Grains of sand hurtled through the darkness as an unrelenting wind buffeted the “shipwrecked” cabin in which I had sought refuge for the night. A thunderous soo-oop-wa, the onomatopoeic name for the eerie shrieks and sighs that blow across one of Africa’s most notorious stretches of coastline, drowned out the roar of waves barrelling to shore.
Cast adrift on the Skeleton Coast, an untameable strip on the north-western fringes of Namibia and one of Earth’s last great wildernesses, I had never felt more exposed to the extreme forces of nature. Oddly, in a region that evokes images of death, I had also never felt more alive.
My first stirring glimpse of the Kaokoveld, or “coast of loneliness” as it is known in the local Herero language, had come earlier that day from the window of a light aircraft: a vast cream sea of dunes, edged by the wide blue South Atlantic. As we began a bone-rattling descent through swirling winds, roiling waves lashing at the shore, I understood why the Herero also call this “the land made in anger”.
Harbouring a wish to set foot on this enigmatic land, I had been lured by the promise of wild adventure and an escape from the world: Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries on earth, second only to Mongolia, and the Skeleton Coast its loneliest corner.
Stepping from the plane, I was almost blown off my feet, but I was also struck by a sense of privilege. Access to the north of the Skeleton Coast National Park, which was established in 1971 and covers an area about three-quarters the size of Wales, is restricted to around 1,000 visitors annually. The opening this summer of Shipwreck Lodge, one of few eco-hotels in the park and the first on its northerly shores, has made the Skeleton Coast marginally more accessible to travellers.
Walking out across the barren sand, it was as though I had landed on another planet. I was met by Niki, my guide for the next few days and, having waved the pilot safely back to the sky, we clambered into a jeep for the hour-long drive north to the hotel.
The dunes appeared devoid of life, but as we paused in nearby Mowe Bay, a huddle of weather-beaten huts for scientists and researchers, we encountered a colony of Cape fur seals lazing on rocks as a pair of black-backed jackals patrolled nearby. Further along the coast we spotted a brown hyena skulking along the shoreline. Niki instructed me to keep a look out for elephants, giraffes and, if we were incredibly lucky, lions. In this harsh environment, which forms part of the Namib, the world’s oldest desert, I hadn’t expected such a diverse range of wildlife.
The jeep came to a halt and I was alarmed to spot a blood-red beach. Filled with horror at what we might find, I ventured out into the teeth of a howling gale.
On closer inspection I discovered the sand was made up of sparkling grains of garnet. A dazzling display, and one that partly explains why this stretch of coast has remained largely off-limits: garnet often indicates a wealth of diamonds nearby. Alas, an abandoned mine stands as a warning for those who might be tempted here by get-rich-quick schemes. As the world around us vanished in a cloud of sand, Niki warned that even experienced guides can get lost amid this ever-changing landscape. I fell silent as the jeep rolled blindly on.
At last we caught sight of a row of blonde-wood cabins dotted above the dunes — a welcome sign of life. On entering, I was instantly transported into a world of convivial maritime luxury. Before I could embarrass myself with an “Ahoy, there!” to the staff, I was handed a welcome drink and directed to a comfy banquette overlooking the beach.
The coastline’s macabre modern-day moniker, which derives from the whale bones and shipwrecks strewn across its shores, was popularised by the publication of an eponymous book, by John H Marsh, in 1944.
This factual account of the loss of MV Dunedin Star, a British cargo ship that ran aground off the coast in 1942 en route from Liverpool to Egypt via South Africa, also inspired Nina Maritz, an award-winning Namibian architect, in the design of Shipwreck Lodge. Nina, who was also visiting during my stay, told me she had been “gripped by the tale”.
A discombobulating combination of coastal fogs, shifting offshore sandbanks and the Benguela, a powerful Antarctic current, has sent countless ships throughout history to a watery grave in these treacherous waters. When the Dunedin Star was wrecked, 63 men, women and children were stranded on the Skeleton Coast for almost a fortnight. Marsh described the air, sea and land operation to save them as “one of the most amazing rescues of all time”. The remains of a Ventura bomber, which crashed (without loss of life) after delivering food and water to the castaways, can be seen en route from Mowe Bay.
With the lodge’s many whimsical touches, from the bone-like ribs bolted to the exterior of each cabin to exposed panels of chipboard inside, Nina wanted to create the impression that this imaginative hotel could have been built by castaways using items salvaged from a shipwreck. “The Skeleton Coast is so exquisite; we owed it to the place to build something special,” she said.
