The ghostly shore of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast
The oldest man in the community beckons us over. His neck hidden in a mass of beads, a woolly hat pulled down over his head, he grinds snuff in a metal tube. ‘In the droughts, the lions get hungry and try to attack us,’ he says slowly. ‘One came last year. It jumped over the stockade and ran round and round. We were frightened. After all, there were children playing on the dead tree.’
‘Did you kill it?’ I ask. The old man grimaces. ‘We’re not allowed to kill lions any longer. It’s against the law.’ ‘So what did you do?’ ‘We made a noise and chased it away!’
The Herero were converted to Christianity by missionaries over a century ago, and the women still sport colourful, homemade dresses reminiscent of those worn by the people who brought them the word of Christ. Travelling by ox wagon, the Voortrekkers (Afrikaans-speaking Dutch colonists) journeyed from the Cape Colony into the interior, and up Namibia’s coast, settling lands with European ranching methods as they went. Their ancestors are still found throughout Namibia, especially in the remote desert realm of the southern Namib.
Proud of their heritage, many of them work in tourism, especially at Sossusvlei, where massive red dunes are found. A mixture of Khoisan and Afrikaans, Sossusvlei means ‘dead end marsh’ and it takes its name from the baked mud pan, dry for all but a few days each year. The highest dune here soars to 380 metres, and tinted red by its high iron content it glows almost crimson at dusk. Reeling over an eternity of dunes I reach a second pan known locally as Deadvlei. Like something out of a sci-fi film, it is peppered with the remnants of a wind-seared forest. The gnarled trees are said to be more than six centuries old – relics of a time when there was more water and less sand.
A little further to the south, in the small town of Aus, I find Piet Swiegers, whose ancestors made their home in Africa in the 17th century. Passionate about Namibia, Piet makes a living by showing off its raw beauty to others. Wild desert horses are one of the marvels found on his family’s lands. There are more than 200 of them in total, thought to be descended from horses set free by soldiers during WWI.
Another curiosity on the farm is a bulletridden 1930s Hudson Terraplane. The rounded bodywork now russet-brown with rust, it was supposedly the getaway car of diamond thieves, shot long ago by police. The story might sound far-fetched, and anywhere else it would be, but Namibia is a land of diamonds like no other. And a stone’s throw from Piet’s farm is the greatest testament of all to diamond fever.
Known as Kolmanskop, it sprouted as a prim German town in the Namib a century ago, when the country was a German colony known as German South West Africa. There were diamonds everywhere, many of them on the surface, allowing prospectors to simply crawl about on their bellies to find them. Over millions of years, the gems were flushed into the Atlantic from the Orange River in Namibia’s south. Then the Benguela current forced the diamond-bearing sands ashore, forming the Namib desert.
The result was easy pickings, leading to instant millionaires. Overnight fortunes brought all mod cons, with the luxuries at Kolmanskop quickly rivalling those of any European town. There was a power station, a tramway, a casino, a skittle hall, a theatre, a champagne bar, restaurants and a hospital equipped with Africa’s first X-ray machine.