Fabulous and utterly remote wilderness area
This area is one of the most fabulous wilderness areas in Africa
, a vast region virtually devoid of people and jam-packed with extraordinary sights. A wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful place ... and we don't say that very often!
The key area is the enormous Skeleton Coast North Concession
, which includes the northernmost 300km of coastline up to the border with Angola and runs on average around 30km inland. In almost 10,000 square kilometres
there is only the tiny Skeleton Coast Camp
, with just six tents, plus an even smaller annexe known as Skeleton Coast Research Camp
with a further five tents. This private concession can only be accessed by guests staying at the camps
, both of which are understandably expensive
. If you cannot afford them then you cannot visit this section of coast and will instead have to make do with a combination of the inland areas outlined in the next paragraph and the rather less spectacular Skeleton Coast National Park
adjoining to the south.
The areas inland
from this concession are accessible by public roads
and contain some wonderful mountain scenery and some particularly rich game areas around the village of Purros. Guests staying at Skeleton Coast Camp usually spend a day heading inland to take in these areas. Other visitors need to self-drive up to Purros, where there is some high quality accommodation at Okahirongo Elephant Lodge
and some lower cost campsites in the valley below. Another way to get into this area is to go on a guided overland safari out of Palmwag Lodge further to the south, in which case wild camping may also be an option.
Flying over the lower Hoarusib valley on the way in to Skeleton Coast Camp
Skeleton Coast North
Skeleton Coast is an utterly bizarre and entrancing place. There is nowhere else in the world where a searingly hot and barren desert
comes into direct content with such a cold, angry and foggy coastline
. It is hard to describe quite how remarkable a contrast this represents ... to be standing in the fog or leaning against a cold onshore gale close by an enormous colony of Cape fur seals one day, yet to be truly on safari with elephants and giraffes amongst dry mountain scenery the next.
Flying over Rocky Point on the Skeleton Coast
The coast is though to have got its name from the whale bones
which litter its beaches. The reason there are quite so many is because of the Benguela Current
, a major cold water flow which runs up from the Antarctic Ocean along the southwest coast of Africa. This current is absolutely packed with plankton
and larger cold-water fish
species, which is why so much of the coastline further south is lined with fishing camps. This bounty makes the area a major feeding ground for whales
. Combine this with the near relentless southwesterly gale and it is easy to see why quite so many of them become stranded on the beaches
Whale and seal skulls on the Skeleton Coast
It has also been suggested that the name may be derived from the number of human skeletons
which have been found here. Presumably these would have been the remains of shipwrecked sailors or even local standloper tribespeople. These days it is rare to find a human skull here, presumably the supply has somewhat dried up with the advent of modern navigational aids and the whale bone option seems more fitting.
Certainly this coast has proved to be a graveyard for shipping
. The most famous incident was that of the Dunedin Star
, a substantial supply ship which ran aground in 1942 when sailing out of Cape Town
. Over one hundred men, women and children managed to make it to shore in lifeboats, but then faced an terrible ordeal trying to survive in the desert whilst waiting for help. The rescue mission has a real tale of misadventure, leading to the wreck of another ship, two plane crashes and an overland convoy getting lost in the desert.
Photo of the famous Dunedin Star, wrecked on the Skeleton Coast during the Second World War
This is a great location for beachcombing
. Although there are generally fewer shipwrecks these days, the wreckage of earlier events still litters the beaches. In some places it is possible to walk amongst wind-worn detritus and pick out all manner of interesting items including old Victorian bottles, sections of old wooden sailing vessels, brass plates with cabin numbers, portholes and stair spindles. Not to mention a whole range of more modern fishing tackle.
Wreckage on the beach at Skeleton Coast
Cape Fria seal colony
Compared with the rather grim spectacle of the sea-lion colony at Cape Cross
further to the south, this place is truly wonderful, in a smelly kind of way.
Cape Fria ... the cold cape ... was so named by Portguese explorer Bartholomeu Diaz when he passed this way in 1485. It is a small and exposed rocky promontory which is battered relentlessly by an angry ocean.