It certainly would have taken an industrious bunch to pull together the guest cabins, which are spoiling havens featuring velvet day beds, wood-burning stoves and subtle nautical references. The largest of the 11 cabins is a cosy communal space where meals and drinks are served amid a flotsam and jetsam of artfully mismatched furniture. The overall look, with picture windows and interior walls pitched as if tossed there by the sea, succeeds in anchoring guests in this unique landscape but does not feel themed.
The morning after my arrival, I awoke to a brilliant blue sky and an all-encompassing silence. The paw prints of jackals and other small animals criss-crossed the hummock dunes as, becalmed, I marvelled at the ethereal beauty of sand, sea and sky.
The stillness was momentarily broken as we set out across the so-called singing dunes, which emit a baritone rumble when disturbed, en route to a bay north of Rocky Point further up the coast.
The Sir Charles Elliott, a tug boat sent from Walvis Bay to assist the stricken Dunedin Star, ran into trouble and sank here, resulting in the deaths of Angus McIntyre, the first officer whose body was never found, and Mathias Koraseb, a deckhand, now buried beneath the poignant inscription “Who died that his shipmates may live”. A whispering wind signalled the return of the soo-oop-wa as I surveyed this desolate final resting place.
Heading out on to the nearby beach, with foaming waves crashing in on one side and sand drilling into me with increasing ferocity from the other, I felt at the mercy of seemingly malevolent forces. I returned to the jeep with a new perspective on the world. Unfortunately, what’s left of the Dunedin Star, 43 miles north, is inaccessible from this point.
At dinner that evening, I chatted to Nina about the challenges of operating in one of the world’s most hostile environments. Maintenance is a daily battle against the elements. The lodge is also expected to adhere to strict controls to minimise its environmental impact: jeeps must follow existing tire tracks and all waste must be carefully stored and removed from the site. Natural Selection, who operate the property, have also now committed to replacing single-use plastic bottles at the lodge with refillables.
Back in my cabin, warmed by the glow of the wood burner, I listened intently to the haunting strains of the soo-oop-wa and concluded that isolation doesn’t get more splendid than this.
The next morning we headed inland along the Hoarusib, an ephemeral river close to Shipwreck Lodge, where we encountered chacma baboons, a feisty honey badger and an array of bird life. A few hours in, we stopped briefly at a camp high above a fork in the river where I bumped into Andre Schoeman, a son of the late Louw Schoeman who was instrumental in securing protected status for the Skeleton Coast. Andre told me he remembered hunting for diamonds on its shores as a small boy.
Just before dusk, having been delayed by a herd of elephants, I arrived at Hoanib Valley Camp, my home for the next few nights. Cradled in a crescent-shaped mountain, the recently opened camp occupies a mesmerising spot above the Hoanib. This river of sand and ana trees runs through Kaokoland, bordering the Skeleton Coast and Angola, which is home to the nomadic Himba tribe.
As I approached through a narrow gap in the rock, the camp revealed itself to be a cluster of six cavernous and beautifully designed tents.
I met Nat Sullivan and Emma Wells, researchers for the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, which works in partnership with the lodge. They accompanied me on game drives, along with Festus Mbinga, one of Namibia’s leading guides, and Mwezi Bupilo, also a knowledgeable guide, to record sightings of giraffes. These loping giants appeared ubiquitous, unlike the lions I had hoped to see, but Nat explained that their size makes this a common misconception and in fact the world’s tallest mammal is facing a “silent extinction”.
It’s not the only way of life under threat. Sitting in the dust alongside a mud hut in a nearby village, I met a tribeswoman who told me through a translator that she had been forced to end her formal education after a mobile school, which encouraged Himba traditions, closed. She now sits on a roadside selling store-bought trinkets to tourists.
The impact of travellers interacting with local tribes is a complicated issue globally, but tourism is still in its infancy here and a considered approach should be implemented. Festus later explained that Hoanib Valley Camp, which along with Shipwreck Lodge works with and employs people from local communities, is exploring how guests can better support the Himba.
Festus — who is an expert on the night sky as well as flora and fauna — called me away from the campfire for a tour of the heavens, the highlight of which was my first sighting of the Magellanic Clouds, a pair of galaxies only visible from the southern hemisphere. I peered through my binoculars to find the view obscured by remnants of the day’s adventures: powder-soft grains of sand, forever embedded in my soul.
The Daily Telegraph