The ghostly shore of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast
But there is life, too. Travelling down the shoreline we come upon a colony of Cape fur seals. There are thousands of them. Jet black and glistening, they bask on the rocks like mermaids, or slip easily into the freezing Atlantic to feast on sardines. And, on the beach itself, Gotfod points out canine footprints circling the putrefying carcass of a humpback whale, covered in ghost crabs. No-one’s quite sure why, but dozens of such whales have been beached in recent months. The only consolation is that their death means life for others. ‘See how the black-backed jackals have been trying to get through the whale’s thick hide,’ says Gotfod, pointing to teeth marks. ‘It’ll take a few more days before the rot softens it for them.’
We veer over the dunes, the sands roaring as the Land Rover descends, then cut a path inland up a rock-strewn canyon. Gotfod gestures into the distance, pointing to a windswept plant, called Welwitschia mirabilis. It’s found in only a few areas of the parched Namib, and ancient specimens have survived here for 1,000 years or more.
Having crossed a moonscape of cracked grey mud and many more dunes, we reach the first place with any real vegetation. There is even the odd puddle of water, although Gotfod insists that it is actually a riverbed: ‘It’s the Hoarusib, but it’s dry most of the year. We’re in the rainy season now – that’s why the oryx are here.’ Watching us from a distance are a dozen or so of the antelopes, their straight, tall horns rising like lances above them.
Grinding a path eastwards, Gotfod gives a thumbs up and grins: he’s picked up a track. We pass a lone ostrich and a herd of springbok, which scatter in all directions at the sight of us. Gotfod applies the brakes. Touching a finger to his lips, he motions out of the window.
Six metres away, a dead oryx is lying on its back, blood dripping from its nose. It has just been killed. Craning his neck, Gotfod points again. A lioness is panting in the shade of a thorn bush, taking time to cool down before devouring her kill.
As we sit and watch, a desert elephant storms up, blasting itself with a trunkful of dust to keep cool. Caught off-guard, the lioness retreats into the bush, vexed, but unwilling to attack a creature so many times her size. After a tense few minutes, the elephant rejoins the rest of the herd, trampling through bulrushes nearby.
Apart from the odd tourist lured by the wilderness, the only other people here are the nomadic Himba. Adorning their bodies with ochre and butter to protect their skin from the ferocity of the sun, they have spent centuries roaming the Skeleton Coast and nearby regions. It’s thought they migrated from East Africa, and there’s proof of this in their language, which contains some Swahili.
Some way inland from the shore is a little Himba encampment. Surrounded by a crude stockade, much of it topped with thorns, the hamlet is well defended against outside predators. Hailing from the Herero, sister tribe to the Himba, Gotfod can speak their language. ‘The Himba venerate their ancestors,’ he tells me, pointing to a sacred fire. ‘They keep it burning in the centre of the community and they never allow it to go out.’ His smile suddenly vanishing, he adds: ‘Please make sure not to pass between the dead tree and the fire.’
‘Why not?’ Gotfod seems uneasy. ‘Because it will make them sad,’ he says.