The beaches in this area are host to around 20,000 Cape fur seals
, which would be more accurately described as sea-lions, since they have external ears and are able to hop along on all fours, after a fashion. This incredibly glut of nature is fed by the dense plankton and fish that are carried along this shoreline from the Antarctic by the Benguela Current. Set against the utter desolation of the interior, it is a truly extraordinary sight.
Of the land species which predate this colony, black-backed jackal
are the most numerous and the most visible. It is not uncommon to see twenty or thirty individuals over the course of an hour or two in the area. Sometimes they can been seen cruising in across the gravel plains from their dens in the mountains beyond, entering the seal colony and taking their pick of the helpless pups. There is so little fuss, the adult seals know that there is nothing that they can do to save their young and apart from the odd pitiable whimper from the pups, there is nothing to mark their passing. And if the jackals get disturbed or distracted, they simply leave the dead pup, wander along a little further and kill another one. The main reason that the colony stinks so much is the sheer number of dead and decaying animals that litter the beach. As a kind of divine retribution, the jackals themselves suffer from a terrible mange-like disease, presumably due to their singular diet and suffer terribly before themselves joining the ranks of decaying creatures on the beaches.
Sea-lion colony at Cape Fria to the northern end of the Skeleton Coast
The most exciting predator is the wonderfully tatty brown hyena
. There is usually plenty of evidence of them around the colony, but they are rarely seen, especially during daylight hours. The photo below unfortunately is not one of ours.
The most disappointing thing about visiting the seal colony is quite how quickly thousands of them can disappear of the beaches and into the ocean. But with a little bit of practise and a lot more stealth it becomes possible to approach a good deal closer without disturbing them.
This is a wonderful wildlife experience
in such an incredibly wild and remote location. The whole thing is so singular, such a simple ecosystem to read and appreciate, even if so much of it does centre around death. And that smell ... it really is choking.
A fabulous brown hyena at the Cape Fria sea-lion colony
Inland from the coast lies some remarkable desert scenery.
Stark gravel plains come in a range of striking colours, occasionally bisected by impressive ridges of black dolorite. In some areas these plains are littered with coloured agates ... yellow, orange and red translucent stone eroded into satisfyingly organic shapes by the sand. In other areas the ancient surface bears the scars of vehicles which passed by fifty or a hundred years ago and of lines of small test pits like graves, dug by hopeful diamond prospectors and now filled in with sand.
Gravel plains to the southwest of Skeleton Coast Camp
In some areas regiments of barchan dunes march relentlessly across the desert, sometimes in their characteristic crescent shape, other times joined with others to form mazes of sand across the gravel plains. On the way to Cape Fria a patch of white sand dunes crosses a dark plain and is known locally as the zebra dunes. In other places the plains are a rich red colour, as seen here ...
Dunefields on the way to Cape Fria
In some locations these barchan dunes pile into each other to create larger dunes, as shown here, whilst further to the south vast areas are covered by dune seas, most notably to the south of the Hoarusib river valley.
Returning to Skeleton Coast Camp
from the north
There is so much fascinating geology
here ... and all so evident on the naked surfaces of the land ... that even the most disinclined visitor soon finds themselves becoming fascinated. Although diamonds
have never been found here in recoverable quantities, there is always the small chance that you might stumble across one whilst searching for other gemstones.
There are several geological stories the understanding of which will enrich your visit. The geological origins of the landscape are fascinating in themselves ... the formation of the river valleys, the critical role that the ephemeral rivers still play in creating springs to sustain the desert wildlife ... the battle that these rivers fight to slow the advance of the dunefields up this coastline. The evidence for all of these things is visible on the surface and really help you to understand what this wonderful place is really all about.
Honestly, you will find it interesting
Exploring a cave in the Clay Castles of the lower Hoarusib valley
Kallie gets stuck in quicksand on the way to Cape Fria
were a specialised tribe of Bushmen who lived on these harsh coastlines until relatively recently. They are thought to have built their houses by creating a simple stone circle and then creating a dome of whale bones to support up seal-hide walls. They hunted seals and antelope, perhaps also gathered mussels and other seafood from the shorelines. And they will have used the Nama melons for fluid.
