We had driven for four hours and had not yet seen another soul. No people. No cars. Just creepy, don’t moon anything that extends from the south to the horizon. On the left, desert; to the right, ocean. A packed salt road sewed a tight seam between the two. Under an overcast sky, the three surfaces faded into a single indistinguishable gray-brown spot.
We traveled along Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, a region often referred to as the End of the Earth.
Given the view through the dusty windshield, the title felt appropriate. The untamed Skeleton Coast begins on Namibia’s northern border with Angola and heads for 480 kilometers south to the former German colonial town of Swakopmund, where strudel-filled bakeries and beer gardens still line the streets – and where a century ago thousands of Africans from two ethnic groups, the Herero and the Nama, were killed by German soldiers.
The region contains a combination of cultures, landscapes and species unlike anywhere else on Earth, sometimes evoking a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
My partner and I were driving on the C34 highway past this remote, treacherous country in early 2021, halfway through a three-week road trip through Namibia. A year earlier, we’d packed up our lives and left our Seattle home and jobs with plans to travel the world, only to come to an abrupt halt due to global shutdown just weeks into our trip. In what turned out to be one of the more unique pandemic experiences, we were locked up for seven months in our first destination, Portugal.
When things slowly reopened in late 2020, we decided we could start cautiously rethinking our original itinerary. Then came the task of answering a few key questions: Which countries were currently letting American citizens in? (Very few.) Where did we feel safe to go based on current Covid-19 case numbers, testing and masking requirements? (Even less.) And most importantly, where wouldn’t we be a burden on the nation’s health care system if we happened to get sick?
Namibia quickly rose to the top of the list. Between the least populated countries in the world, and a place where we could travel completely independently, it seemed like a good choice. We didn’t know how much in awe we would be at the vast and varied landscapes.
I knew little about the country before we turned to it and immediately started researching its history and geography. The moment I heard about the Skeleton Coast, read tales of shipwrecks, stark panoramas and 20th century diamond rushes, I felt its pull. The ferocity, the desolation, the inaccessible mystery of it all – it tickled my imagination, and I knew I had to experience it and photograph it.
The gates through which we entered Skeleton Coast National Park, near the Ugab River, were guarded by a double skull and crossbones and towering whale ribs. The objects served as a warning: “Leave all hope that comes in.”
Before crossing the 6,300-square-mile area of protected shoreline, we were required to give our names and information — lest we make it before nightfall — in exchange for a transit permit and a healthy dose of apprehension. We crossed our fingers and held our breath as we drove through the gates, praying we wouldn’t blow a tire on the rented tent-roofed Toyota Hilux that had been our home for the past few weeks, or be eaten by beach lions in the no-man’s-land. forward.
This barren desert, dead in violent Atlantic waves, has killed many hapless sailors, ships, planes and animals. Their carcasses — rusting barrels, sun-bleached bones — are now visible reminders of the park’s hostile conditions. It is an inhospitable place where almost nothing grows and where dangers, from wild curls to thick coastal fog, abound.
Visitors are often drawn to the park’s shipwreck-strewn shoreline. Although only a few are still visible, hundreds of ships met their fate along this span of the coast and were slowly devoured by the elements. Some can only be reached by plane or with four-wheel drive.
In the far north there are still traces of the Dunedin Star. The British Blue Star ship ran aground in 1942, stranded with 106 passengers and crew. An aircraft and a tugboat, including several crew members, were also lost in the rescue operation. To the south, the freighter Eduard Bohlen ran aground in 1909 and can now be seen from above, a quarter of a mile inland, as a ghostly ship surrounded by desert.
We’ve been able to see the remains of the South West Seal, a vessel that plunged ashore in 1976, now just a cloud of wood and rusted metal peeking out of the sand, and the Zeila, a fishing trawler that sailed off Henties Bay in 2008. has been stranded, which remains a deteriorating but still largely intact and visible presence, now home to dozens of black cormorants, just offshore.
The few man-made tracks here are all in a state of disrepair: road signs have faded and decayed, an abandoned oil rig is little more than a pile of rust, eaten away by time, sand and sea air. I stopped every few minutes to capture these details with my camera, extending what should have been a six-hour journey into an 11-hour journey.
Along the way we passed other quirks, including the Cape Cross Seal Reserve, home to more than 200,000 stinking fur seals, and the Walvis Bay Salt Works, where huge salt pans are colored bright pink by the presence of Dunaliella salina micro organisms. Matching flamingos stalk shrimp in the nearby wetlands. On the road north of Swakopmund were makeshift tables; upon it, dozens of pale pink halite salt crystals, often accompanied by rusted piggy banks, lay in wait for honest passers-by to leave a few bucks in exchange for a treasure.
The barren landscape felt alien, raw and powerful. Both exciting and terrifying. The coastline and colors slowly changed, the sand turned red as we continued south and entered the Namib-Naukluft National Park, home to the world’s oldest desert – the Namib.
Now the young country’s namesake (Namib gained independence in 1990), the Namib has been around for at least 55 million years, its towering dunes plunging into the churning sea for centuries.
The solitude and seclusion we sought as we explored this lonely part of the world – escaping human-borne illness, yes, but also the grind of our daily lives – awaited us with kicks. Namibia made us feel small and insignificant in the best of ways — a perspective I often crave in a world overwhelmed with instant gratification and endless vying for my attention. And in the end, the Skeleton Coast was a strange and beautiful reminder that we humans are powerless against time, and that in a war between man and nature, nature always wins.