The Namib Desert and Skeleton coast
The wind keens mournfully through the low thorn trees on the edge of the vlei and whips sand off the ridges of the surrounding red sand dunes. The shadows are lengthening across the sand gullies. A jackal scurries through the undergrowth whilst casting several quick glances over his shoulder to watch what we are doing. In the distance the cackling, sobbing laughter of a hyena carries on the wind as it starts it’s evening scavenge. No human being is in sight the past two hours except in the far distance the dust trail of another 4×4 vehicle can be seen heading back to Sesriem, some 60km away.
The odd Gemsbok and herds of Springbok can be seen in the distance grazing on the flat plain.
This is Sossuvlei on the edge of the Namib desert viewed from the surrounding sand ridges in the dying minutes of the day as the sun dips to the horizon and casts growing shadows over the blood red sand dunes. Black Darkling beetles scurry at speed up and down the sand ridges like little crabs and create strange tracks in the sand. An unreal place of desolation and rare beauty and well deserving of its World Heritage listing. Pity in some ways that there are growing numbers of tourists starting to visit and the large overland trucks bring more and more each year.
We spent 2 days at Sossuvlei and were impressed. The second day brought rare rain (the country only gets 60mm per year) in mighty thundershowers and rushing torrents of water down the dry watercourses – which was a thrill in itself and showed a different face to the county even if we didn’t get to see the sunrise at dawn over the dunes. We saw the sunset (and probably 20 of those 60mm of rain in one day)…
Sossuvlei came after a day or so after visiting the old German town and port of Luderitz – which hasn’t much going for it except a somewhat bizarre feel of other worldliness with its impressive old Colonial German houses and churches built around 1909 – 1920 – when the expectation of growth and riches in the new colony of Deutsche Zuid Wes Afrika was high. Luderitz is set amongst vast expanses of sand and dunes with scarcely a blade of grass growing. Nearby, the old diamond-mining town of Kolmankuppe is now a ghost town – with expensive mansions of the once wealthy slowly being overtaken by the ever-shifting sand. The old recreation hall at Kolmanskuppe still has gymnasium equipment in it – popular as a sport in the 1930’s amongst young German youths.
The town was abandoned in the 1940’s after bigger deposits of diamonds were found at Oranjemund 200km away, but it almost looks the same today as the old photos.
Camping seems unavailable at Luderitz other than at a sandy wind blown spot called Shark Island- which after one look in the howling wind and then at the high price of N$200 (USD$27) to camp, we made a quick decision to stay in a guesthouse – which was reasonable enough at USD$50 and clean and comfortable. There are many in town to choose from. We also lashed out on a good meal of Atlantic oysters at the oyster bar run out of the back of a fish processing warehouse near the port. Good value at $35 for the two of us!
On the way to Sossuvlei and Sesriem we camped at Duwasib Castle GPS S25*15’47” E 16*32’39” which has a very good campsite with almost new ablutions, spotlessly kept by the friendly Damara lady running the place. Duwasib Castle is an amazing construction in a remote valley with its own rather sad and bizarre tale. The castle seems totally out of place and better suited to a European forest setting?
The story goes that in 1911 a rich young German aristocrat by the name of Baron Hansheinrich van Wolf resigned his commission as a captain in the Shutztruppe (the German Colonial troops) and as he loved German South West Africa (as Namibia was called then) so much, he brought back his 29 year old even richer American heiress bride Jayla to the remote Maltahohe valley, built a castle for her and intended to breed his beloved stud horses. The castle was constructed in two years at great expense with the help of Italian craftsmen- which is a feat in itself when one realizes the difficulty of getting supplies to this remote part of Africa even today never mind in 1911. The Baron and Baroness fitted the castle out with no expense spared. Antiques furnish the bedrooms and the grand entrance hall and pictures of his beloved horses and horse racing scenes bedeck the walls.
The pair had seven European servants, many local farm workers and imported equine bloodstock from England and Australia to stock the farm.
