Namibia individual travel
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Exploring the Skeleton Coast January 2021


The Skeleton Coast is usually associated with shipwrecks and stories of sailors stranded on the beach, walking inland in search of water and food, only to succumb to the elements. The name however originates not from the bones of long-lost sailors but of the bones of long dead whales and seals that lie strewn along the desolate beaches.

The Skeleton Coast is a vast stretch of land, 500 km long and about 40 km wide, desolate and barren. It is notorious for the treacherous fog, strong currents and moving sandbanks. The barren landscape and rocky reefs mean disaster for any human or vessel stranded there.

Many are unaware of the linear oasis that dissect the area, dry riverbeds that are mostly dry, but in full flood during the rainy season, that provide valuable underground water and grass for a variety of wild animals. Oryx, springbok and zebra roam these riverbeds and the famous desert lions and desert-adapted elephants sometimes venture down as far the coast.

On a recent visit to Shipwreck Lodge, we had the opportunity to travel into this mysterious area and experience the splendor of this untouched nature paradise. The area north of Mowe Bay is a “sperregebiet”, it is an area that can only be visited if you are a guest at the only lodge in the park, Shipwreck Lodge, or if you have a special permit. This has been the case into the distant past, meaning that the area is almost untouched by humans, much that one sees here is as it has been since anyone can remember, be it the shipwrecks, whale bones and trees and other debris that have washed ashore over the decades.

Now how does one get there? It is a long and interesting drive from Swakopmund, extremely scenic in a desolate kind of way. The road travels north past Henties Bay and Cape Cross to the Ugab River and the official “Skeleton Coast park” entrance. The rugged mountains of Damaraland are visible to the east and to the west the endless coastline with wave upon crashing on the beaches. Signboards indicate the wrecks that lie on the beaches, often only small remnants remain, confirming the insignificance of humans against the forces of nature. There is almost no traffic meaning that one is constantly aware of the loneliness and desolation that must have faced shipwrecked sailors that washed up on these shores.

One crosses one linear oasis after the other, the dry rivers are evenly spaced and each river mouth has some water, a little grass and inevitably some interesting bird and animal species. These are the Ugab, Huab, Uniab and Hoanib rivers, all famous in their own right, receiving rainwater in their unique catchment areas deep inland and bringing valuable water through the desert to the coast.

On arrival at Mowe Bay, we were received by our guide who proceeded to drive us 30 km along the sea and through the dunes to the lodge overlooking the Hoarusib River mouth and the Atlantic Ocean. The view from the lodge is a panorama that includes the ocean, the river mouth and the river weaving its way eastwards between the dunes to the east. The dunes are white and impressively large, mountains of sand one after the other reaching up into the Kaokoland sky. The many natural springs in the area attract the antelope and other animals found here, inevitably there is some movement somewhere and you can while a way the hours searching and following the movements of these fascinating desert adapted animals in their quest for survival. Often there are predators on their heels, black-backed jackal and brown hyaena are active here, their tracks criss-crossing the desert sands wherever you look.

Our visit coincided with a rare highlight, that of the arrival of 2 desert lionesses, the first lions to appear in this area in almost 10 years. This led to an unexpected adventure of tracking lions and assisting the famous lion researcher, Flip Stander, to try and stop these lions hunting the Himba cattle that were grazing deep inside the Skeleton Coast Park.

The extreme drought in north-west Namibia has led to the unusual situation of the nomadic Himba people to graze their cattle inside a national park, usually strictly prohibited but in these challenging times, tolerated. The sad reality however is that it compromises the activity of the animals that naturally occur here and contributes to an increase in the much talked about human-wildlife conflict. And this is the dilemma that lionesses Alpha and Bravo found themselves in. Plans were made for a bush dinner in the Hoarusib River, the strategy being to make as much noise and human activity as possible, to keep the lions to the west and stop them walking down river to find the cattle to the east. The Desert Lion team proceeded to fire off an impressive display of fireworks to the singing and chanting of the lodge staff and guests. After an exciting dinner adventure, we returned to our comfortable chalets at midnight, in the hope that we would finally see these two lions in the flesh the following day.

In the morning we set out on our Hoarusib river adventure, starting off with a drive down an extremely steep singing dune, to continue west between the steep cliffs rising on each side of the river, deep into the desert. Driving through the fresh-water wetlands, we experienced small herds of oryx and springbok antelope. The steep cliffs gave way to steep dune sands, cascading over the rocks onto the river banks. On these dunes the !Nara bushes could be seen with their valuable !Nara melons, ripening in the sun, soon to provide valuable and nutritious food to the many large and small animals found here. Once on foot, we could see the activity of various lizards and other reptiles on these dunes with the cry of birds of prey high above.

Our guide drove us out of the river and into the steep mountains to a lookout point from where we could appreciate the vast landscape from above. On our drive back to the river we came across the Desert lion research vehicle at the foot of a large rock outcrop and on closer inspection we saw that Flip Stander was observing the two lionesses resting amongst the rocks, scouting the area for possibly prey. What a site, lionesses in the desert, our first contact with the females Alpha and Bravo. Flip proceeded to tell us about the two lionesses that had crossed 65 km over the dunes from the Hoanib river to reach this area, a need to explore driving them out of their home territory. We learned that lionesses Alpha and Bravo were one of the main themes of Flip Standers second Vanishing Kings movie, an intriguing story of survival that is worth watching to understand the challenges faced by these endangered predators, some of the last of their kind in Africa.

The following days were a whirlwind of luxury treats at the incredible Shipwreck Lodge and exploring the surrounding nature area in our 4 x 4 open top Toyota Landcruiser. The standard of the meals easily exceeded those of hotels and restaurants in Swakopmund and the service was extremely friendly and professional. Most of the staff are from the local communities in north-western and northern Namibia, many of these would not be out of place in a 4+ star hotel in Europe, meaning that Namibia is really progressing in terms of offering world class hospitality, able to satisfy the most discerning traveler.

One of the highlights was the beach lunch served on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, a view out to sea, sunny skies and a cool breeze coming in over the ocean. The chef prepared a variety of grilled meats from an open fire, fresh vegetables and salads which we washed down with the finest wines from the Cape winelands.

Ghost crabs entertained us, running in and out of the sea to the motion of the waves. The sea temperature was a pleasant 22 degrees and yes, we went for a swim, the children riding the white waters to the beach, the white sea sands providing the perfect playground for all.

On our next river drive, we were taken to explore the “clay castles”, sandy sediments of the Hoarusib river from the distant past, a time when a slower flowing river brought the silty sands from upriver, depositing them in layer upon layer over thousands of years.

Children are welcome at the lodge and may take part in most of the activities. The two family rooms provide for 4 person families, the remaining 8 chalets offering twin accommodation. The lodge design is based on “shipwrecks”, the bungalows appear as if they found themselves beached on these shores, rustically built but extremely stylish and comfortable inside, large windows providing views into the distance with all the amenities that one would associate with a luxury lodge.

The massive dunes provided the playground for a quad bike excursion and a final sundowner drive that took us to the highest point in the dune sea. From there we were able to dune board, sliding down the steep dune faces in a burst of exhilarating speed. The view of the sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean with a backdrop of vast sandy silence, confirmed that we were in one of the most desolate and untouched nature areas in the world, a rare experience, away from world of too many people and the Covid-19 epidemic. A refreshing experience, “away from it all”, silence and peace in this fascinating wonderland, sadly it was time to return home.