On the lush southwestern coast of the African Continent, the German influenced country of Namibia is an anomaly. Two thousand kilometers of dry, uninhabited, dune-laden Skeleton Coast is neighbor to one of the world’s most productive and nutrient rich stretches of ocean on the planet.
Here the cold Atlantic is fed by Antarctic currents and keeps the landscape at a steady, cool temperature through most of the year. Thanks to cold and nutrient-rich currents, the sea boils with just shy of two million Cape Fur Seals, farmed oysters, dolphins, and whales of almost every imaginable variety. Meanwhile, the land offers visitors the unambiguous contrast of rolling barren sand dunes, low stony mountains and dry riverbeds.
The desert is stunning in its own right. The soft curves of the sand dunes piled one upon another as far as the eye can see, and the brilliant contrasts of blue sky, amber sand, dark shadows, and a spattering of green plants all pile together up against the slate grey waves of the cold Atlantic. Fog rolls in and out as a soft, gray vapor and blots the harsh light of the sun for a few hours each morning.
In Luderitz, on the southern Namibian coast, our ship docked early in the day and we disembarked in the requisite mist to explore the abandoned diamond mining community of Kolmanskop. A cautionary road sign simply reading, “SAND” met us as the coach turned off the main road and into the ghost town.
Never has there been a more accurate warning issued in a place where desert sand is swallowing up the remnants of greed-fueled human endeavor, and encroaching into old buildings and polishing the wooden floor boards of those still in use. It’s hard to imagine that people tried to live here with their water shipped in, packed inside wooden barrels and carted across the expanses to fill old bathtubs that are now abandoned on the sand dunes like claw-footed toboggans.
In Luderitz, I was equally enthralled with the colorfully painted German built houses, and the patches of watermelon growing in the desert. While the European architecture seems a tad out of place, so do the melons.
The Kelly green vegetation and mid-sized melons are the last things I expected to find growing in the rocky soil, but there they were, turning sunlight and what little water is around into bitter fruit historically used by Bushmen as a water source. The kudu, gemsbok, ostrich, and springbok of the region apparently prefer to find their water elsewhere, ruling the fruit too sour for their tastes.
Further north, in Walvis Bay and the surrounding National Park I found hiking up steep dunes to be a difficult and tiring undertaking. Steps must be taken in parallel with the grade and the awkward diagonal trek upwards is impeded by sections of soft, slippery sand in abrupt contrast to packed, dense, firm sections where I could not dig the long edge of my boot into the dune wall, and found there was suddenly little purchase at all. I found speed helped in these situations, and passing quickly over the difficult spots I reached the ridge of the dune where I unknowingly upset the tenuously balanced sand on the inward edge of the dune’s crescent and caused a small avalanche to cascade down on the back side of the dune.
Finally perched on the sandy crest, I paused a moment to take in the crashing waves to the west and the rising sun over the rows of dunes to the east. A Cape Fur Seal swimming like a porpoise cruised up the coast just beyond the breakers and out of sight of my companions and our row of 4×4 vehicles down at eye level on the beach.
That night we had dinner in a maze of inland desert canyons. Arriving just before sunset I scaled a low rocky outcrop to get out of the canyon’s belly and gain a heady view around the area. The low rocky peaks stretch out around me like cresting waves on the ocean and the low, auburn sun lit up the landscape bathing everything in warm, incandescent light.
I did not want to come back down, but was rewarded upon my return with a fantastic feast and a choir of surreal singers. Later the Milky Way erupted as a horizontal streak in the sky – the clarity of which I’ve not seen even under sail on a schooner in the middle of the Atlantic.
Namibia is a place I hope to return to for its unparalleled and expansive desert that is home to desert elephants and wild horses, and its coasts promising great surf and loaded with marine life, flamingos and giant white pelicans. It was a pleasure to become acquainted – even briefly – with such a special land.