There are several locations along the coast where one can see the remains of their houses and where your guide can explain how these mysterious people survived.
Our guide from Skeleton Coast Camp
, Kallie Uararavi, comes from the village of Purros just outside the concession to the east and told us a story that his father used to tell him. Apparently during the 1950's and 1960's three strandlopers would arrive at his father's house from inland, change out of their western clothes into their traditional tribal wear, leave their things with him for safe-keeping and disappear off to the coast for six months at a time. During the 1970's the three became two and then eventually there was only one old man left. He continued to do the same thing on this own for two more years, until eventually he too disappeared ... presumably the last of the strandlopers.
Kallie and Tracey check the remains of a strandloper hut north of Skeleton Coast Camp
Desert flora and fauna
Although these desert areas seem to be completely devoid of life, there is actually a good deal going on here if you known how and where to look ... and you get lucky.
The dry riverbeds, although they may not have flowed for decades or even centuries, often still carry subterrainian flows of water to the ocean. Some plants
are able to take advantage of this water and line the riverbed, notably camelthorn acacia
But it is out on the dry desert surfaces where the most remarkable and desert-adapted species survive. Various lichen
can be found in many places, a small patch the size of a coin being perhaps a century old. Of the many succulents
which have learned to gather moisture from the coastal fog and store it in their leaves, the most obvious is the dollar bush
, whose yellowing leaves are about the same size and shape as a large gold coin. And there are many other smaller and more extraordinary succulents for those with the patience to search them out ... a good proportion of which are endemic
to this immediate area.
Acacia flowers close to Skeleton Coast Camp
Perhaps the greatest surprise is to find large herbivores
surviving and even thriving in the harsh desert areas inland from the coast, although both springbok
are notoriously good at this kind of thing.
Oryx on a dune in the Skeleton Coast
tends to be more difficult to find. Perhaps the most exciting is the Nama chameleon
, which turns up in the most remarkable places, right on vast gravel plains without any rhyme or reason. Always a delight to stop and spend time with a chameleon. Some individuals are very shy and inflate themselves whilst hissing a warning, whilst other are quite laid back and are inclined to climb onto your boot, or sit happily in your hands. Two other great finds are the shovel-nosed lizard
and the gorgeous transluscent lizard
, both of which your guide may be able to dig up for you. He may also be able to excavate the burrow of a lovely hairy black lady spider
A transluscent lizard on the Skeleton Coast
Between about 20km and 30km inland from the coast, the gravel plains and dune seas give way to a ranges of granite mountains, interspersed by rocky valleys. Although scenic, most of this terrain is apparently barren and arid. But there is life here, sustained through the dry season by a sparse network of permanent waterholes.
We are now outside the Skeleton Coast North Concession, so these areas are accessible to visitors other than those staying in Skeleton Coast Camp
, whether they be self-drivers, guided overland safaris or guests flying in to the few lodges in the area. Nevertheless this remains a very wild and remote area where it would be a surprise to encounter more than a handful of vehicles all day.
Driving through the mountains to the north of Purros village
In common with the all of the coastal regions of Namibia, life here revolves around the ephemeral rivers
, normally dry watercourses which flow on the surface only intermittently, but whose sub-surface flows and occasional upwellings are sufficient to bring life into the desert.
The most important source of water in the Skeleton Coast is the Hoarusib
river, which is one of the productive of all the rivers in Namibia.
Rising in the mountains to the east, the Hoarusib flows through an increasingly wide valley towards the village of Purros. As it arrives into this area it provides sufficient groundwater to create a large palm grove
, very much in the style of a Saharan oasis. From here down into Purros the riverbed is lined by good patches of acacia woodland
, notably with lots of large camelthorn trees.
The Hoarusib river just east of Purros village
Palm grove on the Hoarusib river to the east of Purros village
At the open valley of Purros the river enters a canyon
, which runs through the mountains all the way to the ocean. This is the most dramatic and interesting feature of the whole area
and there is a small track which follows its course all the way, although this is only permissible to vehicles from Skeleton Coast Camp
Almost as soon as the river hits the entrance to the canyon, the river rises to the surface
and flows continuously for several kilometres. It is a very remarkable experience to drive across an endless parched desert and then find yourself in the verdant Eden that is created by this surface water. Suddenly the canyon is full of lush foliage
, there are ducks swimming on the river and dragonflies flitting through the air. not to mention the larger animals noted in below.
