Our journey to the Namibian coast was an introduction to what happens when the sandy arid desert meets the Benguela currents of the ocean, and hot and cool air frequently mix to create a massive wall of fog. Within one block, we went from “shorts and tank tops” to “jeans and hoodies” kind of weather. That is not to say that the coast doesn’t get the sunlight that it too craves, but the climate is far more mild and San Francisco beach-like. On our way to Swakopmund, we stopped in Walvis Bay, specifically to see the large flamingo and bird populations that call this salty bay home. We were impressed at how modern the residential part of the city was, and surprised by all of the new neighborhood and home development. In comparison, Swakopmund had older, historical architecture that had a distinctly European influence, specifically German colonial.
From Swakopmund, we obtained a permit to do a self-drive exploration of more of the Namib-Naukluft park. We were provided with a map and written description of numbered sights, which told the unique story of the rare lichen and welwitschia plants of this moonscape region. Welwitschias are a desert plant, often referred to as a “living fossil”, that are endemic to Namibia. There are both male and female plants that have only two leaves apiece, which can grow as long as 4 meters over their 1000-2000 year life span! These leaves do split and fray, creating several scrappy, strap-like sections.
The next day we continued inland to dry camp out by granite peaks of Spitzkoppe. This destination provided a dramatic landscape of bald rock formations and ancient San rock paintings. The children were enthusiastic climbers of all the rock bridges, arches and boulders, which almost led to catastrophe… One evening while Dan and I were preparing dinner and setting up for our nightly campfire, the kids were clambering above us over a rocky outcrop with the dassies. The sun was just beginning its descent, and the bornhardts around us were glowing like orange and red embers, when our moment of peace and appreciation was shattered by Gabriel and Stella’s screams. The hair on my arms shot straight up, as Gabriel screeched for our urgent help. I could hear wails and high-pitched cries, but could not see where they were. Dan was already running up the rocks, well ahead of my panicked pace. Gabriel was pleading with Stella to hold on, as she was close to slipping down a crack between two large boulders that she had tried to jump between. Dan said that she was flat on her stomach, not likely to have truly fallen, but couldn’t get her footing to push herself up in the midst of her gripping fear. I watched Dan come to the rescue and calm our children, with blood pumping in my ears and adrenalin still coursing through my body. That feeling of high stress and fear took at least an hour to settle, and my muscles were sore and exhausted in the aftermath. Both Dan and I had plenty of time in those confused seconds to imagine snake bites and broken bones, hard pictures to let go of during our solemn dinner.
The next day had us heading back to the refreshing chill of the coast, where we visited the small headland of Cape Cross. This is now a protected area which is home to one of the largest cape fur seal colonies in the world. Apparently, the seals are culled here in an effort to protect the fish stock, as they monopolize this part of the coast, consuming more fish than the industry can catch. It was a foul-smelling stop, where we spied many pups and lazy, raucous, or downright aggressive grown seals.
After a night’s rest (as far from the stench that we could camp), we entered the skull and crossbones, national park gates of the illustrious Skeleton Coast. The Portuguese sailors gave this Atlantic coastline the moniker – “Gates of Hell”, while the Namibian bushmen referred to this area as “The land God made in anger”. It represents a desolate stretch of land up to Angola, which has an inhospitable climate, with less than 10 millimeters of rain a year and fierce offshore winds. We witnessed dense ocean fog and rough surf, as well as the carcasses of many ships that had run afoul of this misery. These shipwrecks, along with the bones of seals and other marine life, and the rusty frames of diamond and mining industry gone bust, all support the “skeleton” description of this region.
We were not allowed to stay/camp within the park, only to “transit” through a portion of its range during the day and exit succinctly. During our 5 hour drive through the park, we may have seen two other vehicles. We made a few pit stops to study the geology of the desert floor bed, approach the water’s edge, and visit the ruins of sea and land. At the entry gate, a ranger had lightly cautioned us that there are desert lions in the park, rarely seen. Although we too, never encountered a live feline, we had the unsettling experience of spotting paw prints at three different sights. The most “freaky” of these discoveries (as Gabriel would say), was on the beach below the high tide line, which could only mean that it was relatively fresh, as opposed to a preserved section of dry and cracked sand elsewhere. Scanning our surrounds, we decided that this was too much for us, and prompted an eery and quick return to the safety of our camper truck. As we scuttled back, Gabriel exclaimed, “When you were a kid did you ever walk on a beach with lion prints on it??? I am only 8 years old! I am freaking out!!!”
We continued unscathed, enjoying a grilled cheese lunch on the side of the road at the top of a pass. The ghostly coast lingered in my mind, as we exited.