The Skeleton Coast stretches from Sandwich Harbour south of Swakopmund right up to the Kunene River which forms the border with Angola. Apart from the area surrounding Swakopmund and Walvis Bay and a few other very small settlements it is all protected for diamond mining … the so-called Forbidden Area or Sperrgebeit. Permits required for some sections and others only accessible as part of a tour with a registered concession holder. It consists of two million hectares of dunes and gravel plains which receive virtually no rain and only collect moisture from the frequent mists and fogs. We’ve travelled down to Sandwich Harbour, now we are about to go as far north along the coast as we are able to travel without joining a tour then we’ll travel inland up to the Kunene River on the Angolan border in our exploration of this very dry and remote corner of Namibia. It’s a very sparsely populated area so it’s good to be travelling with Jared and Jen providing back up support for each other.
We leave the bitumen behind very soon after we drive north from Swakopmund. We won’t be seeing bitumen again for quite a while and possibly no shops so hopefully we have enough supplies. This is an excellent road though, oil has been poured onto compressed sand and the firm level surface provides a great drive and we can gaze out at the ocean and the desert as we travel north. It’s fairly calm today but this coastline has often proved treacherous with many ships wrecked along the coast over many years … hence the name, the Skeleton Coast. We pull over at a couple of rest stops and explore an old wreck at one of these, an Angolan fishing boat. At another stop Paul notes the numerous mussel shells strewn about by seagulls and other visitors and figures there are probably plenty of live mussels attached to the kelp lining the shore. In a very short time he gathers more than enough for our evening meal.
Mid afternoon we reach the seal colony at Cape Cross. It’s controlled by the national parks and while I wondered why we needed to pay to see seals when we have seen them before the sight of tens of thousands of seals lounging around on the rocks or swimming in the surf was amazing and well worth the visit.
The country along this part of the coast is very flat and we want to get out of sight for a bush camp so we take one of the few side tracks for a few kilometres until we reach a fold in the landscape where we set up camp. The land is rocky and almost barren but a few very hardy small plants hang on and a couple of curious jackal circles our camp but remain very wary of us. The peace is wonderful, after dinner we gaze at the stars and listen to the far off rumble of the waves breaking on the shore, enjoying the isolation on the desolate, but somehow dramatic coastline.
The drive next day is similar until we reach the south gate of the Skeleton Coast National Park around mid-afternoon. We have our permit to enter the park but no camping is allowed except for few months over the summer and we will need to show our permit when we exit so a bush camp inside the park is not an option. We want a full day for the transit through the park so we can see as much as possible so we won’t enter until tomorrow. We head inland along the southern border of the national park without passing through the gate travelling next to the Ugab River, the same river we drove along north of the Brandberg. Once again we enjoy our bush camp, this time looking down into the dry river bed. Elephants sometimes frequent this area but the river is dry and the only animals we see are more jackals.
Our day in the Skeleton Coast Park is a very full one. We follow the main road that transits the park for most of the day but we have obtained a permit which allows us to travel further north along the coast past Torra Bay camp (only open in December and January) and as far as Terrace Bay which has a variety of accommodation, but no camping. A few small waterholes in one of the otherwise dry river beds support some game and we see several Oryx. Perennial water in this desert is extremely rare and amazing to see. At Terrace Bay we drive along the beach front searching unsuccessfully for a wreck marked on our map and inadvertently returning to the main road by driving along the runway of the airstrip. The landcruiser is far too slow for take off though so we remain firmly planted in the ground. A short loop drive behind the settlement takes us through dunes and provides some great views of the settlement and the desert as it sweeps down to the sea.
Back on the transit road we turn east toward the Springbokwasser gate. As we leave the coast the landscape changes again and the hills and the vegetation, mainly grasses, increase. In the late afternoon the colours intensify and even though we are nearing the time we need to exit the park we have to pause at the top of crests to admire the vast view in front of us. We had thought we would have another bush camp but the campsite outside the gate is convenient and even though it is right next to the road there will be no passing traffic so it offers another peaceful night. It was a good decision as I hear a hissing and discover we have very recently punctured a tyre. It’s soon changed but wear on the tyre suggests we’ll need to replace it soon.
