Skeleton Coast

Trekking in Namibia's Incredible National Parks and Wildlife Reserves
By Tamiko Warden

I must travel to vast lands where few people go, where nature is raw, astounding, and I can re-discover myself in the silence.

In Namibia, where tribes still carry the spirit and artistry of prehistory, I found soft sand mountains along desert coastlines beaten by surf, and barren salt pans beaten by the sun. One night I slept on top of a koppie, a small gently rounded granite outcropping. There was the Southern Cross, Orion—all the stars of two hemispheres. I was afraid to close my eyes, thinking I might miss something.

Namibia's ancient indigenous people watched those same stars, believing each was the soul of a human being. How can you be lonely? All who have shared your life and gone before you still gaze down protectively. Yet in modern times rumor has it that the guides need to be trained to handle people who go crazy in Namibia's silence. With less than four people for every square mile in a country four times the size of Great Britain, it is one of the least populated places on earth.

The Namib is also one of the oldest deserts on the planet. Relentless winds beside a treacherous stretch of icy Atlantic sculpt a rugged land known in the north as the Skeleton Coast, named for its wrecked ships and lost lives. Yet the sea brings life: thick coastal fogs provide the rare moisture that nurtures a fascinating ecosystem.

Crossing the border out of Kalahari Gemsbok, we drove north toward a horizon so distant I couldn't tell where sky ended and mirage began. Hours of hot, lonely roads and empty waysides stretched behind us. The sun swallowed clouds, chewing them into white wisps before they vanished. Distant, blue mountains deepened to purple as we came closer.

The desert changed as we drove through the Valley of the Moon, a hellish place where two German soldiers hid during World War II for years, living like Bushmen. Rocks, strewn about in a frenzy, revealed veins of quartz and green minerals when I looked closely. Namibia is like this—when you stop to look, the earth is rich. Soon we saw nothing but sand. Winds blew the car sideways and burned our faces. By the time we reached Namib Naukluft National Park, we felt we were at the end of the world.

Our first hike was a 4-mile early morning walk to the sand dunes of Sossusvlei, largest in the world. Overlooking the dunes is a dry white pan which was fed by rivers in millennia past, and once supported incredible life. Now the rains come to this area perhaps once a decade to fill the pan with water for a few weeks of paradise, and flamingos arrive by the hundreds. "If I should hear it rains here," our guide told us, "I will drop everything and fly to Sossusvlei to see the flamingos."

We tracked an oryx. Smooth cloven hooves joined spoor of small field mice, countless birds, and, of course, human's jeep tracks in the soft sand. Appearing from the side as one, an oryxs' elegant spiral horns fueled the unicorn myth, and its distinct black and white markings ripple against red sand. It is said that they will fight even lions, which are fearful of the spear-like weaponry.

Dunes divided in a sharp line, leaving one side in snaky, sweet-soft shadow. We jumped joyously down steep banks to the pan, where we took off our boots and emptied the sifting treasure. It seemed a sin to walk the pristine ridges, but for the knowledge that wind will soon erase our footprints as if we never existed.

Further north, we explored Etosha National Park . Salt plains vibrated with water mirages where elephant, zebra, giraffe and lion sought precious water holes. I slept one night in a camp near Okaukuejo, the largest water hole. A mother rhino and baby came to drink, guided only by starlight. She was ever alert, ears swung out for any sound of predators. A skittish zebra led his herd to water's edge, and then a giraffe drank cautiously, splayed legs mirrored by the dark water.

We drove to the coast, and the air there was thick with brine. Portuguese explorer Diego Cco landed in 1486 and planted a cross in the name of country and Christendom. When we visited the shore was awash in Cape fur seals. The smell of birth was heavy, and mothers barked at dark-coat pups. Near the colony, black-backed jackals paced the crowd's edge patiently—nearly one-third of the pups are bound for an early death by premature birth, suffocation, or predators.

Leaving behind birth and death on the shore, we headed south to our starting point, South Africa, via Ai-Ais Hot Springs and Fish River Canyon."This you must see," our South African guide told us, "for it will completely take your breath away!" We stood at the edge of the canyon, overlooking what only God or gods could create, an enormous gash in the desert floor, the river's snakelike wiggle far below.

Later, on the road again, clouds approached the car and a few hard drops hit the windshield. "Rain!" cried our South African guide, and he leaned out and opened his mouth to the sky's blessing. In the desert, there are brief times when clouds prevail, but victory goes to the sun.


Namibia is near the southwestern tip of the African continent; adjacent countries South Africa, Botswana, Angola. Capital: Windhoek.

When to go ...
Wet season: December to April

Getting there, tours, etc...
Major airlines serving Windhoek: Air Namibia, Lufthansa, South. African Express Airways, LTU.

Many tour companies serve wildlife areas using 4x4s. Camping, photo tours, backpacking, bush cabins available. For example: Chameleon Safaris, Box 6107, Windhoek, Namibia. Others based out of U.S. include Fish Eagle Safaris; Himalayan Travel; Voyagers International.

To read...
See "Africa's Skeleton Coast" in National Geographic, January, 1992, issue.

National Geographic has long sponsored researchers Des and Jen Bartlett and their eight-year sojourn in the Namib. This article is a must-read for anyone considering a visit; the Australian filmmakers have also done several documentaries which air regularly on the Discovery Channel. Also "Living Sands of the Namib," by William J. Hamilton III, National Geographic, September 1983.

Parks, areas to explore...
- Skeleton Coast Park: a 25-mile wide strip guarding wildlife since 1971.
- National West Coast Tourist Recreation Area
- Namib-Naukluft
- Etosha National Park, about 100 miles inland from the Skeleton Coast.

Author Tamiko Warden is an avid outdoorswoman and photographer who has lived in South Africa. She adventure travels on the continent often.Original text and photographs Copyright © Tamiko E. Warden. Map Copyright © by Laurie Fuller. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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