It is important to acknowledge that the documented history of the Skeleton Coast is vague and uncertain, with multiple opinions and tales found. Perhaps the true chronicles are forever lost to us in this modern day and age, and the best we can do is to wonder at the truths behind the myths.
Prior to 1973 the entire coastline of Namibia was known as the Skeleton Coast, named for the vast number of bones littering its shores. It was also dubbed “The Gates of Hell” by sailors and those attempting to settle on or colonise this inhospitable landscape and reap the benefits of its natural resources – efforts that were quickly ended. There are stories that the ancient San gave it the name “the Land God Made in Anger”.
However, on walking these shores, you will find the above names appropriate. Swedish explorer Charles John Andersson stated "Death would be preferable to banishment to such a country"; certainly, for the humans that escaped wrecked vessels with relief, and then found themselves stranded in this rugged environment with no knowledge on how to survive.
While modern times have relieved us (mostly) of such occurrences, the ghosts of the past remain tangible here, and instigate reflection on a time gone by.
In 1973, the Skeleton Coast Park was founded and stretches from the Ugab River to the Kunene River. Access to the park is on arrangement by registered tour guides or operators only, adding to the mystery of this unique and wondrous place. The Park now covers approximately 16,845 square kilometres, and is bordered by additional conservancies and protected areas, creating a space of some 146,000 square kilometres of sparsely populated conservation areas.
The Atlantic Ocean and Benguela Current make this area notorious for treacherous waters, rough surf, shifting shores and changeable weather, and often all four seasons are experienced in one day. Dense fogs frequently shroud the area, and your imagination can run wild when thinking back on the sailors that had to traverse these waters.
Over the centuries and through various attempts by explorers to establish trade routes, time and time again vessels fell victim to this coastline. Here are some that we do know of:
One of the most famous is the Blue Star Liner Dunedin Star, running afoul of these waters in 1942 while enroute from Liverpool to Cape Town. Apparently carrying munitions for the World War II efforts, crew, and a few paying passengers, it ran into trouble near Agate Beach on the Skeleton Coast. The people on board managed to escape to the shores, only to be faced with the desert, fogs, limited rations, no water and no shelter. Numerous efforts were made to rescue them, which led to a tugboat also being grounded, and those poor souls were added to the number requiring rescue. While dropping supplies, a Lockheed Ventura Bomber crashed, adding to the disaster. The remains of both can still be seen near the Dunedin Star. Thankfully, all were rescued eventually – a happier ending than most.
The Eduard Bohlen is another impressive wreck, having run aground in 1909. Over the last century, the ever-shifting sands have encroached, and appear to have moved the ship almost 500 meters inland. It was enroute from Swakopmund to Table Bay, carrying supplies for the new diamond fields that were springing up in the area. Encountering dense fogs and strong winds, the crew and Captain grew disorientated and the ship ran afoul of the Skeleton Coast.
The stories abound, as do the wrecks, giving this coastline the apt name of "a ships graveyard", with the bones peeking through the sand. Gotfrod, a tour guide along the Skeleton Coast, wrote "Sometimes I wonder how many ships have met their end here. The wreckage disappears over time, but the ghosts haven’t."
And yet, life flourishes.
The Himba and Damara people are at home here, and before them, the San, having passed the knowledge of survival on generation by generation. They have a deep understanding of the land and the wildlife and live in partnership with both. Their history is a marvellous tale of survival and success, and until today they maintain their traditional ways of life.
The wildlife too has adapted to the desert environment; the elephants generally being smaller in stature than their inland cousins, with wider feet to better walk the sands. The game is plentiful, with lion, gemsbok, zebra, hyena, jackal, duikers, and a large number of smaller creatures living here. As with life across the globe, in plentiful times the births of buck and other game increase – and thus then so does the lion population. As the lions then reduce the numbers of their prey, or perhaps drought and disease cause numbers to decrease, so then does their population. The animals are accustomed to minimal fresh water and can at times go for days without drinking as they make their way from one waterhole to another, in search of sustenance.
A trip to these rugged and desolate shores is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as you learn of the history, the people, and the wildlife. There is much more than is mentioned here, and this experience is sure to amaze even the most world-weary traveller. Do contact us to book a trip that will stay in your heart and memories forever.