As the Hoarusib continues to the coast there is an array of remarkable sights ...
The clay castles
are mysteriously weathered clay sculptures that tend to line the side valleys into the canyon, which often resemble medieval fortresses and contain a maze of narrow water-worn canyons and caves.
Nearing the coast and the sand of the dune-sea to the south starts to spill down into the canyon in dramatic scarps of sand. Here the river passes through what is known as the Hoarusib Poort
, where the walls of the canyon close in on either side to around ten metres depth, causing the water to once again well up to the surface and provide another little Eden, this one even more dramatically surrounded by a sandy desert (refer to the aerial photo at the top of this section), where relatively large herds of springbok and oryx can be found.
From there on to the sea the canyon starts to open out and the dune-sea
becomes increasingly dominant to the south, spilling out into the flattening valley until the river reaches its usually dry estuary just to the south of Rocky Point.
By contrast, the Khumib
river to the north is usually so dry
that Skeleton Coast Camp is actually built in the riverbed itself. Even so it path is lined in places by relatively luxuriant foliage and there are seepage areas
right out on the coastal plateau where brackish water rises to the surface to sustain the desert oryx and springbok.
The area around the Hoarusib river is the prime location for wildlife
. In fact there is so many animals here that one really can view game in a more conventional sense.
In the riverine acacia forest there are plenty of dusky giraffe
, whilst the palm groves tend to attract a good number of baboons
Giraffe in the Khumib river to the east of Skeleton Coast Camp
Elephant are also very at home in the Hoarusib canyon, where they find plenty of grazing, water for drinking and bathing and also shade beneath the great cliffs.
Elephant in the Hoarusib river canyon just west of Purros
Top of the bill around here are the resident lions
. Unfortunately the proximity of the village of Purros is not very conducive to a thriving lion population as the local people are naturally not to comfortable having these predators wandering close to their village and killing their livestock. For years the operators of Skeleton Coast Camp
have supported a livestock compensation scheme, which remunerates villages for stock lost to lions, but the conflict remains.
A shocking development took place in late 2010 when a professional hunter killed the only male in the local pride, leaving only three females. It is unclear whether this hunter was acting under the auspices of the local people or whether he was simply a trophy hunter. We'd certainly like to take him out in the desert and bury him up to his neck in the sand! Anyway the upshot is that the pride is presently unable to reproduce and, unless another male either turns up or is brought in, its days are numbered. Hopefully as visitor numbers into the area increase, the argument to maintain a viable lion population will strengthen.
For more information on desert lions in this area do take a look at the section on Desert Lion Conservation
in the Damaraland North guidebook.
Lion in the Hoarusib canyon to the west of PurrosNews update
2011-08-19 : text : Desert lions poisoned
at Purros in northwest Namibia
The hub of this inland area is the village of Purros, which lies at the point where the main track from the south crosses the Hoarusib riverbed. It is a small town of maybe one hundred small tin dwellings, centred around a store.
The people here are Himba and Herero, which are actually more or less the same tribe, except that the Himba tend to live the traditional life where the Herero are more westernised. This lady below is wearing a traditional Herero outfit, which was mimicked from the early Victorian settlers in the area.
To give you a flavour of the place, when we pulled in here around lunchtime on the 8th of January one year, several of the locals were quite drunk. When we asked if this was always the case we were told not, but that the village had decided to let new year celebrations last two weeks this particular year!
We never cease to be amazed at the range of people that one finds in a village such as this. Some of the people are really very authentic tribespeople, clearly not used to the 'big smoke' of Purros and very unfamiliar with outsiders like us and our trappings. Whilst on the other hand our guide from Skeleton Coast Camp
, Kallie, is also from the village and yet is an erudite, educated man who would be able to hold his own in any company. These people are naturally quick-witted and can really take advantage of an opportunity.
