The ghostly shore of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast
Once a prosperous diamond mining town, Kolmanskop has been reclaimed by sand dunes. (Mark Read)
Venture to Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and you get the sense that nature is warding you off right from the start. A slim no-man’s land between life and death, it is known to the Khoisan Bushmen of the interior as ‘the land God created in anger’. Everywhere there are huge bleached whalebones, the crumbling hulks of shipwrecks, dead plants, and the footprints of infrequent desert creatures, all on a desperate search for sustenance.
It’s a place where a few drops of water have at times been far more precious than the diamonds that famously litter its coastal sands. In an environment far too dry to sustain much life, the flora and fauna have adapted, enabling them to glean just enough moisture from the ocean fog that spills inland at dawn.
The fog has cleared as I move clumsily across a towering sand dune that rolls down into the foaming white breakers. There are no plants, no animals, no hint of anything alive. As I take a swig of water from my flask, a male oryx appears out of nowhere. Alone and weak from thirst, he stumbles down to the shore, tastes the salt water, and collapses on the beach. It is a stark reminder of the struggle to survive in this, one of Africa’s great wildernesses.
Tearing up from Antarctica, the trade winds of the Benguela system batter the shoreline night and day. No-one knows quite how many ships they’ve swept onto the barren rocks, but wreckage is visible every few miles. There are the remnants of ocean liners and trawlers, galleons, clippers and gunboats – testament to the perfidious current and unrelenting winds.
The most infamous of the wrecks is the Dunedin Star. A Blue Star liner, it was washed ashore in 1942. The ship was laden with munitions, crew and a few paying passengers, and its rescue has gone down in history as a catalogue of errors. A Ventura bomber and a tugboat, both sent to help, foundered as well. Their wreckage can still be seen. A slew of other vessels unable to get close were forced to leave the survivors stranded on the desert. Yet, amazingly, most were rescued in the end.
Not so lucky were the shipwrecked crew of an unknown vessel washed up in 1860. The 12 headless skeletons were found 70 years ago, along with a slate buried in the sand. It read: ‘I am proceeding to a river 60 miles north, and should anyone find this and follow me, God will help him.’ The writer’s remains have never been found.
My guide, Gotfod, drives us towards another wreck down the coast. A quiet man with a wry smile, he’s made sacrifices to be here. His family lives so far away that he sees them only a few times a year. The Skeleton Coast is no place for family life. Slowing the Land Rover, he cocks his head towards a twisted heap of rust and iron chains. ‘That’s the Suiderkus,’ he says darkly, ‘a trawler wrecked on her maiden voyage 40 years ago. Every time I pass it, there’s a little less left.’ Gotfod glances out towards the rocks. ‘Sometimes I wonder how many ships have met their end here. The wreckage disappears over time, but the ghosts are left.’
It’s not hard to imagine the elation of a shipwrecked survivor clawing his way to shore, only to be confronted by a new terror: yet another ocean, stretching north, south and east – an endless barrier of dunes. Shifting constantly, the mighty mountains of sand are born when a few grains collect around a nest of grass. Gradually, the mound gets larger, kills the plant, develops into a dune, and roams the desert for eternity.
Not far from the mortal remains of the Suiderkus, at Möwe Bay, is surely the world’s most remote police station. It’s so cut off, the handful of officers rush out at the sound of an engine. They man a tiny museum, filled with remnants of wreckage, bones, and more bones. Inside are human skulls, life vests from Japanese whalers, the proud figurehead of a galleon, brass cannons, rigging and sea-worn chains. Walking along the lines of skulls, I am reminded once again that the Skeleton Coast is a place where death looms large.