The Gates of Hell: Namibia's Desolate Skeleton Coast

by bowerk10

Looking for somewhere remote with stunning scenery? An exclusive eco-friendly holiday in the wilderness? Visit Namibia's Skeleton Coast, its desert, dunes and wildlife and camp in a dry riverbed.

I feel I need to say something; the grating sound’s getting louder by the minute.

"Is there anything wrong with the engine?" I ask as casually as I can.

I’m squashed against the door of the Land Rover, being poked in the ribs. We’re grinding to a halt, at an acute angle, half way up a sand dune.

Our guide, Bariar Tugendapi, chuckles. Apparently he always sees the funny side of things. His hand reaches for a lower gear then realises there isn’t one.

"Oops," he remarks, his eyes sparkling. "A problem with the engine you say?" He mulls it over. (I’m sure we start to slide)."Well it wouldn’t be the first time, but that, that grinding sound, that’s sand rattling round the brake system."

I look alarmed.

"Oh don’t worry. It’s only a problem if we want to stop. (We’re definitely sliding now). But at a time like this, it’s best to keep moving. If we stop we’re really in trouble." He grins.

Although it’s clear Bariar isn’t bothered, I’d prefer it if we were more in control. We’ve set off on a 200-mile day trip to one of the bleakest coastlines in the world and now we’re at the mercy of shifting sand.

Six Tents on a Dry Riverbed

I’d arrived at Skeleton Coast in Namibia the day before, taking off from the capital Windhoek and flying over the vast Khomas highlands towards the coast. I came with just 11 others on a trip organised by the tour operator Wilderness Safaris ( Our camp is six tents on a dry riverbed.

Skeleton Coast has been a national park since the 70s and is one of the most desolate and protected areas in the world. Visitor numbers are strictly regulated to preserve the fragile landscape. Independent travellers can apply for permits for day trips but only for the southern region – the area between Ugabmund and Terrace Bay.

If you want to head North, anywhere between the Hoanib and Kunene Rivers, you need to join an organised trip. They’re small and exclusive. It isn’t cheap but the landscape you visit is spectacular.

As we flew in I watched musty green waves break ferociously onto a damp brown shoreline. Beyond, there was nothing but sand – an expanse of curved patterns and gentle ridges, as if the waves had just withdrawn and were about to wash over again. The colours were magical: golds, browns, russets and shades of grey with a hint of purple.

The wheels of the landrover squeal. We lurch forward. The stark line separating the dune from the brilliant blue sky levels itself. Bariar is back in business.

We carve our way through the Namib. The landscape’s five million years old, yet it seems like we’re the first to discover it. Ours are the only tyre marks; yellow stripes meandering round gravel plains and rare lichens. We pass small mounds of pale orange sand, blown by the wind. It’s as if tiny graves have been scattered over the desert, each with its own flowers.

Without compass or Sat Nav, Bariar follows a route I can’t make out. He suggests I look for the odd ’unexpected stone’, placed as an indication to turn left or right or double back a touch. Our path reminds us we’re guests in a delicate ecosystem.

Gates of Hell

Finally we reach the coast. Here the suffocating heat of the Namib meets its rival in the freezing Atlantic, its cross currents crashing in over rocky outcrops, hidden reefs and treacherous sandbanks. Portuguese sailors once called it the Gates of Hell. Bushmen in central Namibia still speak of the land God made in anger.

I climb out of the Land Rover into a massive graveyard. The shore is littered with the bones of whales, seals and turtles. The wind shunts me from one lot of remains the next.

"And human skeletons?" I ask. The stark reality of the place releases me from inhibition.

"Of course!" he shouts back. "It’s the place of a thousand shipwrecks." His voice is almost lost in the wind.

He tells us how the British liner the Dunedin Star ran aground here during World War 2, packed with munitions and passengers. A tug, the Sir Charles Elliott went to her aid but sank off Rocky Point. We crouch over the simple, stone grave of two crewmen who tried to coordinate the rescue effort. They got a rope from the liner to the shore but collapsed soon after. Every now and then I catch the glimpse of their wrecked boat, craning for recognition above the waves.

 We drive along the shoreline for miles, past windblown seabirds, scuttling orange ghost crabs and pied crows. A jackal stops gambolling and flops onto the sand. The air is thick with spray. For most of the year the coast’s shrouded in dense fog.

Light relief

At Cape Frio, thousands of fur seals provide light relief. Their noise and smell is almost overwhelming, but their antics draw us close. The surf is full of black splodges. Occasionally a rock twitches, rolls over and throws itself into the sea.

In the afternoon we slide down the famous ‘roaring’ sand dunes of the Namib Desert. Although I was aware of their name I still glanced up, believing a plane was rumbling above us. The sound is eerie and disconcerting.

 The next few days are spent closer to camp, hiking through gorges,spotting desert-adapted elephants, ostriches and zebra. We pass the Himba people, herding their goats across the wasteland; their children squeal with laughter - a little boy, keen to impress, somersaults over a dune and falls flat on his face.

Protecting the environment

As we enjoy our surroundings there’s a deeper awareness of the importance of conservation. We learn that our camp has no fences so animals can roam where they please. Neither are there permanent buildings which would have disturbed the land. Wilderness Safaris which runs the operation has won awards for its green credentials and works hard for them.

Its commitment to low impact tourism means staff travel 60 miles to collect water from a bore hole, when it would be easier to fly bottles in; reliance on solar energy means the kitchen often has to cope with limited power; all rubbish is bagged up and flown out.

As I wind up one of the torches to guide me back to my tent, I marvel at the wilderness. Outside, the temperature’s dropped. Nights in the desert are cold. To my delight there’s a hot water bottle in my bed. I curl myself round it.



Karen Bowerman is an award-winning travel writer & TV presenter. She writes for various magazines and shoots and presents travel films for the BBC's global channel, BBC World.

She began life as a consumer reporter, answering and solving travellers' problems for BBC World TV. Consumer travel remains one of her specialisms along with adventure/activity and eco travel and conservation. One of her more challenging assignments was taking part in a replica Phoenician ship expedition, filming life on board as the crew attempted to recreate the first circumnavigation of Africa - filming had to be slotted in around pumping the bilge, mending the rudder and getting up for the 4am watch.

She won Broadcast Journalist of the Year in the 2010 Travel Press awards, is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers and was shortlisted for Best TV Broadcaster in the Kingsley Awards, 2009.