Lady in traditional Herrero Himba dress outside the store in Purros Village
When flying over this area, if you look closely you can see that even some of the most utterly remote valleys feature clusters of small circles. These are the livestock bomas of the Himba, semi-nomadic pastoralists
many of whom live an authentic tribal lifestyle
in this most barren of lands.
Whilst it is more than possible to visit an authentic Himba village
, it is generally considered more diplomatic to visit a specific village to the east of Purros which has been specifically built for this purpose and where you can turn up and look round without feeling that you are really gawping at people's private lives. Being in such a remote area means that visitor traffic here remains very low, so this is not the kind of patsy experience that this type of set-up can be in the Masai Mara
, but remains a pleasantly low-key and spontaneous affair. What made it for us was that our guide from Skeleton Coast Camp
, Kallie, actually comes from the area and is related to most of the people in the village, which is always a sure-fire ice-breaker!
In the main slideshows at the top of this page you will find a section on this Himba village. The very old lady who is shown demonstrating the local incense burning actually died about an hour after we left her, which naturally made us feel rather sad. She was a lovely character, unable to speak any English, but able to communicate with a range of amusing expressions and gestures. We can't help wondering if looking at the photos we took decided her that it was time to die. Anyway, they are shown here in memorial and with the permission of her family.
Himba village to the east of Purros
Amazing private concession camps
As you will already have gathered, the key place to stay in this area is the fabulous Skeleton Coast Camp
or its simpler annexe Skeleton Coast Research Camp
. This is the only way to gain access to the Skeleton Coast North Concession
, which contains about three quarters of all the cool stuff in the area.
On our last visit to Skeleton Coast Camp we actually found ourselves discussing whether we should allow ourselves to rate the camp 11 out of 10. In other words we found the experience to be so good that we felt it needed to be rated significantly higher than any other in camp in Africa
. And we stand by this. Some of us here have been lucky enough to stay at the camp more than once now and, despite essentially doing the same routine each time, have only found it to get better and better. We find it difficult to imagine a life where we would not at some stage return again to this wonderful camp, we would go every year if we could
. Interestingly on our last visit we discovered that we were not alone in this ... every single guest in camp was a repeat visitor! This is one of those places that really gets into your blood.
Aerial of Skeleton Coast Camp
in the Khumib riverbed
The camp itself is a wonderfully simple
affair. Given that it is also one of the most expensive camps in Africa, this is quite an acheivement ... it would be too easy to be drawn into provide a luxury experience out here, but that would detract so much from the intense sense of wilderness. And anyway, as noted below, guests are out all day and spend so little time around camp that it really is of little consequence. The place feels exactly like it should ... like the last outpost of civilisation in an utter wilderness
. Like an Antarctic research station or a base on the moon.
The staff are fantastic too, there is a real sense of communal spirit, intimacy and a sense of pride which comes from knowing quite how amazing an experience is being provided to the guests ... because every time that departure day comes around there are tears ... surprisingly deep friendships are made in just a few all-too-short days.
Main building at Skeleton Coast Camp
Skeleton Coast Research Camp is essentially the same story. It provides access to the same amazing areas, is serviced by the same wonderful staff. Only it is slightly smaller and less stylish, although not so much that the large cost saving it represents doesn't seem like an absolute steal!
Skeleton Coast Camp and Skeleton Coast Research Camp can only be accessed by light aircraft
. This is one of the rules of the goverment lease on the concession, so even if you are parked at Purros with a 4x4 and ready to drive in, you can't ... a plane has to come and get you.
A plane flies into the camp twice per week, on a Wenesday for a 3 night stay
and on a Saturday for a 4 night stay
The planes route in from Windhoek
, picking up at Etosha
and Damaraland North
on the way. On the way into camp the pilot usually routes along the Hoarusib canyon, over the dune-sea to the coast at Rocky Point and then inland across the dunes and gravel plains to land alongside the camps. As well as being incredibly scenic, this gives guests a good idea of many of the areas which they will be covering over the next few days.
When you arrive in camp, the people leaving are arriving at the strip by Landrover. It is noticeable how intimately they are getting on with their guides and other staff and one feels a little awkward, like crashing in on someone else's party. Amazing how just a few days later the situation is reversed!
