‘Shipwrecked’ on the Skeleton Coast

Caroline Shearing feels the force of nature in the Namibian wilderness where death and beauty meet

A lone wreck is slowly swallowed by the sands along the Skeleton Coast
A lone wreck is slowly swallowed by the sands along the Skeleton Coast
Image: Getty Images

Grains of sand hurtled through the darkness as an unrelenting wind buffeted the “shipwrecked” cabin in which I had sought refuge for the night. A thunderous soo-oop-wa, the onomatopoeic name for the eerie shrieks and sighs that blow across one of Africa’s most notorious stretches of coastline, drowned out the roar of waves barrelling to shore.

Cast adrift on the Skeleton Coast, an untameable strip on the north-western fringes of Namibia and one of Earth’s last great wildernesses, I had never felt more exposed to the extreme forces of nature. Oddly, in a region that evokes images of death, I had also never felt more alive.

My first glimpse of the Kaokoveld, or “coast of loneliness” as it is known in the local Herero language, had come earlier that day from the window of a light aircraft: a vast cream sea of dunes, edged by the wide blue South Atlantic. As we began our descent through swirling winds, roiling waves lashing at the shore, I understood why the Herero also call this “the land God made in anger”.

Harbouring a wish to set foot on this enigmatic land, I had been lured by the promise of wild adventure and an escape from the world: Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries on earth, second only to Mongolia, and the Skeleton Coast its loneliest corner.

Individual cabins at Shipwreck Lodge
Individual cabins at Shipwreck Lodge

Access to the north of the Skeleton Coast National Park, which was established in 1971 and covers an area about three-quarters the size of Wales, is restricted to around 1,000 visitors annually. The opening this summer of Shipwreck Lodge (shipwrecklodge.com.na), one of few eco-hotels in the park and the first on its northerly shores, has made the Skeleton Coast marginally more accessible to travellers.

Walking out across the barren sand, it was as though I had landed on another planet. I was met by Niki, my guide for the next few days, and we clambered into a jeep for the hour-long drive north to the hotel.

The dunes appeared devoid of life but as we paused in Mowe Bay, a huddle of weather-beaten huts for scientists and researchers, we encountered a colony of Cape fur seals lazing on rocks as a pair of black-backed jackals patrolled nearby. Further along the coast we spotted a brown hyena skulking along the shoreline. Niki instructed me to keep a lookout for elephants, giraffes and, if we were lucky, lions. In this harsh environment, which forms part of the Namib, the world’s oldest desert, I hadn’t expected such a diverse range of wildlife.

The jeep came to a halt and I was alarmed to spot a blood-red beach which, on closer inspection, was made up of sparkling grains of garnet. The dazzling display partly explains why this stretch of coast has remained largely off-limits: garnet often indicates diamonds nearby. Alas, an abandoned mine stands as a warning for those who might be tempted here by get-rich-quick schemes. At last we caught sight of a row of blonde-wood cabins dotted above the dunes. On entering, I was instantly transported into a world of convivial maritime luxury. I was handed a welcome drink and directed to a comfy banquette overlooking the beach.

Sundowners at Shipwreck Lodge
Sundowners at Shipwreck Lodge

The coastline’s macabre modern-day moniker, which derives from the whale bones and shipwrecks strewn across its shores, was popularised by a book by John H Marsh in 1944. This factual account of the loss of MV Dunedin Star, a British cargo ship which ran aground off the coast in 1942 en route from Liverpool to Egypt via SA, also inspired Nina Maritz, an award-winning Namibian architect, in the design of Shipwreck Lodge. A discombobulating combination of coastal fogs, shifting offshore sandbanks and the powerful Benguela current has sent countless ships to a watery grave in these treacherous waters. When the Dunedin Star was wrecked, 63 men, women and children were stranded for almost a fortnight.

With the lodge’s many whimsical touches, from the bone-like ribs bolted to the exterior of each cabin to exposed panels of chipboard inside, Maritz wanted to create the impression that this imaginative hotel could have been built by castaways using items salvaged from a shipwreck. “The Skeleton Coast is so exquisite; we owed it to the place to build something special,” she said.

It certainly would have taken an industrious bunch to pull together the guest cabins, which are spoiling havens featuring velvet day beds, wood-burning stoves and subtle nautical references. The largest of the 11 cabins is a cosy communal space where meals and drinks are served amid a flotsam and jetsam of artfully mismatched furniture.

The morning after my arrival, I awoke to a brilliant blue sky and an all-encompassing silence. The paw prints of jackals and other small animals criss-crossed the dunes and I marvelled at the ethereal beauty of sand, sea and sky.

We set out across the so-called singing dunes en route to a bay north of Rocky Point further up the coast. The Sir Charles Elliott, a tugboat sent from Walvis Bay to assist the stricken Dunedin Star, ran into trouble and sank here, resulting in the deaths of Angus McIntyre, the first officer whose body was never found, and Mathias Koraseb, a deckhand, now buried beneath the poignant inscription “Who died that his shipmates may live”. Unfortunately, what’s left of the Dunedin Star, 69km north, is inaccessible from this point.

The communal lounge area at Shipwreck Lodge
The communal lounge area at Shipwreck Lodge

At dinner I chatted to Maritz about the challenges of operating in one of the world’s most hostile environments. Maintenance is a daily battle against the elements. The lodge is also expected to adhere to strict controls to minimise its environmental impact: jeeps must follow existing tyre tracks and all waste must be carefully stored and removed from the site.

The next morning we headed inland along the Hoarusib, an ephemeral river close to Shipwreck Lodge, where we encountered baboons, a feisty honey badger and an array of bird life. We stopped briefly at a camp high above a fork in the river where I bumped into André Schoeman, son of the late Louw Schoeman who was instrumental in securing protected status for the Skeleton Coast. Just before dusk, having been delayed en route by a herd of elephants, I arrived at Hoanib Valley Camp, my home for the next few nights. Cradled in a crescent-shaped mountain, the recently opened camp occupies a mesmerising spot above the Hoanib (find out more at naturalselection.travel, click on Namibia and then ‘Hoanib Valley Camp’). This river of sand and ana trees runs through Kaokoland, bordering the Skeleton Coast and Angola.

Hoanib Valley Camp may look desolate, but luxury awaits
Hoanib Valley Camp may look desolate, but luxury awaits

The camp is a cluster of six cavernous and beautifully designed tents. I met Nat Sullivan and Emma Wells, researchers for the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, which works in partnership with the lodge. They accompanied me on game drives, along with knowledgeable guides Festus Mbinga and Mwezi Bupilo, to record sightings of giraffes. These loping giants appeared ubiquitous but Sullivan explained the world’s tallest mammal is in fact facing a “silent extinction”.

It’s not the only way of life under threat. Sitting in the dust alongside a mud hut in a nearby village, I met a tribeswoman who told me she had been forced to end her formal education after a mobile school, which encouraged Himba traditions, closed. She now sits on a roadside selling store-bought trinkets to tourists. The impact of travellers interacting with local tribes is a complicated issue globally, but tourism is still in its infancy here and a considered approach should be implemented. Hoanib Valley Camp and Shipwreck Lodge both work with and employ people from local communities, and are exploring how guests can better support the Himba.

On my final evening, Mbinga called me away from the campfire for a tour of the southern hemisphere heavens above. I peered through my binoculars to find the view obscured by remnants of the day’s adventures: powder-soft grains of sand, forever embedded in my soul. – The Telegraph

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