SS Crowder Castle1926
Ventura Bomber 1942
Dunedin Star 1942
Sir Charles Elliot 1942
… and many, many more.
Once upon a time in a land faraway an epic journey across wild stormy waters ended when a mighty vessel ran aground. The desolate shores beyond the rocky shallows that caused the ship’s untimely demise were a visage of hope for those aboard. Upon making it to the beach they were soon to discover, however, that the barren stretch of sand was not a precursor to a landscape where they might find salvation. No, here the sterile sands stretch to the horizon. An infinity of nothing. Forlorn and desolate, many met their fate here on this coastline. Its name, the Skeleton Coast, was a moniker well-earned, not an overdramatised description of a fabled place.
The wind whispers of tragedies and epic battles fought on the shores of this stark wasteland. Some battles were won, others dismally lost. The wind whispers of man’s epic battle with the untameable elements of nature. A primordial crusade.
And yet there is beauty here. Beauty in the nothingness. Beauty in the untouched, the undisturbed, the raw reflection of what belongs and can survive in a landscape as unkind as they come.
Namibia’s coastline stretches for more than 1500 km from the Orange River in the south to the Kunene in the north. Along these tumultuous shores are strewn what is estimated to be over 1000 wrecks of ships and crafts that never reached their end destination. The northern section of the country’s coastline and the desert landscapes inland make up Skeleton Coast National Park. From the Ugab River northward to the Kunene River, and some 70 km inland in certain places, this conservation area protects some of the most pristine and untouched desert and arid landscapes in the world. The wilderness within is home to desert-adapted species of wildlife and ancient flora specimens. Dramatic vistas are mostly untouched by the destructive human hand. One of the park’s most captivating features, however, is surely the wreckage of crafts to be found on its beaches. Stories of these ill-fated vessels have become a part of the area’s infamy. They stand sentinel along these lonely shores, warning others of the dangers of the treacherous, but beguiling Skeleton Coast.
An area that has for many years seemed nearly inaccessible is now host to a new sanctuary from which to explore its notoriety. Some 45 km north of Möwe Bay, nestled among the dunes of the Namib and overlooking the Atlantic shoreline, is Shipwreck Lodge. As remote and off-the-beaten-path as a lodge can get, I decided to venture into the desert to seek out new adventures among the skeletons and wrecks of this hinterland.
Departing early on a Sunday morning from Namibia’s interior, I drove westward towards the coast. Knowing that the journey would be long and quite arduous I told myself that I would drive until I got bored or tired (whichever came first) and then stop to sleep over somewhere. Surely the monotony of driving alone for nine hours would get to me? That is not at all what happened.
What in my mind started as the prospect of a long tiresome drive ahead (to be thought of with trepidation), turned into a scenic adventure across some of Namibia’s most iconic landscapes. Traversing not only political boundaries as I passed from one region to the next, but also geographical boundaries as the biodiversity of the landscapes changed along my route. I discovered the wondrous rhythm with which the biomes and natural environments of Namibia seamlessly blend from one to the next. It is not a stop-start divide in nature, where a clear break separates one habitat from the other. Like a watercolour painting, the scenery outside my window morphed as I drove along. From the thick bushland of the Khomas and Otjozondjupa regions in central Namibia, the acacia woodlands gave way to more sparse vegetation dominated by mopane trees as I entered Damaraland. These eventually gave way to rock-strewn plains dotted with milk bush and Welwitschia. I could have made interesting pit stops at Twyfelfontein or the Brandberg, or explored the rugged landscape and dry ephemeral rivers of the region, but I drove on. Soon, as I neared the Springbokwasser Gate to Skeleton Coast National Park, the vegetation seemed to vanish completely.
Once inside the park, the view through my window was dominated by the grey, barren and sandy landscape of the northern stretch of the Namib Desert. Wind-blown sand covered the road in front of me, the ocean was not too far off on my left and the drive along the coastal desert road was an adventure in its own right. After passing through the small fishing resorts of Torra Bay and Terrace Bay, and finally reaching my pick-up destination at Möwe Bay, I wanted to pat myself on the back for deciding to drive here even though flying would have been easier and faster. The journey was a fascinating and awe-inspiring prelude to the destination.
The journey to this desolate retreat is most certainly part of the epic adventure that your visit to Shipwreck Lodge is. Whether by land or air (no longer by sea!), the vast and contrasting dramatic landscapes of the park will enrapture you. Self-drives from Windhoek can take up to 9 hours, so, though very beautiful, it might be more practical to fly to Möwe Bay with a charter or scenic flight company, especially if you are strapped for time. From the pick-up point at Möwe Bay, the journey of one-and-a-half hours over dunes and along the shoreline will further entrench the notion that you are heading into a far-away, remote and secluded retreat.
