The Skeleton Coast is a 500 kilometre axe-edge of land bordered by two rivers, the Kanana in Angola and the Swakop in Namibia. The coast is named after the bones of whales and seals that have died in this rugged terrain, pushed landwards by the turbulent currents of the Atlantic Ocean and smashed against the rocks that mark the end, or the beginning of the Namib Desert.
As late as the 19th century, great armadas of whales swam through these waters, making their way to their spawning grounds past the Cape of Good Hope. The whales were harvested for fuel and their numbers dwindled to near extinction such that in Walvis Bay today, the sight of a spout in the far distance is greeted by ship captains and tourists alike with the same totemic reverence as a double rainbow in the sky.
The seals though continued to thrive in great numbers, fortunate to have limited industrial purpose. Our pilot Grant told us to watch out for them sunning themselves on islands that formed a ring around Sandwich Harbour. We were on the tail end of a two hour flight over the Namib Desert, taking off at dawn from our lodge in Sossusvlei, past the dry wasteland of Deadvlei, and then at last to our destination Swakopmund, on the southern tip of the Skeleton Coast. Besides the seals, Grant pointed out some other casualties of those rough waters, the wrecks of ships that had run aground, abandoned by their crew. It was a clear enough day for us to fly lower and see these hulks in more detail, their decayed ribs, jutting out from the desert. As we did so, we saw something else besides—all along the shoreline, an implacable cliff face of sand, the Langewaal, rising up like a mountain range, and falling in great waves down to the bottle-green ocean below.
The Namib Desert is the oldest in the world. The ochre sands that characterize it were forged from millenia of exposure to the air giving the iron particles in the ground infinite time to thoroughly oxidize. Here, in this alien place, is where the after-birth of our planet first receded. Here at the Langewaal is where the axis of creation continues to play out—the Namib leaning out like the shoulder of a titan, claiming its place in the sun, and the Atlantic swelling from its depths to meet it and batter it back.
Then at last, we were over Sandwich Harbour, gaining altitude to avoid the flocks of birds—seagulls, pelicans, albatross, petrels, terns—that lived off those fish-rich waters. From that height, it was still possible to see the colonies of seals that covered the beaches in their thousands. Our tour promised a closer encounter by boat the next day.
From the airport, we bade Grant goodbye and met Castro, our guide for the day. Unlike most tours where the guide ticked off various sights, Castro worked through the various industries that had come and gone in Swakopmund. There was whaling of course, diamond mining, then ship repair, and finally salt production. Swakopmund was on the edge of the world and was bypassed by the wave of progress that swept across sub-Saharan Africa. For this reason, there was not much for Castro to talk about save for the city’s old lighthouse, and an eighteenth-century steam engine named Martin Luther that was abandoned by the Germans when they left Namibia after the Second World War.
Our guide’s eye for industry might also have come from his grandfather who had not only named him after the dictator of Cuba but also founded of the Communist party of Swakopmund. We did not detect any irony however as Castro described our colonial era hotel, The Strand, as having a great wine cellar with a variety of vintages in storage.
At Castro’s suggestion, we spent the late afternoon walking on the beach towards the Mole, an outcrop of land that reached out to Walvis Bay. From there we saw the orange sun dip towards the horizon but did not see it slip into the sea. Above the horizon line sat the fog that Swakopmund was famous for, thick steam that formed from the ancient mixture of boiling sand and frigid waters. The locals called this fog, cassimbo, the cold breath of the angry god that made this unforgiving place.
The night was a cold one as the fog swept inland, obscuring stars. And it stayed that way, the next morning. The streets of Swakopmund looked eerie as we drove to the pier at Walvis Bay. The mood of our boat captain Vik, belied the gloomy start to the day. He gave us a bright greeting and assured us that the day would clear up eventually. We started slowly, easing our way past small islands to the open sea. Behind us, pelicans glided with ease, as if tethered to our boat. Vik told us they were drawn to the buckets of recently caught fish that were covered by a tarpaulin on the rear deck. To demonstrate, he threw one fish overboard, then another, and with great homing accuracy, the pelicans swept in, wings outstretched, snapping up the fish before they hit the water. As we moved out of the inlet, Vik gave our boat a burst of speed and dutifully, the pelicans picked up the pace, their heads still straight, but their wings beating a powerful, ancient rhythm. When we reached open water, the pelicans veered off and Vik cut the boat’s engine.
Here we learned who the buckets of fish were really for. From the starboard side, a large male seal sprang from the sea and slid with surprising grace onto our boat. His bulk covered almost the entire deck. He shook the water from his smooth skin and made a beeline for Vik, who was ready with the buckets of fish. This seal was called Necklace, for the scars he had on the back of his neck, the result of some juvenile injury. As large as Necklace seemed to us, Vik assured us that he was still in the process of bulking up for the winter, and for the mating season in the spring. There was clearly a bond between man and beast and Vik looked fondly at Necklace as he tossed the last of the fish overboard, the signal for the gentleman seal to take his leave.
