Namibia’s Bushmen tribes know this place as “the land God made in anger.” The Skeleton Coast was first seen through western eyes by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century. The men were so shocked by the desolate conditions that they dubbed it “The Gates of Hell”
The Skeleton Coast is a place where inhospitable sun-baked desert falls straight into the ocean. The vista is indeed a shocking sight – Nothing but yellow wind-blown dunes that stampede from the horizon, only to abruptly end with crashing waves.
For centuries, this stretch of Africa’s Atlantic shoreline has lived up to its sinister name. The only thing that punctuates the barren dunes and crashing surf are the twisted skeleton remains of hundreds of ships and whales. Be it sea creatures, explorers or traders and shipping crews, the Skeleton Coast has become the graveyard of many.
Entering the Skeleton Coast is a foreboding task. Access is only possible via small Cessna planes or rugged 4×4. Once inside, death is ever present – the desert’s yellow sand and rolling dunes are scattered with countless bleached animal remains, but these are eclipsed by striking sight of colossal twisted ships that rise out of the shifting sands.
Many ships have met their fate on this coast. The hulking carcasses of these ships lay as a reminder of the brutality and inaccessibility of this place. Ocean liners, trawlers, galleons, clippers and gunboats all lay half buried in the sand or rusting in the rising and falling waves, over 1,000 ships have met their end on the Skeleton Coast.
The reason for the Skeleton Coast’s concentration of shipwrecks is due to the treacherous combination of offshore rocks and reefs, strong currents, and thick and unpredictable fog. The trade winds of the Benguela system tear up from Antarctica and hurl themselves against this shoreline without letup. The coast’s sheer inaccessibility has always thwarted salvage or recovery attempts of vessels that founder here. The first documented nautical victim of the Skeleton Coast was Portuguese sailor Diego Cão, who died sailing from the coast in 1486. The Dunedin Star, a British liner, foundered and sank on the Skeleton Coast in 1942. The rescue attempts for the passengers stretched to 26 days, and the coast claimed two other rescue ships during the attempt, and the lives of their crew. One of the most striking hulks on the Skeleton coast is the remains of the ship the Eduard Bohlen, which was wrecked in 1909 and currently lies half-buried inland – a testament to the shifting sands of this desolate place.
Another ship that lies on the coast, wrecked in 1860 has a particularly chilling tale of castaways and a desperate fight for survival. 80 years after the wreck, in the 1940s, dozens of skeletal remains were found on the coast along with a slate inscribed, “I am proceeding to a river 60 miles north, and should anyone find this and follow me, God will help him.” The dead collective was found to be the shipwrecked sailors from the 1860 wreck, to which the Skeleton Coast showed no mercy.
Of all the unique factors which define this coastline, it is the extreme desert environment that characterizes the Skeleton coast the most. Annual rainfall does not exceed 10 Millimetres. The blistering sun is a near constant feature of the coast which provides no natural shade, and there is a constant, heavy surf on the beaches. This highly inhospitable climate is compounded by its vastness – The only way in or out is through hundreds of miles of hot and arid desert.
Life on the Skeleton coast is bleak. Oryx, Springbok, lions and even some elephants and rhinos eke out an existence here. The Skeleton Coast is permanent home to few humans. Only one tribe of the Namibia’s last nomadic herders call this place home. The Himba people live in mud huts as respite from the sun’s brutal rays, and subsist only on meat. Their skin is dark, and they use an ocher and butter mix to protect themselves from the sun. The Himba are thought to have originally wandered from East Africa, but these nomads have been travelling up and down the Skeleton Coast for centuries. Many peoples have come and gone from the skeleton coast. From shipwrecked desperadoes, to diamond-crazed German colonists and attempted whaling colonies, all these people have been either turned back by the skeleton coast’s brutal conditions, or had their lives claimed by them. In the end, it is only the most tenacious and determined creatures that manage to make their home on the Skeleton Coast, Namibia’s “gates of hell”.