A day-long, 4×4 adventure from Hoanib Skeleton Coast takes you on a safari to the Skeleton Coast, Namibia, through a wildly beautiful landscape. With the chance of seeing desert elephant and lion, you end up on the Skeleton Coast National Park’s shipwreck-lined shore frequented by 50,000 seals.
We set off early in a 4×4 from Namibia’s Hoanib Skeleton Coast. Our guide, Fanie, picked up fresh lion spoor soon after we left camp. ‘They must be very close,’ he muttered.
Suddenly, a roar from the trees shattered the desert silence. It echoed through the gorge and raised the hairs on the back of our necks. We drove through a dip … and there he was, a magnificent male, his golden mane catching the early morning rays. Two females slid out of the bush behind him. We sat there enthralled, watching the desert lion amble along the riverbed, then flop down in the shade of a tamarisk tree. ‘Better press on, folks, we’ve got a lot to see today,’ said Fanie.
We drove west towards the ocean, following the dry bed of the Hoanib River. ‘In years of good rainfall, animals follow these watercourses – effectively linear oases – down towards the Atlantic,’ explained Fanie. ‘So it’s possible to come upon herds of game on northern Namibian beaches: a curious sight indeed.’
A little later, Hartmann’s mountain zebras cantered beside us, their hooves making a ceramic clink on the stones. Meerkat poked their noses inquisitively at our passing; kudu stood dead still, trying to look like witgats (shepherd’s trees). The birding was also very good. Benguela long-billed larks whistled from the tall grass, black-chested snake eagles and augur buzzards drifted above us on the thermals. A Ludwig’s bustard lumbered into the air and Namaqua sandgrouse called their characteristic chant on the wing.
As we drove, Fanie talked about desert elephant, ecosystems and geology. His love of the Kaokoveld was palpable. ‘The thing that makes this place so special is that you have four of the Big Five roaming a wilderness that lies outside any national park,’ he said. ‘It’s truly untamed Africa.’
Rounding a bend, we came upon a small herd of elephant munching on a stand of camelthorn trees. ‘These are very special ellies,’ said Fanie. ‘To survive in such a dry environment, desert pachyderms range widely, travelling up to 60km a day between springs. Unlike their cousins in the rest of southern Africa, they’re careful with the vegetation and sparing with water. Their body language suggests they know how precious are their limited resources.’
We entered Skeleton Coast National Park – a stark landscape of dune fields, salt pans and mountains seamed with agate. We passed Klein Oasis and veered northwest. The Land Rover halted at Möwe Bay, named after the German ship, Möwe, whose logbook recorded the first official sighting of Cape fur seals on this coast in 1884.
Fanie stopped and we got out to have a closer look at the glittering gemstone beach, a feature of Möwe Bay. The stones are smoothed and polished by wave action and gleam like a multicoloured carpet of semi-precious stones.
We reached a section of coast frequented by 50,000 Cape fur seals. It was mating season, and there was noisy pandemonium on the beach. Scavengers hung around the edges ready to pick off the weaker pups when they got separated from their mothers. I saw a group of jackals drag a baby onto a ridge and devour it. Nearby, lappet-faced vultures were doing the same.
Further north, we approached a shipwreck on the beach. ‘For hundreds of years, the Skeleton Coast has been a graveyard of ships,’ said Fanie. ‘Its harbourless shoreline, dense fog and treacherous currents have wreaked havoc on Atlantic traffic. Many wrecks have been obliterated by the sun, sea and wind, but a few are still visible.’
We stopped and climbed out. ‘This is the Suiderkus, wrecked in 1976. She was a modern fishing trawler which ran aground on her maiden voyage, despite having a decent navigation system. After a few months, most of the ship had disintegrated. But, as you can see, a large portion of the hull survives.’
High and dry, the wreck looked like it was currently home to a colony of cormorants. Fanie unpacked a picnic basket and we enjoyed a lazy lunch on the windswept beach. Then it was time to head back. We drove to Möwe Bay, where a Cessna waited at the landing strip to whisk us back to camp. The plane took off and swooped over the Suiderkus wreck and seal colony.
I watched the dramatic landscape unspool below us. At 2,000m, we were suspended above an ancient, scored land. Watercourses sliced westward, seeking the coast, or faltering in unending sand. There were no marks of humans. The scale was immense, the colours a kaleidoscope of beige, as though acid had been spilt from the sky, staining the land with streaks.
Finally, a sandy landing strip. Our pilot buzzed the field to chase away the loitering springbok and plopped down in a cloud of dust. Desert lion, shipwrecks, a seal colony and a wild and entrancing coastline: it had been a day I’ll never forget.