We were now in the wide sea, the strong currents churning the waves around us. Quite suddenly, Vik restarted our engine and sped towards a spot of sea foam in the distance. Dolphins! We’d been warned not to expect to see any, and yet here they were, a pod of Benguela dolphins, sleekly moving through the water at great speed, like small torpedoes. Vik was on the radio, excitedly signaling to the other captains our coordinates, so that more tourists could experience the same magic.
Finally, the dolphins took notice of us and the whole family, nearly twenty strong, started swimming near our craft to get a better look. As our boat reached peak speed, the dolphins swam behind us, easily keeping pace, jumping out of the water in exuberant leaps, their movements, like those of thoroughbred horses. It was a moment of electricity, a spark we knew would last our lifetime. Soon, other boats arrived and the dolphins, feeling surrounded, swam away, diving deeper towards sanctuary waters.
We anchored just off Sandwich Harbour where we observed thousands of cacophonous seals playing by the shore and sliding into the waters to greet boats and kayaks that had gathered. Here, Vik served us a Walvis style breakfast—fresh oysters from the waters below and sparkling white wine from South Africa. The oysters carried with them such ineffable flavours; not just of the sea, but of the great arctic current that drove so much life through the waters of the Skeleton Coast.
Back on shore, it was time for the final leg of our tour. We met up with Pieter, the owner of Mola Mola Tours. Pieter was a photographer who had worked with Annie Leibovitz, among others. Leaving the pressure of commercial photography behind, Pieter returned to his native Namibia, there to reconnect with the coast and the desert of his youth, and in this way, revive his soul. He promised us a great adventure—a Land Rover drive along the Skeleton Coast and onto the Langewaal itself, where few tourists ventured.
On the way, we stopped at a cresting dune a few miles out from Walvis Bay to observe a massive patchwork plain of orange, yellow and white. Pieter told us that these were the salt flats of Namibia. Enormous dikes closed off the sea at a point below us and trapped great quantities of seawater inland, which was then channeled into various salt pans to be dried out in the desert. This marked the beginning of the Skeleton Coast and the point at which Pieter said, everyone should go barefoot. As Pieter animatedly described the sand we were walking on, sand that was not even warm despite the strong afternoon sun, he became transported, child-like. This was what he gave up his career for— trading the ephemeral for the eternal.
After a few hours, we finally reached the end of the highway and started driving up gigantic sand dunes, nearly eighty meters high. We joined a convoy of two other Land Rovers and made for a small camp set up on the lip of a high peak formed by four large dunes shepherded by the wind. We were given a chance to explore the dunes on our own. We walked along one ridge but soon found ourselves, descending gently into a valley of powdery sand, our steps and the shapes of our bodies, cutting into that pristine landscape. Climbing back out of this bowl, we found ourselves right at the top of the Langewaal, staring out at the vast green sea before us. Here, the crashing surf and whipping winds created a cathedral of nature, swallowing us in its majesty.
Back at the camp—more wine—this time some Pinotage from Stellenbosch. Two hours had passed and Pieter was keen for us to keep moving. He had a final surprise. We poured out the remainder of that glorious red onto the desert sands, a libation for the God of Stories, and a prayer that one day, we might be allowed to return.
We drove down almost vertical dunes, the loose sand helping our Land Rovers slide, deep into valleys, and lower still, to the actual Skeleton Coast, which the tides had now revealed. Pieter was skimming through a newly formed beach, splashing across tidal pools and past still-wet sand to the foot of that great desert cliff where the sand fell in waves, like a waterfall. The sand was falling so finely, it gave off a song, a sibilant hiss like the wind through latticed windows. Now we understood why Pieter was rushing. The tide would be back soon and we would no longer be able to drive through the length of that beach. After half an hour, we were climbing up the sand dunes again from a different direction, our Land Rover straining to gain purchase and height.
Then at last we crested the lowest part of the Langewaal and a wondrous landscape of undulating dunes lit with golden light greeted us. The wind was gusting with great force, blowing away the tracks of our vehicles. In minutes, any sign of our passage would be replaced by the snake shapes of the wind combing through those high sands.
As the sun dipped low, our drivers somehow navigated their way out from miles of indistinguishable desert back onto the highway that led to Swakopmund. We drove towards the pink sunset, following flocks of flamingos returning to their source. By the side of the road, a solitary jackal watched our convoy pass. In the receding distance we saw him howling, but were too far to hear. The jackal was the sentry of that antique land, the keeper of the keys, ushering in the desert night, the one that erased all traces of men and whales alike, in that timeless time, far from the gaze of veiled and distant stars.
Photographs by Michelangelo Samson