The view stretches across desert landscapes to the east. Windswept plains, towering sand dunes and a wide-open sky. The solitude of such a space seduces the soul and stirs a sense of wonder in the beholder. I have been privileged to absorb similar views on previous adventures into north-western Namibia. I have stared into this abyss and yet it surprises me every time. It surprises me how something so dauntingly empty and desolate can be so bewitching. A landscape painted and formed in the extremes of heat and cold. And still today these are the juxtaposed weather features. Cold at dawn and dusk. Mist during the early morning. Hot and bright days in between. The wind very often plays a major role in the day’s temperament.
With a temporary marker on the window on the passenger-side of our safari vehicle, my guide, Chris, diligently and quite thoroughly explains the process through which the grains of sand that make up the dune on which we now stand have made their way to the Skeleton Coast. With the help of winds, a cold Benguela Current, a long meandering Orange River, all the way from their origins in South Africa’s Drakensberg Mountains. An epic journey for such a small particle of silica to have undertaken. We are on a day-long expedition up the Hoarusib River which lies just north of the lodge. Once we’ve taken an adventurous descent down the face of the dune, the sand ‘roaring’ beneath us, we journey eastwards. The ephemeral river only flows about once a year when inland rains suffice. But there is life here in this desert oasis, whether the river is in flow or not. Springbok and gemsbok feed along the riverbanks on grass and reeds, and to our delight and astonishment a small bachelor herd of three male elephants is roaming the area today. These desert-adapted Loxodonta
africana cover large distances walking through the region, often for hundreds of kilometres, in search of water and food. We spend some time marvelling at the gentle giants and enjoying the sight of the youngest brother who is only a year or two old. After his mother died the youngster was adopted by his two older brothers, which is most unusual, Chris tells me.
A visit to the Lichen Forest on the northern bank of the river is both humorous and interesting. The term ‘forest’ being used rather ironically as the field of lichen is barely visible to the eye. On closer inspection, though, you become aware of the beautiful textures and green and orange hues of these captivating plants that exist as a symbiotic relationship between fungus and algae. More than 120 lichen species can be found in the Namib Desert, surviving on the coastal fog.
Further upstream we take a lunch break in a most peculiar locale. In the shaded haven of a small canyon Chris sets up an enticing lunch spread as I explore what is referred to as the ‘Clay Castles’. The canyon-like walls of sand (much softer than a canyon with walls of rock) were formed over the ages by wind and water and make for a dramatic visual treat. Since the early morning chill has given way to a beautiful day I decide to indulge in getting onto one of the rooftop seats of our vehicle. I don’t drive back through the Hoarusib, I float. Perched on the roof of the Land Cruiser, I sit like a queen on a parade float, surveying the landscape we traverse from my elevated position. This vantage point is exceptional. The view is even better.
“We might be lucky enough to find something we did not even know we had lost among all this “nothing”. Emptiness often gives us the opportunity to see more clearly.”
For interesting tales of the misadventures and legends of the Skeleton Coast we recommend you read John Marsh’s Skeleton
Coast: The dramatic rescue operation of the Dunedin Star and Amy Schoeman’s classic Skeleton Coast.
Sundowners are enjoyed on the beach after an exploration of the wrecks in the area. Chris tells the stories of these ill-fated vessels as if telling a childhood bedtime tale, albeit one without the expected happy ending. In the distance a lonely fisherman casts his line into the rough waters. “Catching our dinner for tonight?” I jokingly ask Chris. Angling from the shoreline is one of the activities offered by the lodge.
The sun sets, the mist once again rolls in and the desert night is covered in a blanket of mystery. Will tomorrow bring another day of mystique or will the scorching sun cut through the shroud of fog and reveal the bright hues of this beautiful but barren landscape? No one knows, and the unknown is what adds the thrill of adventure to this faraway retreat. A retreat from the real world. Far-flung and utterly remote. An escape. An escape from wireless signals and connectivity and the constant, often over-powering overload of stimulation that makes up our daily lives. An escape from beeping devices, rushing bodies, flickering screens, snapping synapses. An escape from an over-whelming world. Back to basics, where all you have to do is look, feel, absorb. Where all you have to do is breathe…When strung together like this my words make the world seem like a dystopian society right off the pages of some futuristic thriller. What does that make the Skeleton Coast then? A haven? A bunker? Utopia perhaps?
To book your stay in the elegantly designed Shipwreck Lodge, visit www.shipwrecklodge.com.na. We recommend spending at least three nights at the lodge to truly enjoy all the activities on offer. It is also a superb location to just… be. Relax in your cabin (probably one of the most comfortable beds I have ever slept in) or spend your days reading on your private deck or day-bed.
This article was first published in the Summer 2018/19 issue of Travel News Namibia.