The Skeleton Coast is famously empty, but engaging with the landscape yields rich rewards
From Wilderness Safaris’ Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp to the tiny hamlet of Möwe Bay – home to a handful of researchers and a few thousand Cape fur seals – is around 46km. In the average city suburb, with its speed bumps and school zones and traffic circles, that distance could be covered in an hour or less, even taking into account stubborn pigeons and errant cyclists.
In northern Namibia, and inside the boundaries of the Skeleton Coast National Park, however, there aren’t a whole lot of roads, so the path of least resistance is rather more… resistant than in town. Following the Hoanib River bed makes it possible to drive from the camp to the coast, though only in a properly equipped 4×4, kitted out with equipment that allows it to keep desert dust out and to handle knocks that would shatter a normal car’s chassis. Even with such muscle, though, it’s slow going, with the driver combining his knowledge of the terrain and its relatively softer bits with occasional detours where spoor is spotted and a lion or herd of elephants is possibly just behind a nearby dune or below an overhanging bank.
A large part of the route involves traversing the Hoanib River’s floodplain, a bewilderingly green area large enough to lose a small herd of elephants in (we managed that quite easily). The plant growth here – these are hardy species that brook no argument from temporary visitors – mean that there are limited available paths. Those tyre tracks have been worn down into deep ruts over the years so, while in a tall safari vehicle, you still find yourself looking out at the middle of bushes that only stand five or six feet tall. When back at ground level, though, it’s possible to see some unexpectedly rich birdlife. On the left, a pair of black-shouldered kites dive-bomb a marauding augur buzzard, while ahead and to the right, beautiful Namaqua doves flit about merrily. Relatively higher levels of moisture in this area mean extra planning is required by the driver, as it’s possible to sink into mud, even in such desperately dry surroundings. So encountering a quartet of elephants standing in the track becomes tricky when a false charge requires a retreat off the hard-packed stuff. Happily, all ends well when they resume feeding.
On the far side of this section – it’s weird to see a river delta that doesn’t reach the sea, but that is the case here – a sand-dominated expanse has us wandering down near-identical valleys between towering dunes, seeking the one behind which lurks an oasis. There’s a permanent, spring-fed lake, again bursting with birdlife that was once the food source for a pair of lionesses that were born and grew up there and became specialist bird hunters. Nearby, in hollows between neighbouring dunes, a number of standalone pockets of water – several large enough to windsurf on should you have the right gear with you – confound expectations of what a desert should look like.
From that spot on top of the dunes, it’s possible to smell the sea and to see the waves breaking in a vivid white line against the orange of the sand in the distance. It’s a relatively short drive to the coast from there to Möwe Bay, peopled by park attendants, research scientists and maintenance workers, has the bare, stark feeling of a whaling station, echoed in the huge bones that poke through the sand every so often. The wreck of the Suiderkruis, a couple of minutes past the town, is the first evidence of the ‘skeletons’ that give this long, forbidding stretch of coastline its name. It’s now a tangle of rusted spars and blocks with bits of wreckage strewn further down the rocky beach thanks to the prevailing tides. Even in good weather and standing firmly on land, the sea here doesn’t look friendly. It’s somewhere between olive green and brown, freezing cold and crashing onto rocks or pebble beaches. Leave your jet-skis at the holiday house…
On the other side of the settlement are the first signs of what turns out to be an enormous Cape fur seal colony – some 40,000 animals strewn along the rocks or frolicking in the water (they’re far better designed for that element). The colony is a huge draw for predators, and there are brown hyena and jackal tracks everywhere, with indications of their impact seen in the carcasses left between bustling seal families. That adds to the already considerable smell of the colony’s guano deposits – you may want to pack a bandana or an out-of-date COVID mask.
Clear of the seals are a couple of smashed-out caravans, the remains of a diamond-prospecting camp and a little further on, with a scenic view down the beach, a table is set up on a rise. A safari vehicle is parked to block the wind and a great meal is enjoyed with crashing waves on one side and dune-rippled emptiness behind us. Time to head back involves heading to the Möwe Bayairstrip – a desolate expanse that looks big enough to land three 747s side-by-side. A neat hangar houses much smaller aircraft than that, one of which we board for the flight back to Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp. After a full half-day adventure to get to the coast, we’re interested to know how long we’ll be in the plane for. The pilot turns around and grins. “Six minutes. Fifteen if we take the scenic route and circle over the floodplain.” We take the scenic route. We land 10 minutes later.