Dunefield encroaching upon the Hoarusib riverbed as it reaches the ocean
Superb guiding and long days out on safari
We have already mentioned the guides
from Skeleton Coast Camp
a couple of times. They really are extraordinarily good
and pivotal to the experience
Top Skeleton Coast Camp guide Kallie Uararavi
The main reason is that safari here is like no other camp. Because of the enormous distances to be covered, guests usually head out on all-day safaris
. The biggest day is usually the one north to the seals at Cape Fria, which can easily run to a 12 hour trip
if you take your time. Even then you will not be able to see everything, difficult decisions have to be made as to what to skip. The other long day is the one inland to Purros, on which you should see larger game, which again can run to 10 or more hours. These days are magnificent ... a seemingly endless procession of remarkable events and experiences
, some as small as stopping to catch a lizard, some as enormous as the seal colony itself ... and all adding up to the most amazing experience. Along the way your guide will elegantly provide a morning coffee break, a sit-down lunch and various snacks and drinks to keep you going through the afternoon.
Picnic lunch to the south of Purros
Most days all you see of camp is a rather blury breakfast in the morning, then as the sun goes down a quick shower and ten minutes lying on the bed before a lovely communal dinner in the mess and an early night. By the third day you may be begging to be allowed to take it easy!
So it is easy to see quite how why the guides are so important
. Of your 16 waking hours, probably 12 of them are spent exclusively with the guides, plus they also dine with you in the evening. By the end of it you are wondering quite how they manage to do this week after week.
On our last visit our guide was Kallie Uararavi
, who is Himba from the village of Purros. When we went to Cape Fria we calculated that this was the 122nd time that he had done this marathon journey and yet his enthusiasm was as fresh as if it were his first time. His knowledge, passion and his reading of us were all first rate. When we went inland to Purros, he was able to introduce us to his friends and family along the way, which made us feel really welcome. By the end of the trip we had all fallen in love with Kallie. So much so that when the other guests talked in similarly glowing terms about their guide we felt like telling them that they were wrong, our guide was better!
And this has been true every time we have visited.
Kallie with our Tracey and Joe by the Hoarusib riverbed close to his home village of Purros
One last point, a seemingly small one, but important when you are there ... these seats on top of the Landrover
are so cool
... we agreed between us that sitting up top was at least three times as good as sitting inside!
Sitting 'up top' whilst crossing the dunefield on the way north to Cape Fria
Main road camps
Having spent so much time talking about how you have to stay in Skeleton Coast Camp
in order to be able to access the coastal concession area, one has to take a deep breathe before looking at the other camps in the area. But the bottom line is that Skeleton Coast Camp and even Skeleton Coast Research Camp
are way out of many people's budgets.
So we are left with the question ... if you cannot access the coast, is it still worth coming this far north?
The answer is probably yes
The only lodge of any real note in this area is Okahirongo Elephant Lodge
, a surprisingly chic establishment close to the village of Purros. In fact it is quite a shock to find something quite so advanced in such a backwater and, to be honest, we are still not sufficiently over the shock to work out whether it is a good or a bad thing. But a very comfortable and reasonably reliable base it is from which to explore the local area. This place tends to provide a full safari service to its guests, whether they arrive by light aircraft or drive themselves in via Sesfontein.
Also in this Purros area is a campground and a self-catering lodges, both of which are community-run and quite basic. These tend to cater to adventurous, experienced and independent self-drivers or guests on guided safaris through this region.
Whichever lodge you stay at you will have access to the upper part of the Hoarusib Canyon and the stretch of riverbed that runs inland from Purros, which covers most of the good game areas, so elephant and lion should both be within range, although the latter are very elusive. It is also possible to visit the main Himba village and to explore the more barren hills and valleys over the broader inland area.
But you will not have access to any of the areas covered in items 1-8 in this section.
Interestingly Okahirongo Elephant Lodge can be combined with Okahirongo River Camp
further north on the Kunene river to make a really interesting journey through this remote corner of the country. Although still missing that crucial coastal element.
Evening at Okahirongo Elephant Lodge near Purros