Namibia's Skeleton Coast: The most pristine place in Africa?

November 22, 2013 10:35 AM

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Namibia's Skeleton Coast: The most pristine place in Africa?

From the air, the bleak shoreline of the Skeleton Coast looks wonderful -- a deep green sea, fringed with surf, breaks over a shore receding into infinite dunes.

The Benguela Current rushes in, urgent and strong, hurtling the chilling Atlantic into the fierce heat of the Namib.

Whale and seal skeletons from the former whaling industry still litter the coastline -- the source of the region's frightening name.

Humans have suffered, too -- the remains of ships wrecked on the hidden rocks offshore rust and crumble beside the animal bones.

Because its forbidding nature has left Namibia's Skeleton Coast one of the most pristine shorelines in the world.

The territory extends from just north of the city of Swakopmund to the Angolan border in northwest Namibia, taking in 500 kilometers of shoreline and 2 million hectares of dunes and gravel plains.

The southern section runs between the Ugab and Hoanib Rivers, the north between the Hoanib and Kunene.

Independent travelers can apply for permits for day trips but only to the south -- and it's the northern extremes, the Skeleton Coast Wilderness, that most people want to see.

Visitors to the latter part of the park are restricted to around 800 a year to preserve the fragile environment.

The only way to reach the north is to join a fly-in safari -- an exclusive, if expensive, experience.

After flying to an inland camp, my guide, Bariar, and I reach the sea following a 200-kilometer drive through dune country.

We climb out of the Land Rover into a huge animal graveyard: seal skulls jumbled with turtles' rib cages and the colossal, bleached vertebrae of whales.

One of the coast's best-known wrecks is a British liner, the Dunedin Star, beached by her master after hitting a reef (some say a U-boat) in the 1940s.

An arch of whale bones marks the grave of the two crewmen who led the rescue attempt, trying in vain to secure a line from the ship to the shore.

At Cape Frio, thousands of seals provide light relief. Their noise is deafening, their smell overwhelming, but their antics draw you in.

At the water's edge, the occasional rock twitches, rolls over and throws itself into the sea.

Ghost crabs scuttle into the waves; terns swoop over the surf; a jackal flops, seemingly exhausted, onto the shore.

When it comes to watching wildlife, the Skeleton Coast isn't about big game.

Guides focus on small mammals, birds and insects and the stories of how they survive.

With ocean fogs the only moisture supply, creatures conserve what they can.

Tok-tokkie beetles pair up, then climb on top of one another, taking it in turns to provide shade.

Without compass or Sat Nav, Bariar drives us on a convoluted route back into the desert.

He suggests I look out the window for "unexpected stones" -- indicators to turn left or right or double back a touch.

They're meant to keep vehicles on course and not flatten tracts of this delicate ecosystem.

We arrive at the legendary "roaring" dunes, climb to the top and slide down on our butts.

I know the fearsome rumble comes from air trapped between grains of sand, but I still glance up convinced there are low-flying jets overhead.

The next couple of days are spent hiking through gorges, tracking desert-adapted elephants and exploring a wilderness that never seems to end.

They're the last of Namibia's nomadic pastoralists: they grow nothing and eat only meat.

The women braid their hair and scrub their bodies with ocher to keep clean. Their skin gleams like polished copper in the sun.

The trip is laid on for tourists, but when it's over we head to the home of one of the guides on the tour.

His mother offers me a necklace of porcupine quills as young girls sit and smile.

Keen to impress, he somersaults over the top and falls flat on his face in the sand.

Even in this tough environment, the survivors find plenty of reasons to smile.

Wilderness Safaris (+27 11 807 1800) and Skeleton Coast Safaris (+264 61 224 248) are two companies providing tours of Namibia's Skeleton Coast.

Karen Bowerman is a travel writer and former BBC broadcaster who specializes in conservation issues and adventure travel.

Source: cnn.com

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