Journey to the Edge of Africa – Walvis Bay and the Skeleton Coast

Journey to the Edge of Africa – Walvis Bay and the Skeleton Coast

The ocean mist that hovered over Swakopmund when we arrived yesterday has lifted this morning. The sun is shining over the quaint pseudo-Bavarian seaside resort on the Atlantic coast of Namibia, just the right preface to an early harbor cruise. Unfortunately, by the time we reach Walvis Bay, the country’s main deepwater commercial harbor 30 kilometers (20 miles) to the south, the fog has rolled in again. The horizon is an eerie line of black shadow ships fading into an uncertain curtain of gray gauze.

A Morning on the Water

Walvis-Perican lighthouse.

The Pelican Bay lighthouse emerges from the morning fog.

A slick catamaran, the Silvermoon, pulls up to the jetty, and we are off. A trio of white pelicans make their characteristic wobbly landing on the roof of the cabin and invite themselves for the ride. We pass oyster farms, a delicacy for which the area is famous, on our way to Pelican Point, the sandy peninsula that protects Walvis Bay from the assault of Atlantic Ocean. Next to its landmark lighthouse, a 34 meter (112 foot) high cast iron structure built in 1932 and still in use, the point is home to a resident colony of Cape fur seals estimated at 60,000.

Walvis Bay-Cape fur seal.

Cape fur seals put on quite a show near our boat.

Beyond the point, we sail toward a line of ships and oilrigs that have come from the offshore drilling fields of Angola for maintenance and garaging. This is a unique opportunity to get a close look at one of these giant drilling platforms. The tour ends with a copious tasting lunch of fresh local oysters (yes, they are delicious) and other regional seafood specialties as we return to port.

 

 

Walvis Bay-Lagoon.

The Walvis Bay Lagoon is host to thousands of flamingos.

Back on solid ground and with the sun now high overhead, we stop by the Walvis Bay Lagoon, one of southern Africa’s major coastal wetlands and migratory bird sanctuary, where thousands of flamingos are busy feasting on crustaceans.

 

 

 

 

The Skeleton Coast Experience

Skeleton Coast-drilling wreck.

Not all wrecks came from the sea. Deep in the dunes, this is all that remains of an aborted attempt to drill for oil.

We head north the next morning. Within a half hour from the center of Swakopmund, all signs of life fade away. Ahead of us is an endless dirt trail between rolling dunes and pounding surf. This is the West Coast Recreational Area, the southern end of the windswept strip of desert that covers the 500 kilometers (300 miles) of Atlantic coast from Swakopmund to the Angolan border, now known as Skeleton Coast. Long before it got its sinister moniker from the bones that once filled the shore, remnants of the whaling industry’s heydays, early Portuguese explorers were referring to the area as “the Gates of Hell.” Enough said. Today the skeletons that remain are most likely to be those of twentieth century ships that fell victim to hidden rocky outcrops and blinding fog.

Namibia_Skeleton Coast_Zeila,

The fishing troller Zeila, stranded on 25 August 2008 just south of Henties Bay.

An hour into the trip we stop to check out one of these skeletons, the Zeila, a rusting fishing trawler stranded in 2008. Now just another convenient perch for passing seabirds, it is slowy disintegrating under the relentless battering of the ocean. Moments later, we come upon the incongruous sight of a town in the middle of nowhere. It’s Henties Bay (population 8,000), which owes its existence to the discovery of a rare fresh water source there in 1886, and its prosperity to current day anglers who find it a bountiful fishing destination. We stop just long enough for gas and continue on to Cape Cross.

The Cape Cross Seal Reserve

Cape Cross-Seals.

Cape Cross is home of one of the largest Cape fur seal colonies in southern Africa.

