Thu 8th Dec – Cape Cross Lodge, Skeleton Coast
Fri 9th & Sat 10th Dec C – Breeze AirBnB, Langstrand, Skeleton Coast
Damaraland – Cape Cross: 358km
Cape Cross – Langstrand: 148km
Around Langstrand & Swakopmund: 119km
Langstrand – Walvis Bay Seal Colony 30km
Total km driven since leaving Nairobi: 13,084km
THE SKELETON COAST (LIFE IN THE HARSH DESERT AND BABCIA GETS BITTEN BY A SEAL)
Stretching over 500km from the mouth of the Kunene River on the Namibian-Angola border to Swakopmund, the Skeleton Coast is one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Pounded by Atlantic surf, the desolate beach is named after the carcasses of whales, seals and, more recently, boats that lay strewn and bleached on the sand. There’s an incessant strong wind, which at night blows foggy clouds inland providing life-giving moisture to a surprisingly broad array of plants and animals that survive here… a vital lifeline in an area that receives less than 10mm of rain per year. It’s an absolutely unforgiving place but holds an inescapable draw to all that visit it.
Our drive out of Damaraland towards the coast set the scene for the rest of the day. Mile by mile we had less vegetation and the landscape seemed ever more barren. Eventually, we drove over the crest of a hill to catch our first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean, over dunes of rough, stony sand. The surf crashed onto the beach and a dry, salty, sandy wind stung our cheeks every though we finally found some shelter amongst a few dunes to make (slightly crunchy) sandwiches for lunch. As we continued south, we passed the remains of old vehicles on the road, an abandoned diamond mine on the beach and walked down to what was left of the Benguela Eagle, a fishing boat that ran aground in 1975. The most impressive ‘skeleton’ was that of an old oil rig, which looked like the set for a Mad Max movie with long twisted metal poles and machinery parts steadily rusting away amongst the dunes. The rig was operational in the 1960s, installed by two prospectors who were convinced they would strike lucky here but finally gave up drilling when they’d reached a depth of 1,700m without finding a drop of ‘black gold’.
We had 3 nights on the Skeleton Coast, the first of which was at Cape Cross Lodge, at the site of Namibia’s largest seal colony where a Portuguese navigator named Diogo Cao first put on shore in January 1486. After a long day on the road, it was a relief to escape the cold wind and enjoy a hot dinner and a comfortable night’s sleep.
The following morning, we visited the seal colony, which turned out to be a rather distressing experience. The breeding females of the 250,000-strong colony had all recently dropped their pups, so the place was covered in small, black seals… though a substantial number of them weren’t alive. The mothers have to leave the pups on land whilst they take to the ocean to feed and may not return for as long as 3 or 4 days. Whilst they are away, the pups have to survive the extremes of the weather – blazing sun and very cold nights – and avoid aggressive males that roam the breeding grounds, often fighting with one another, whilst biting and trampling anything that gets in their way. This left the colony littered with corpses and left us with a sad understanding of how harsh and cruel nature can be.
Most of our drive this far through the desert had been across salt pans and old gravel flats. It wasn’t until we reached Swakopmund and crossed the riverbed there that we started seeing the massive sand dunes that are most associated with the Namib Desert and widely portrayed in wildlife documentaries. The ‘C-Breeze’ townhouse we’d found on Airbnb was situated in Langstrand (Long Beach), a small development sandwiched between the ocean and the dunes about 15km south of Swakopmund. It was a lovely house and acted as a great base for our activities in Swakopmund and the nearby Walvis Bay.
After over a week of long drives every day, Babcia and Mzee were keen to relax at the house and Gillian opted to stay with them whilst Kian and I went out for an adrenalin fix quad biking on the massive dunes. The guides at Desert Explorer quickly saw that we were quite experienced so let us open up the throttles and we set about racing through the dunes, arching up and down massive sand walls and dropping down huge dune faces. After 1 ½ hours, my thumb was exhausted from pressing down on the accelerator and we were both covered from head to toe in sand, which mostly obscured Kian’s ear-to-ear grin. As we left, we unexpectedly bumped into Desert Explorer’s resident pets, a pair of Macaw parrots that decided to clamber over Kian was a great plan.
The main focus of our time here was learning more about life in the desert and we had two outings with a very capable and knowledgeable guide named Dain, who really brought the coastal dunes alive for us, first on a morning driving safari then on a night walk out on the gravel flats. Amongst the sparse vegetation, we saw ‘tok tokkie’ (Tenebrionid) beetles, whose abdomen is held higher than their head so that when they bask in the fog clouds, water condenses and rolls down to their mouths. After the plants, these beetles are definitely the next rung on the food pyramid out on the dunes.
There was a wide array of lizards. The diurnal, endemic shovel-snouted lizard hunts on the dunes, doing a little dance to keep its feet cool when the sand is hot and quickly diving and burrowing into the sand to escape predators. The nocturnal Namib Dune Desert has transparent skin (some of which lights up under UV torchlight), webbed feet that act like snowshoes providing traction in the sand and large lidless eyes, which collect condensation that the animal licks off and drinks. Fitzsimon’s Burrowing Skink has done away with limbs altogether and has waxy scales, which allow it to wriggle through the sand at great speed in search of small insects, which it detects by feeling their vibrations. We even found a pregnant, territorial Namaqua Chameleon, which has a much shorter tail than the chameleons we are used to seeing, as it is terrestrial and doesn’t need a ‘5th limb’ to assist with clambering through foliage. The chameleon grows to 30cm in length and we got to see that its tongue shoots out the same distance, as it happily munched down 2 tok tokkies Dain presented to it.
We found two different snake species, the first of which was Peringuey’s Adder, also known as the ‘Sidewinder’. Its way of winding along the dunes allows it to move over hot sand without overheating and it has another clever trick of ‘belly-dancing’ to sink into the sand, leaving only the top of its head with its eyes perched on top where it can lie in wait for days or even weeks, lifting and wriggling their wormlike tail on the surface of the sand to attract prey. This adaptation of having eyes on the top of the head is unique among snakes. We also saw Horned Adders, another venomous, desert species and, at night, yellow scorpions glowed brightly under the UV light as their carapaces make them light up like neon signs.
Our final morning on the Skeleton Coast was spent with another seal colony, at Pelican Point in Walvis Bay. This time we moved amongst the seals in a kayak and enjoyed a magical hour and a half of having them swim around us, some seeming to revel in splashing water over us with their tails and others playfully chewing at our oars if we left them hanging in the water. At one point, we had some of the more curious yearlings trying to clamber aboard the kayaks with us and one even took a not-so-playful nip at Babcia’s elbow… she even has the scars to prove it! This colony was spread out along the relatively sheltered beach of a spit of land that makes up the harbour entrance and was a much less harrowing experience for us. There was ample space for the territorial males to defend their patches and the young pups were grouped together and better protected than what we’d seen at Cape Cross. As the icing on the cake, a trio of dolphins visited us and swam around our kayaks for a few minutes before disappearing off into the bay.
Although the Skeleton Coast looks barren and empty, we saw that there’s still a great deal of life here, all of which has had to evolve special and often very unique ways of surviving the challenges of this harsh environment.
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