Sadly, in 1916 Hansheinrich felt compelled to return to Germany to join the Kaiser’s efforts in the Great War and within 2 weeks of landing in Europe was killed in action on the Somme in France. A few years later his widow Jayla abandoned the farm and castle with all its furniture and possessions and returned to Germany after the war – and ultimately went back to America in the late 1930’s – where she died in 1946 at the age of 64. She never returned to Africa and Duwasib Castle was eventually taken over by the Government and sold to a local farmer with all it’s possessions included. Today it and most of the Baron and Baronesses possessions are still in place and has become a National Trust site. Incredible story amongst many tales of hardship in this hard country?
A rather long drive of 300km ensued along muddy, slippery roads through what was supposed to be a desert to end up in the major fish production centre and port of Walvis Bay – where the first essential was to find a car wash and then camping at the quite good Lagoon Caravan Park along the Esplanade provided respite. The next morning, on advice from another camper, we took a drive to nearby Pelican Point at the end of Walvis Bay. This turned out well worthwhile as the drive passed through interesting large-scale salt production operations and lagoons of drying salt with thousands of seabirds and white crystalline rock salt glistening in the morning sun. It arrives at a long beach with the Atlantic breakers crashing in.
40kms further North we arrived at the somewhat more appealing town of Swakopmund – where we camped at the very comfortable but slightly expensive Alte Brucke resort (N$280/USD$38). At least you get your own en-suite shower and they have green grass! Swakopmund is just like a small German town – with prettily painted German style colonial buildings and delicious Apfelstrudel and German cakes to be had in the many restaurants and bakeries. Swakopmund is a popular seaside tourist destination both amongst local Namibians and South Africans and overseas tourists (mostly German) who come here.
There is a good deal of wealth in the town with many substantial houses along the foreshore. The museum at the lighthouse is well worth a visit – with excellent displays of German colonial history and local development. That (Wednesday) night we decided to go to the local cinema and watched “War Horse”. The film was quite good (bit sad if you are a horse person), but the scariest part was that the two of us were the only patrons in the entire cinema – and then at 10.30pm had to walk 2km back to our campsite across a dark, silent town with nobody in sight and the cold Atlantic sea mist rolling in like London in the smog!
The following days we drove further up the Skeleton Coast through endless sand as far as Cape Cross – where there is a massive seal colony of thousands of Cape Fur Seals. This was interesting (and you can get right up to the seals on a walkway running between them). We watched hundreds of baby seals suckling on their mothers. The noise and the stink is impressive though! (N$90/USD$12 National Park fees to see the seals). The salt road to Cape Cross though, whilst smooth and good rolling through the sand dunes is once again the MMBA of Africa – miles and miles of bugger all!
It seems the whole coast from Walvis Bay to Cape Cross and beyond is a fisherman’s Mecca but little else? Every few kilometres there are turnoffs down to favorite beach fishing spots. Many local 4x 4’s pass loaded with rods pass by and we are told that in the holiday season mad keen fishermen pour in from Windhoek and South Africa to seek the huge numbers of Cob, Kabeljou and Steenbras to be caught in the nutrient-rich ocean fed by the cold Benguela current.
Although we were told there was no camping at Cape Cross (a campsite down the road at Mile 72 looked horribly desolate, sandy and windblown), it turns out that a new resort has just opened that day at Cape Cross Lodge GPS S21*45’50” E13*59’23” with new camping sites and we were its very first campers ever! A comfortable, sheltered site with brand new ablutions, but a bit expensive we thought at N$300/USD$40)?
We decided to go no further up the desolate Skeleton Coast and have done an Eastward turn towards Uis, the Brandberg and Etosha Pan where the countryside is more varied.
We can well imagine how mariners of old feared the coast. Get shipwrecked and survive only to die a slow death from thirst amongst the dunes and hinterland of absolutely no habitation, vegetation or hydration! Nothing but sun, wind and cold sea mists. Already we are noticing far more attractive scenery in the Brandberg mountains – with much more vegetation and animals.
The best way to explore Namibia is by car and you need a decent car to get around. Check out car rental Namibia to get your rental car.