Sunday, June 19, 2011

Skeleton Coast

Skeleton Coast
When asking people about the Skeleton Coast, including people at tourism information and promotion centers, they usually say that it’s windy, desolate, boring and we shouldn’t bother going north of the Cape Cross seal colony. It’s known as the Skeleton Coast because at one point it was littered with skeletons of shipwrecks, sailors, and whales but most of those are gone now, so why go? After hearing this three or four times, I was a bit dismayed. I’ve been dreaming about going there since the first time I saw it mentioned in a guide book ten years ago. And, Jeanette already bought a patch saying we went there. We wouldn’t want our patch collection to be inaccurate, so we decided to ignore the dour comments and head north from Swapokmund. Our first stop was the fur seal colony.

Seals reek. You can smell the Cape Cross Seal Colony well before you can see it. Despite that, and if you are already immune to the smell of my Tevas, it’s amazing. Thousands of female seals and their pups spend almost all day just lounging on the beach. If a pup wants to nurse, the mother just rolls over slightly, puts a fin into the air, and goes back to sleep while her kid drinks. When returning from feeding in the ocean, seals will haul themselves on land then just waddle over whoever is in their way. I don’t blame them for being tired. Female seals spend most of their adult lives pregnant. Right after giving birth, the mating cycle begins again. The fertilized egg is inert for about four months then gestation begins all while she is nursing her current pup. That is, if her pup survives. Many of them are crushed by the massive bulls that come on land for mating season. Others get separated from their mothers and never find them again. Their remains are still decaying around the colony and ever so often you see a tiny skull or other bones. The reserve protects one of the largest concentrations of Cape fur seals in Africa. Though we could have watched them for hours—they really are cute—the smell drove us away after about 90 minutes. Then we headed north, to the part of the coast that apparently no one bothers with.

We planned on camping at the very desolate, lonely, windy campsite called Mile 108, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to pay $30 for an uncomfortable site with no water where we’d have to camp in the bathroom again. The employee said we could try our luck at a camping site a bit up the road, though he knew nothing about it. He was missing out on something wonderful – St. Nowhere Spa and Campsite. A winding, single-track road led away from the main road through salt pans and empty desert to a random collection of buildings and another camp site. When checking in, the girl invited us to try out the detox baths – pools of water cut into the massive deposits of pink salt that lined the coast. Apparently it’s good for skin problems and helps heal everything from cancer to cuts and bruises. The “spa” harvests the salts and sells them as beauty treatments. 

One detail I left out about the Luderitz boat trip was the massive bruise that covers my shin. When trying to get from the rubber duck (inflatable motor boat) back onto the ship, instead of waiting for someone to help me up, I hurled myself on deck with less grace than a seal on land. In the process I whacked my leg on some piece of metal and now it’s an unattractive shade of green and purple. So, despite the cold and the wind, I decided that I clearly needed to try out the skin-healing detox bath. Jeanette hid from the frigid winds in the car as I slowly dipped myself into the extremely salty water. My body parts floated easily in the tepid pool, though I tried to keep my feet on the crunchy salt bottom. As much as I love salt, I had no desire to get the pink, briny water in my mouth. I lasted for at least 15 minutes without getting hypothermic. I’m not sure that it actually helped my bruise, but my skin has never been softer. By that evening the wind even died down, and we no longer worried about our tent blowing away.
Detox salt bath at St. Nowhere Spa

The next day, it was off to the Skeleton Coast. Even before we reached the skull and cross bones that adorned the entrance gates, we could tell that everyone was wrong about the national park. Yes, the landscape is in fact desolate desert, and the scores of shipwrecks of old are no longer visible. But the naysayers never comment on the red plains of sand dotted with bits of red rock or the random plant-covered hummocks that make the landscape seem like it has a weird case of acne. Black mounds arise like dioramas of massive mountain ranges. Halfway through the park sand dunes begin to line the coast. It’s beautiful.
Entrance Gate to Skeleton Coast...Seriously.

