Seals and Shipwrecks: Driving Namibia’s Skeleton Coast

The stench of thousands of seals is filling my nostrils as my feet tread slowly around piles of moulted fur. My ears are filled with a cacophony of grunts, farts, belches and screams. Cape Cross Seal Reserve is a feast for the senses. 

My morning started off plush — I woke with a view of the Atlantic in Swakopmund’s Strand Hotel and gorged on the fresh fruit and juices of their breakfast buffet.  It was just shy of 9am when we hit the road headed northbound towards the Skeleton Coast. 

With a final destination of Damaraland we plan to spend most of the day on the road. A road that lacks gas stations, food and water almost immediately outside of Swakopmund’s vicinity, so within 45 minutes of hitting the road we pull off into the town of Hentiesbaai to fill up on necessities. 

My husband pumps gas while I head into the general store for some rations. I grab nougat bars then head to the deli counter where I order some coffee and ham sandwiches. The cashier asks if I want milk in my coffee and I answer no. She looks at me a bit side-eyed and asks again. “You sure? Do you want milk in your coffee?” which I take as a warning and this time answer that I do. 

The sandwiches and nougat work out just fine that day. The coffee is some of the worst I’ve ever had. That woman knew what she was talking about.

Another hour on the road and we arrive at the Cape Cross Seal Reserve, one of the largest reserves in the world and home to over some two hundred thousand seals. Cape Cross is a pit stop worth taking to say hello to our flippered friends, especially after breeding season when thousands of pups are roaming about. Just don’t expect the place to be kawaii-level cute. 

I realize some of these seal photos may seem serene — snoozing seals and small schools of pups are, of course, adorable, but do understand that the atmosphere is in general less:

And more:

In the ten minutes we spend watching the colony, innumerable seal fights break out. Usually the foes attempt to bite one another’s neck while yelping hysterically. My sandaled feet brush against more mottled fur than I’d like to admit, and I witness one particularly disgruntled seal trying to push open the gate to the small wooden walkway we stand on. I swear he wanted blood. Any blood. But mostly, my blood

This salt road is full of surprises and is famed for its deadly terrain, so a flesh-crazed-doe-eyed-seal doesn’t seem too off the mark for a place with “skeleton” as its descriptor.

The name was given literally. Dense fog and heavy wind just off the coast have wrecked many-a-ship upon its barren shores. A century ago, anyone unlucky enough to survive the wreck found themselves marooned in a harsh environment devoid of food, fresh water and shade and would soon perish. Today this coastline has claimed over 500 ships, enough to be considered the largest ship graveyard in the world, and enough bones (both animal and human) to earn the name “Skeleton Coast”. 

The gate officially bringing us into Skeleton Coast National Park drives this point home further with its two massive skulls hammered into wrought iron. Driving past the crossbones feels more like I’m being welcomed into a super villain’s estate than a National Park. 

Several ground rules came with the keys to our rental car, the primary one being not to let water get past the running boards along the side of the vehicle. Rainy season is in full swing upon our arrival and we’re warned of high puddles and running waters. As soon as we enter the park we encounter the largest puddle thus far, but it doesn’t look so intimidating. We both agree to venture forth and within moments our anxiety mounts. Mud is kicking up and kicking up high, creating a muddy flume bursting like a firework. It splatters the windshield. Howls at my passenger’s side window. 

When we’re about a third of the way in, Carl slows down and asks me to open the door to quickly check if water has runneth over the boards. It has not. We go into the belly of the watery beast and I’m almost stunned when we make it onto the other side.

Our car was spotless prior to entering the park:

And a wee bit dirty after:
Once into the park, the scenery remains mostly unchanged for the duration of our ride north. The land is flat and beige. Sometimes the beige breaks into adobe, silver or chalk white and sometimes the flatness gives way to a sand dune, but otherwise the terrain feels empty. Devoid of life. Blank. Throughout the drive we pass two vehicles total. There is a lonesomeness to this place that feels eternal, rocked to sleep by the ebb of the waves and the wind in the sand. 

Our ride is punctuated by brief pull outs along the route to scavenge shipwrecks. Initially these feel new and exciting and we make frequent stops, but after scoping out a few piles of rusty wreckage we just keep driving. Because there’s so much wreckage we stop seeking out names. The quiet outside our windows is vivid and after time I begin to feel a bit ghoulish being here. Sopping up a place that’s wrought such misery. 

In the 40’s John Henry Marsh coined the name “Skeleton Coast” while documenting the wreck of the Dunedin Star, but decades before Portuguese sailors described the land as “The Gates of Hell” and Namibian bushmen called it “The Land God Made in Anger”.

We exit the park through the Springbokwasser gate around 1pm. In the heat of the afternoon the sun casts neverending mirages onto the road and any dunes in the distance. The plush salt road we’re on gives way to a coarse gravelly one and we’re met with a sign telling us that the nearest town, Khorixas, is 208km away. And so we leave the beige-colored-barrenness that is the Skeleton Coast and steer towards the brick-colored-barrenness that is inland. As the earth turns more and more red we spot gazelles and kudos and watch as it becomes dotted with shrubbery and trees and gives way to something the Skeleton Coast could not. Life. 

If You Make the Journey:

  • Fill up the tank before entering, but not too far in advance. Leaving the park from the north the closest town is over 200km away so plan accordingly for your destination.
  • The southbound gate will lock at 7pm. Do not cut it close.
  • Do expect to sign into and out of the park. These logs keep track of which vehicles remain in the park and you never want to muck up logs, do you?
  • Rethink the drive on a rainy day. The park’s salt road is a welcome respite from Namibia’s innumerable gravel highways, but does become incredibly slippery when wet. For safety’s sake, reschedule when able.
  • Bring plenty of water. As a general road tripping rule I don’t voyage into deserts or spotty service areas with less than a gallon of water.
  • Load up on snacks. The park has a strict “no plastic bags” policy so do your darndest to select snacks accordingly. I’d personally opt for non-crumbly items so as not to make a considerable mess you’ll need to stew in for hours.

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