Skeleton Coast: a journey through the land of nothing

Posted on 7 December 2017

Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is so desolate, it’ll make the explorer in you giddy with adventure. It’s also a place that will make you want to pack your 4X4 wisely…

The road south from Torra Bay was long and so flat it was hard to imagine that the Earth may be round. Photo by Don Pinnock.

The Skeleton Coast in Namibia is the breeding ground for a really spectacular nightmare. Under the sea it’s burgeoning with life, but on land it’s best described by utter absences. There’s no soil, virtually no life, no mountains, no escape from sun-blackened expanses of flat gravel and sand. And, when the wind’s blowing (as it generally does), no relief from being sandblasted the moment you step out your vehicle.

But the scale of the nothing is thrilling. Our Land Cruiser, just then being de-painted by flying grit, felt like a space buggy bounding across another planet. It was a privileged glimpse of what the world might look like at the end of time.

The journey to this extremely weird piece of African coast began in Kamanjab on an unexpected public holiday. We were low on supplies after wandering around western Etosha and the only thing open was the garage and a quirky forecourt shop.

A sign on the stoep read: ‘Due to economic cutbacks, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off.’ On a pillar was ‘Today’s menu: eat it or starve.’ Fuse Tea and Afri-Water (whatever they are) were on offer. A friendly local offered to sell us some gemsbok boerewors and Gordon’s gin. We bought them thankfully and pressed on westwards.

It seemed to take a long time across empty country to get to this turn off the coast – and even longer to actually get there. Photo by Don Pinnock.

For a while the scenery could be described as fairly normal, with rippling hills and Karoo-like vegetation. Over the Grootberg Pass things got odder. The road down the other side, with no obvious nourishing vegetation or water, was dotted with fresh desert-elephant boluses.

For a while we switchbacked from steep rises to dry streambeds that would probably flash-flood if it ever rained. The low trees gave way to tough bushes, which morphed to vast stony plains. These offered an occasional welwitschia that looked, and probably was, a thousand years old. The Skeleton Coast park offices eventually appeared as a blip on a table-flat horizon. After that it was empty plains of stone and sand, sea-flat in every direction.

A T-junction offered two options: north to Torra Bay (permits required) and south to Henties Bay. We turned south into a mighty headwind. Just then the sharp, flinty road claimed a victim: a flat back tyre. When we raised the Cruiser on a high-lift jack, the wind blew it off sideways and the tyres simply slid over the gravelly surface.

The solution was, dare I say, ingenious. We boxed the tail of the stricken car between the bull bars of two other vehicles, jacked it up and changed the wheel.

Tearing up this coast, the Benguela current trade winds batter the shoreline day and night. The San called the area ‘the land God made in anger’. Portuguese mariners simply referred to it as the ‘Gates of Hell’. The name Skeleton Coast was conceived by John Henry Marsh as the title for his book written in 1944, which describes the shipwreck of the Dunedin Star – and it stuck.

Welwitschia plants are almost immortal and survive by divining for desert water. Photo by Don Pinnock.

There’s no shortage of skeletons: whales, ocean liners, trawlers, galleons, clippers, gunboats, rusting diamond mines and defleshed humans – testament to the perfidious current, heat and unrelenting winds. Wrecked onto this coast, the relief of having survived would soon have been replaced by the horror of where you’d landed.

The elemental beauty of the place is at the same time entrancing and malevolent. I hugged the ribbon of road aware of a land utterly antithetical to human life. If you were stuck on this coast beyond help, the sun and wind would suck you to a husk within days and worry your desiccated bones for a thousand years.

There is life, of course: tenebrionid beetles, chameleons and lichen surviving on water gleaned from sea mist. There are gemsbok, jackals, brown hyenas, desert elephants and even lions in dry riverbeds, and around 75 species of sea birds. And seals.

We smelled them before we saw them at Cape Cross. The sight of around 100000 of these sleek, grumpy creatures all going ‘arf’ up and down the tenor scale was overwhelming. They’re not afraid of humans and showed a fine set of sharp dentures if we approached too close.

The sight of around 100000 seals in one place at Cape Cross is an assault on the ears … and the nose. But their doggy faces are so cute you instantly forgive them. Photo by Don Pinnock.

We turned in at a fisherman’s camp called, appropriately, St Nowhere. It had been Danie van der Westhuizen’s salt mine, but transport got too expensive so now it’s a campsite with some prefab cottages. As the wind rattled the tin roofs and flung sand, we eyed the unprotected campsites with trepidation. If you erected a rooftop tent, it would pop like a party balloon.

‘Is there somewhere else around here we can stay?’ one of our party asked, querulously.

‘Ja, sure,’ said Danie. ‘It’s 150 kays down the coast. But the big cottage here has five rooms and is unoccupied right now.’ We had no choice.

Two fishermen offered us some geelbek, which we grilled, and together with the Gordon’s gin from Kamanjab, the evening improved markedly. That night the wind howled round the prefabs and icy Atlantic breakers growled 50 metres away. A warm sleeping bag on a soft mattress felt like heaven. In the morning the gale had stopped, the beach had no footprints and the sky was baby-blue. We were sorry to leave. But another adventure beckoned.

After briefly sampling the urban pleasures of Swakopmund – good coffee and some excellent restaurants – we headed east in search of the Spitzkoppe. Behind us, the desert seemed to hover like an inchoate monster in a half-remembered dream.

