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Shipwreck along the Skeleton Coast

We woke this morning again to the sound of the sea outside. What started out as a dull and cloudy morning soon cleared up and the sun shone through. I think we were the last people up for breakfast, fishermen are obviously early risers, which was on a par with last night’s dinner, OK but a little overdone. We have enjoyed our brief stop at Terrace Bay but value for money is not something you get here. It has been more expensive that most of the places we have stayed in on our trip. Our room had quirky character but for the price you would expect more up to date facilities and the catering team could do with a refresher course. That said all of the staff here have been very friendly and welcoming.

With a full tank of petrol we set off heading south with no real firm plan of where we would end up at the end of the day. There are a few campsites marked along the way but we suspected that they would be as bleak and desolate as the one at Torra Bay, simply a few sites and washroom blocks on the beach with nothing else around for miles. Our suspicions were correct and needless to say we didn’t camp.

The first part of our trip today was simply backtracking along the route we had travelled up the coast yesterday. Where we had yesterday passed a small section with long green grasses growing we today noticed a pool of water off to the left of the road with a few ducks floating away and springboks grazing around the edge. We were surprised to see the springboks as they would have had to come across 30km or so of desert to get to this watering hole, which is probably salt water rather than fresh.

We spotted a couple of fishermen out trying their luck and pulled up for a quick chat. Their tackle is pretty impressive with the rods being about five metres long. Some people have specially designed trailers to carry them in, others have racks on the front of their cars with the rods held vertically fanning out against the wind. One chap didn’t want to talk obviously fearing that we were coming to learn and steal his tactics. The other was quite happy to chat away. He told us the fishing wasn’t too good at the moment because the wind and tides were strong and it made it hard work.

Carrying on south we were soon on the C34, a salt road than runs down the coast to Swakopmund. Around us was just total desolation. As far as you can see there is nothing other than sand, sand and more sand and you start to understand why this stretch of coastline is called the Skeleton Coast. Off shore there are sandbanks which over the years have caught ships off guard resulting in wrecks. For those that survived the wrecks this is a hostile place with no shade and no fresh water so few if any survived landing here. Hence the name.

There is some variation in the landscape though and it gradually creeps up on you. In some stretches there are small low bushes, odd splashes of green contrasting to the sand. The sand itself looks grey as if someone has either burnt the surface or tipped a huge ashtray out over it. Generally the road was solid and firm but in places a dusting of sand had built up which, when the wind was blowing, could make it difficult to see the road ahead.

After about forty minutes driving we saw a rare sight, a car coming in the other direction. Another twenty or so minutes further on we passed an abandoned oil rig, now lying ghostlike on its side in the sand. Further on a sign pointed down to the beach on our right, the place of one of the many shipwrecks to dot this line of coast. Most of the ship is long gone but some of the wooden structure remains and the metal winches used for pulling in the fishing nets. One of the winches still has rope wrapped round it ready and waiting for action.

Although we were driving through desert and sand there were still signs of the rivers that spring to life in the wet season. Long flat dips in the road were clearly the river beds and it must be a yearly task to recreate the roads after the rains. The Ugab River was not the largest but was the one that is still being repaired and was the bumpiest part of the ride. Just after this we were reached the other check point for the Skeleton Coast Park and “checked out”. Here there was a large group of South African men all heading up to Terrace Bay for the fishing. It was late morning when we got there, probably about 11:30, and they were already well on the way to alcoholic oblivion. Two women from Oxford were also there checking in to the park, both a little apprehensive at the thought of spending the night in a remote spot with a large group of drunken South African men. I’m sure they survived.

From here south the road quality improved. It was still not a tarmac road, except for one section way down south where a bridge (a novelty in Namibia) crossed a river. Marker posts showed the edge of the road along the way but even they did little to break the monotony of the drive. It’s easy to see how people manage to flip their cars on these roads. There is little to help keep your concentration and it’s easy to find your mind wandering. On the few occasions that we stopped to take a photo my eyes took a while to adjust to us being stationery and created the impression that the road was still moving beneath us even though we were going nowhere. It was the same sort of effect I’d had on the walkway of the Niah Caves in Malaysia.

As we clocked through the miles our thoughts started to turn to where to stay for the night. At Cape Cross we turned off to see the seal colony, thinking that we might stay at the lodge next door. Paying our park entrance fees we saw the prices for the lodge (around £150 for two people) and decided we would carry on south. Having seen the seals they also provided another good reason to keep going – there was a pretty unpleasant smell in the air!

Seal with an attitude at Cape Cross
Sunset at Swakopmund

Cape Cross is a small peninsula, named for the cross in honour of John 1 of Portugal which was erected by Diego Cao, the first European to set foot in South West Africa. The seals here are fur seals, a species that, unusually for seals, has ears. At any time during the year there are between 80,000 and 100,000 seals here and they totally cover the cape. Out at sea loads of seals were playing in the waves, surfing in on the tide and jumping through the larger waves further out. They looked like they were having great fun. On land, more were basking in the sun with playful young pups being growled at by older seals who were trying to get some kip.

From here we carried on south deciding to pass Hentiesbaai and carry on to Swakopmund. Stef by this stage was nodding off with boredom but fortunately I was driving at the time. The further south we headed the busier the road became with the traffic almost exclusively being 4x4’s loaded with fishing gear. Soon the outskirts of Swakopmund surrounded us and we headed down to the beach to stop and ponder options for accommodation. We checked in to the Strand hotel which not only had availability but also had a sea view. We rushed to get our gear out of the truck, dump it in our room and head out to the nearest bar so we would be in time to see the sun go down.

The Lighthouse bar had a great view across the bay and as we walked in I saw a man smiling with recognition at me. At the table next to us was one of the couples in our group when we saw the cave paintings at Twyfelfontein and we sat and chatted to them for a while. Not surprisingly we are heading in the same direction but they are now a few days ahead of us so it’s unlikely that our paths will cross again. They had bumped into the other people in our group and we had also seen some of the Germans we had visited the Himba village at Opuwo with. So within less than half an hour of our arrival at Swakopmund it lived up to its reputation as the tourist beach destination of Namibia.

At Terrace Bay it had been windy but warm but here, just 200 miles further south there was a definite chill in the air. We both started to get cold so I left Stef nursing his beer and popped back to our hotel for our fleeces. A few days ago I had had an “I want to be snug in my fleece” moment and here I was all snuggled up in my fleece and it felt great. We decided to stay at the Lighthouse for dinner and had a really tasty meal with Canadian sized portions.

Although we had not really travelled far in terms of distance the condition of the road means you are averaging just 45mph so it is slow going. Combined with the monotony of the scenery it also makes it a very tiring way to travel and before long we both reached the stage where we needed sleep. When I checked my watch we were both surprised at how early it was and we were tucked up in bed by 8:00pm – on a Saturday night!!