Inland from the Skeleton Coast lie the tribal areas of Damaraland and the Kaokoveld. We’ve already visited part of Damaraland when we were at Spitzkoppe and the Brandberg but we have yet to visit Twyfelfontein (Doubtful Spring) which has one of the most extensive rock art galleries in the continent. A bush camp would be nice but most of the area is in conservation zones with no camping signs so we find a nice spot in the Abadi campground. We’ve got shade, power, a bar and great toilets and showers which are mainly made from local materials with taps sprouting from trees, shower heads either a pipe providing a single stream of water or pushing it through an empty water bottle with holes in its base, walls made of light branches bound together and no roofs so you can see the blue sky in the day time and stars at night.
Visits to the Twyfelfontein rock art site can only be made with a national park guide who are drawn from the local area. Our guide is Mona Lisa, so named because “her mum liked the name”. Many of the engravings represent animals that are no longer found in the area and quite a few depict a shaman, or witch doctor, taking on an animal form. Mona Lisa explains the ways in which the San people used particular animals to communicate details of the area to others. A rhino image points the way to nearby water, while a giraffe would indicate the lack of water. Elephant droppings show that they are not only still in the area but when they want to sample the tasty bushes halfway up the slopes they are quite capable of rock climbing and clambering.
After we’ve finished our tour of the rock art site we set out to try and find the elephants which have been seen recently near a local dam. We find the dam easily but no elephants and we spend the next couple of hours following tracks through the grasslands and over gentle hills and along water courses trying to spot them. Lots of great views, plenty of ostriches and an enjoyable afternoon but no elephants and we continue our cross country tracking and make it all the way back to camp, the last few miles along a sandy but dry river bed without going on any of the gravel roads thereby missing all the corrugations.
Another attraction we visit in the area is the Petrified Forest. Here we accompany a guide on a walk to view petrified tree trunks up to 34m long and 6m in circumference which are estimated to be up to 260 million years old. There are no root or branch remnants and they are believed to have been transported here from Central Africa in a massive flood after one of the ice ages.
The nearby Twyfelfontein Country Lodge has a workshop which we visit to see about getting our tyre repaired but when we look closely we see that the punctured tyre and one other are both showing too much wear to bother so we’ll need to buy two new tyres as soon as possible. In the meantime we call into the lodge to check out the views from the main building which is embedded into the massive red rocks at the base of a line of hills bordering the valley. The entry walkway leads through narrow openings between massive boulders which have some more of the ancient engravings by the San people. The restaurant and bar are elevated and the decks provide a great view over the plains. They would be a great place for sunset but we settle for a cool drink before returning to camp.
From Twyfelfontein we head north to the conservancy and lodge at Palmwag our lunch stop. We’ve rung them in advance and they have two tyres which will fit our land cruiser. Other than making a detour of a couple of hundred kilometres to Kuminjab this will be our last opportunity to get new tyres before we enter the rugged far north west area. We also pass through the vet fence here which runs right across Namibia and which separates the southern areas which are free of foot and mouth disease and other diseases from those in the north who have had some outbreaks. We have no problems heading north but when we cross it going south we cannot carry any raw red meat, chicken or plants with roots.
Camping at the Palmwag lodge doesn’t appeal and entry fees into their conservancy are high so we continue north reaching the community camp of Khowarib by mid afternoon. It’s perched above the Hoanib River and each of the large campsites has its own own private rustic toilet and shower plus a kitchen area next to a large shaded braai area. We all agree its lovely so we stay the night, in fact we stay two.
Our route turns north west now and we pass through the communities of Warmquelle and Sesfontein. We’d read and been told there are no shops in this area and fuel only at Sesfontein but although the fuel advice was right we found shops in both communities. OK they aren’t western style supermarkets but we could get basic dried goods, cold drinks, alcohol, fresh bread and even some fresh produce, well potatoes and onions anyway. Everyone is friendly and when we want to top up our water tank we are lead to a private home by some young people who are pleased we are enjoying their country and keen to help us in any way they can. One young girl asks where we are going and then gives us a run-though of the places we will go through and what we might find there. Sesfontein is the most northerly part of Damaraland and we are now heading into the Kaokoveld, the traditional home of the Herero people which will take us through the most remote and rugged land in the country and right up to the border with Angola. Kaokoland is an area that Paul has wanted to visit for a long time and Julie, Jared and Jen are very keen as well. We have come along way to get to this part of Namibia and we are all interested to see what will unfold as we head towards the Marienfluss and the Kunene River the traditional land of the Himba People.