Life hangs in the balance among the dunes of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, home to desert elephants and tribal villages.

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.

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.

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.

Intense mining saw boom lead to bust. Abandoned in the early 1950s, Kolmanskop is today a ghost town. Sand fills the houses, paint stripped from the walls, blowtorched by the wind. In one of the buildings down near the tramway I find the fragment of an old black and white photograph. It shows a young German couple in their Sunday best. They are straining to look serious, as people used to do when posing, the tramway sign ‘Kolmannskuppe’ behind them.

Twenty minutes’ drive from Kolmanskop, another neat little German town, Lüderitz, gives a hint of how life in the ghost town may once have been. It was constructed about the same time and with the same Teutonic attention to detail. There’s a sense that its glory days are long gone, replaced by faded grandeur and irresistible melancholy. Lüderitz was once gripped by diamond fever, too. The boom began in 1908 when a station master on the diminutive Aus to Lüderitz railway line spotted something glinting between the tracks. Quietly, he staked a claim, made a fortune and lost it, before dying penniless.

At the town’s Kegelbahn, the century-old skittles hall, the descendants of diamond miners and Voortrekkers bet over beers and hardwood balls on a Thursday night. Among them is Alexi, a Russian trawlerman who was washed up in Lüderitz years ago. Downing his beer in one, he orders another, then peers out at the street.

‘Perhaps I’m crazy to live here,’ he says all of a sudden. ‘It’s just as well if I am, because a little madness helps you to bear the silence of the Skeleton Coast.’

Tahir Shah is a writer and film-maker. He is a regular contributor to Lonely Planet Magazine.

The article 'The ghostly shore of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.