Some 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Henties Bay, the Cape Cross Seal Reserve is home to one of the largest breeding colony of Cape fur seals in southern Africa (150,000 to 210,000, depending on who you ask). Either way, it’s a hugely impressive sight, and an aggression to other senses. The stench of guano hanging over the site is overwhelming, as is the din of continuous bleating from this enormous herd of sea mammals. Cape Cross owes its name to the first European known to have set foot on the Namibian coast in 1486, Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão, who erected a stone cross on the spot. The original cross found its way to Germany 1893. It can be seen today in the New Hall of the Deutsches Technikmuseum in Berlin. An exact replica was erected in 1980 on the spot where the original once stood.

Skeleton Coast-Dunedlin

The British cargo-passenger liner Dunedlin stranded on 29 November 1942 south of the Kunene River.

After a windblown picnic lunch on what has to be one of the longest beach in the world, contemplating the remains of the Dunedlin Star, a British cargo ship stranded in 1942, , we enter the Skeleton Coast National Park at its southern Ugab Gate. Said gate is actually a double portal emblazoned with giant skulls and crossbones, a none too subtle “don’t say we didn’t warn you” message. We continue on, undaunted. After another two hours of empty sea and sand, we take a sharp turn to the east, to emerge at the Springbokwasser Gate onto an alien planet of cone-shaped mountaintops, brushed with copper by a relentless sun. After the Khomas Highland, the Great Dune Field, and Skeleton Coast, I had been wondering what our awesome Wilderness Safaris guide Jimmy Limbo could possibly do for an encore? We’ve just reached the answer. We are about to enter surreally magnificent Damaraland!

Good to Know

  • Where to Stay – The four-star Hansa Hotel, 3 Hendrik Witbool Street, Swakopmund, Namibia. An historic building in its own right, it is ideally located in the historic center of town and within a few minutes’ walk from the waterfront. Contact: e-mail reservations @ hansahotel.com.na . Tel: + 264 64 414 200.
  • Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa over the past three decades. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arrange this journey around Namibia.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo traveler friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K.   Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0) 20 8758 4717 (U.K.).
  • Catamaran Charters depart every morning from Walvis Bay Waterfront, Atlantic Street, Walvis Bay, Namibia. All their catamarans feature on-deck seating as well an a large interior lounge. All their tours are led by experienced local guides. Contact: e-mail dolphin@iway.na, tel. +264 (0)64 200798.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Skeleton Coast

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Road to Solitaire

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Road to Solitaire

On the third morning of my journey across Namibia, I leave behind the red sands of the Great Dune Field and head north along the edge of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Craggy mountains still dominate the landscape, but at their base, what was barren desert when I entered the area two days ago is turning into something like a green five-o’clock shadow. I now understand the excitement of Jimmy, m amazing Wilderness Safaris guide, at the very prospect of rain.

Welcome to Solitaire

Namib-Oryx new grass.

Oryx are drawn to the new grass.

The wildlife is out in force at this promise of new grass. Small herds of springboks join the ubiquitous oryx. We also spot our first zebras and blue wildebeests. After a couple of hours of bouncing on a washboard dirt road leaving a massive trail of dust in our wake, we pull into Solitaire. The tiny desert outpost at the junction of the two gravel roads that are the main tourist routes in the area, is a de-rigueur stop for travelers. The place is right out of a 1950’s western movie set. It announces itself with deteriorating carcasses of vintage American cars scattered in the sand around the compound, and sign that goes straight to the point. “Welcome to Solitaire”.

Originally built in 1848 as a sheep farm by a Mr. van Collier, Solitaire was named by his wife, or so the story goes, both because there were diamonds in the area and the place fit the name (definitely the middle of nowhere!). Since then, it has developed into a gas station, the only place to get fuel on 340 kilometer (210 mile) trip the between Sossusvlei and Walvis Bay, a post office and general store, and a bakery.

The Moose McGregor Desert Bakery

Namibia-Solitaire_1.

