hovered unexpectedly along the beach, eager to be lapped up.
History marched onwards
By 1903, the Damaraland Guano Company had reached the end of its road. After approximately nine years of production, the area had been stripped of guano and the seals had either fled or proved difficult to cull. A year before the ten-year concession agreement expired, the customs office, post office and police station closed down. The era had come to an end.
The concession to collect sealskins was passed on. After WWI it was revoked by the South African Government and later returned to the concession holder, who persevered with seal culling. In 2001, the old buildings were demolished to make way for the Cape Cross Lodge, which stands today on the shores of the Atlantic and the tumbling surf.
All that remains of the entrepreneurship and industry at Cape Cross is a rusty strip of railway line and a few weather-beaten wooden crosses that fill the small graveyard at the entrance to the seal reserve.
Replicas of Diogo’s cross mark the momentous spot.
Bridgeford, P&M. Cape Cross: Past and Present, John Meinert Printers, 2002.
Cape Cross Museum
Cape Cross Seal Colony
The Cape Cross Seal Reserve was proclaimed in 1968 to protect the largest Cape fur seal colony on the Southern African coastline. Today it draws increasing numbers of visitors every year. The population of seals reaches its peak in the breeding season towards the end of the year, when up to 250 000 seals congregate on the rocky outcrop.
Cape Cross is approximately 120 km north of Swakopmund on the C34. It’s easily accessible from Swakopmund and makes a good overnight stop on the way up to Torra and Terrace Bay or when en route to the Palmwag area via the Ugab Gate. The C34 along the coast is an interesting alternate route to reach Uis, Brandberg and Twyfelfontein.