Springbok playing in the desert

 In many ways, the Skeleton Coast is like the Aleutians. The beach is littered with marine debris including everything from drift wood to fishing nets to random bits of junk. It doesn’t look horrible or messy, but it gives you something to look for if you are interested. You can even find skeletons of small mammals, though the whale bones from the whale hunting days are mostly gone. Inland a bit are rusting remains of old mines. Just as the Aleutians are littered with World War II buildings and trash that can’t be moved because now it’s considered historic, the mining parts will remain forever for the same reasons. Even the ancient people of the Skeleton Coast bear some resemblance to the Aleuts. They hunted seals and ate fish and moved around as the seasons required. Both places have a remote, dramatic beauty, though it may be easier to notice in the Alaskan Islands than on the Namibian Coast. 
South West Seal shipwreck with jackal skeleton

We only spent a day driving through the park since they no longer offer a hiking trip, the camp ground is only open in December and January when people like to fish, and the lodge is bloody expensive. We continued inland on the impossibly rutted and rocky C39 to a World Heritage Site. Our 2WD was not loving us.
Along the way we were flagged down by a group of people in a donkey cart. On the way back from their grandmother’s funeral they popped a tire. Their pump wasn’t working and they needed a ride to the next farm to get a new one. We decided to give one of the guys a lift to get the pump and back. The three kilometer drive took almost 20 minutes on the hideous road, but our new passenger was pleasant and told us about his farm and the region. At the next group of houses we picked up his inebriated brother and the working pump. The ride back to the cart included a brief history lesson of the region and some warnings. It boiled down to don’t trust the Boers because they’ll steal your land, don’t trust the people up north because they’ll steal all of your belongings, and the Damara people are great. It was confusing and muddled but interesting nevertheless. Neither of us minded helping the people and it was finally nice to interact with more Namibians. The only thing that soured the interaction was the brother’s final actions. 

After they both thanked us, the drunken brother got back into the car by himself to beg for money. It made us both uncomfortable because it changed the mood of the interaction. At first it was just people helping other people out. It didn’t matter that we were white tourists and they were black farmers. As soon as he begged for money, it was as if he suddenly re-introduced the social and racial barriers that normally would limit our interactions. As soon as the man we initially helped realized what was going on, he started speaking to his brother in Damara and pulled him from the car. He then gave us an old woven plate that they brought back with them from the house. It’s unclear if they brought it as a thank you to us initially, but the man wanted to make sure we knew he appreciated our help, even if the brother did not.  We left the situation with mixed feelings as we tried to avoid puncturing our own tires on the rocky road.

The next day we visited Twyfelfontien, a World Heritage Site protecting ancient San rock engravings. I’m not sure exactly who made the engravings of animals in the sand stone. The guide said that normal people made them to teach their children about which animals to hunt and where. The information stand at the site said they were drawn by shamans who used them as portals into the spirit world and would help them transform into animals. Either way, the ancient drawings were fairly impressive. As we looked through the information center, our guide asked if we would give her son a ride back to Khorixas, the town where he goes to school. We decided to take the 11-year-old Peter with us as we toured the rest of the nearby sites and drop him off. It seemed like this was frequently how he got back to school after visiting his mother, and he proved very useful.
Ancient engravings at Twyfelfontein

After visiting the engravings we went to a petrified forest. Just like the one in the southwestern US, ancient trees were buried in sediment and over time the wood was replaced by minerals. They really do look like stone trees; you can even see the knots in the wood and the texture of the bark. 
Petrified Wood

A few kilometers down the road from the forest we came across another group of hitchhikers. We didn’t have room for all four of the people looking for a ride, so the group decided to just send us with the youngest boy. We were told to just drop the six year old at the service station, and he would walk home on his own. Never in the States would you put your kid into a car with strangers and hope he makes it home. Here, it’s just a way of life. The boy didn’t speak any English, so Peter translated for us. In the end, Peter helped us get him back to his house, not the gas station. Then we dropped Peter at his house up the road. Suddenly we had become a school bus. We are definitely working hard to build our own transportation karma. We figure it might help us prevent getting another flat. We gave one more person a ride before arriving at Outjo: Gateway to Etosha National Park.   


  1. Hi Anne&Jeanette,
    We talked about not seeing any young ostrich's, well we have seen them. See here:

    The full story:

  2. Dad and I so enjoyed reading your water hole stories as well as your commuter service adventures. What an incredible experience! Pictures are great. Keep on having fun!