Solitaire is a must stop for anyone traveling through the area,

The bakery is the main attraction these days, its apple pie famous beyond the borders of Namibia. It’s more like a crumble actually, but lets not quibble. It too comes with a story. Three decades or so ago, a Scottish adventurer, and a man bigger than life in every way, Percy Cross “Moose” McGregor came into town and never left. He was a wonderful baker who started to sell baked goods, including the aforementioned pie (from an old family recipe, of course), and the word spread around the world. Sadly, Moose passed away in 2014, but his legacy lives on. His meal-size squares of delicious Moose apple pie, served right out of the pan and still warm from the oven, are clearly the reason why a stop at Solitaire now figures on every tourist itinerary.

Tropic of Capricorn

Namib-Kuyseb River.

The ephemeral Kuiseb River meanders through the canyon,

Just 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Solitaire, we pass the Tropic of Capricorn. Then the road starts climbing in twist and turns, going around drop-offs sufficiently steep they warrant the first guardrails I have seen on this trip, to the top of the Gaub Pass. I take in the spectacular view of the stark schist rock face the Kuiseb Canyon below and black badlands undulating from its rim to the horizon as we snake down toward the river. The canyon was formed five million years ago, when a wetter climate prevailed in the interior and the river chiseled a narrow gorge through the Great Escarpment.

Namib-West of Kuiseb.

West of the Kuiseb Pass, the desert is framed by  mountains..

Today, the Kuiseb River is a sluggish ribbon of opaque brown water in no rush to vanish into the dunes some 80 kilometers (50 miles) downstream. Yet this is an exceptional sight, since for most of the year this ephemeral river is no more than a broad, dry sandy riverbed.

One more arduous climb on the other side of the canyon over the Kuiseb Pass, and the landscape goes through another metamorphosis as we head west toward Walvis Bay. We are back into the desert, flat, empty, endless; 140 kilometers (85 miles) of desolation framed by the distant outline of rocky outcrops worn smooth by an eternity of sand and wind.

Walvis-Oil rig.

The ouline of an oil rig appears from the mist off Walvis Bay.

Suddenly the gravel road turns to tarmac, and an immensity of colorless water rolls through the sea fog, with the eerie outline of an oil-drilling platform suspended above it. Walvis Bay, the only deepwater commercial seaport in Namibia, is also a servicing and parking destination for rigs and ships from the offshore drilling sites of Angola to the north.

 

 

The Swakopmund Time Warp

Namibia-Swakopmund.

The onion dome of the Swakopmund Deutsche Evengelisch-Lutherische Church channels Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany.

It’s another half-hour ride up the coast to Swakopmund, where we enter yet another time warp. Founded at the turn of the twentieth century, in the haydays of German South-West Africa, this resort town remains a living monument to its colonial past. It may be one hundred years since Germany relinquished the control of Namibia, but its cultural influence remains entrenched throughout the town. From the onion dome of the Deutsche Evengelisch-Lutherische Church to the neat, white-trimmed pastel buildings and the German street signage in angular Gothic script, all of it channels Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. Even the ocean mist, which lifts only briefly today, conspires to give the town the feel of a small, off-season Baltic coast vacation town that time forgot.

Swakopmumd-Hansa Hotel.

The Hansa Hotel (circa 1905) retains its old-world atmosphere.

The Hansa Hotel, where we spend the next two nights, is right in character. The oldest hotel in town (circa 1905), it is an integral part of the local architectural heritage. Although fully renovated in 2014, it retains its traditional old-world atmosphere, with welcome twenty-first century additions such as air-conditioning and reliable WiFi throughout. Its central location, a few minutes’ walk away from everywhere in the historic center and the waterfront, is ideal to explore the city at leisure.

 

Good to Know

  • Where to Stay – The four-star Hansa Hotel, 3 Hendrik Witbool Street, Swakopmund, Namibia. Contact: e-mail reservations @ hansahotel.com.na . + 264 64 414 200.
  •  Wilderness Safaries  is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa, recognized for its responsible tourism practices over the past three decades. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arrange this journey around Namibia.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo traveler-friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K.   Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0) 20 8758 4717 (U.K.).

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Solitaire