On the flat plain near Usakos, the mountain was easy to see: a soaring mound of granite looking like the Matterhorn in the wrong hemisphere. After the unrelieved flatness of everything around for hundreds of kilometres, camping in the embrace of the mountain’s muscular arms was a hug of pure happiness.


Our appointed site at Spitzkoppe was at the base of what must have been a waterfall millions of years ago. Photo by Don Pinnock.

Spitzkoppe is saturated with a strange magic. As the many children clamouring to sell crystals at the camp gates made raucously clear, it’s a source of all manner of glittering gems. If you know what to look for and where to look, there are also fields of ancient stone tools. In a cave we found the painting of a very long, sinuous snake and, at its head, a dancing shaman with a headdress like a cockatiel.

As night fell, the desert unveiled a sky glowing with more stars and galaxies than seemed possible to see – and so clear they twinkled at the very edge of Earth’s rim across the plains. Deep in the night, strange sounds around the camp had me tiptoeing down the rooftop-tent ladder, flashlight and camera in hand. The prowler, so unconcerned that it nearly walked across my feet, turned out to be a large spotted genet. Or was it the shaman in disguise?

There’s a really beautiful lodge at Spitzkoppe, designed by architect Ronnie Barnard and run by his daughter Janine, that seems to add rather than detract from the area’s magic. But that’s another story.

From Spitzkoppe, the highway to Windhoek via Okahandja was pretty monotonous. We’d been on the road camping rough for five weeks by that stage, having started in Botswana, and heading for a city was somehow disconcerting. We’d booked a campsite just outside Windhoek but my wife gave me a long, hard look and said, ‘Keep going.’

By then, I guess, she deserved a hotel room with a hot shower and a comfortable bed with sheets.


Plan your trip to the Skeleton Coast

Getting there

The coastal part of this route involved two parks: Skeleton Coast National Park and Dorob National Park. Arriving from the north, take the C40 from Kamanjab via Palmwag to join the C39 or, from further south, the C39 through Khorixas. Enter the Skeleton Coast Park through the Springbokwasser Gate (it opens at 07:30 and closes at 18:00). A transit permit costs R60 per person and R20 a vehicle. At the T-junction turn left onto the C34 down the coast. It’s a good road, given where it is, but be mindful of unexpected sand flows. At the Ugab River you leave the park through a gate and enter Dorob Park, which has an excellent salt road. The route inland to Spitzkoppe is either along the D1918 dirt road from Henties Bay or the tar B2 from Swakopmund. The turn-off to Spitzkoppe is at Usakos.


When to go

Because of heat, especially inland, it’s advisable to travel in these areas only in winter. The days may be hot but the nights can get pretty cold, so take clothing for both possibilities.


Need to know

Namibian roads are good but make sure you have a reliable vehicle, preferably a 4X4, and drive in convoy. A breakdown on the Skeleton Coast could be life-threatening (there is no cell-phone contact). Wind on the coast is a constant companion and can sometimes whip up sudden sandstorms. The roads are straight, luring you to speed, but they can be corrugated and sand ridges blown across the road can form dangerous ramps. If you hit one at speed do not turn your wheel – keep it straight and hold tight! The final section of road to Spitzkoppe is extremely corrugated and has blind rises, so drive carefully.


Stay here

In the Spitzkoppe one night a sickle moon lit the mountains and the Milky Way lit the sky – all of which excited the camera to no end. Photo by Don Pinnock.

Hoada Campsite west of Kamanjab is beautifully situated and extremely well appointed, with hot water, a pool, sunset deck and atmospheric sites among giant granite boulders. The turn-off from the C40 is well marked. Campsites cost R190 per person, luxury tents R550 (sleeps two).
Palmwag Campsite is connected to Palmwag Lodge, further west of Hoada where the C43 joins the C40. It’s well tended and you can stroll round to the lodge for sundowners or a meal. Note: you can take meat and milk into Palmwag but it will be confiscated on the way out at the foot-and-mouth checkpoint. Camping R205 per person, lodge rooms R1745 per person sharing DBB.
St Nowhere Spa & Campsite is just outside the Skeleton Coast Park south gate. It’s a fishing camp with prefab cottages and campsites, of which some have wind protection and their own shower and kitchen with hot water. The ‘spa’ is a hole filled with extraordinarily buoyant salt water. Camping from R350 for five, R70 per person extra. Cottages from R600 for four, R150 per person extra. Tel +264812529422.
Alte Brucke Holiday Resort almost on the beach in Swakopmund, has lawned campsites, each with their own bathroom, washing-up area and power point. It has a great restaurant too. From R380 for two to R780 for six people maximum. Four-bed chalet from R515 per person sharing B&B.
Spitzkoppe Campsites are clustered against atmospheric and mysterious granite boulders. There are long-drop toilets at each site and hot showers at reception. It costs R165 per person.
Elisenheim is a guest farm 15 kilometres north of Windhoek. It has grassed campsites under shady trees, plus a pool. Camping R110 per person, B&B room R400 per person sharing.


This epic road trip first appeared in the September Getaway issue.

Get this issue →

Our September issue features 11 amazing beach cottages, two ways to see the Klein Karoo, a windswept 4X4 drive in Namibia, our guide to swimming in Greece and much more!


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