Africa is a harsh land, from the vast empty Sahara desert to the open grasslands filled with animals who would be all too eager to eat you. Visiting Africa make you feel small – you are just one tiny part of the natural world and despite our place at the top of the food chain, we are far from invulnerable. No where else have I felt this sense of insignificance more than in the empty landscape of the Namib Desert.
The Namib Desert is thought to be the oldest desert in the world. Stretching along the Western side of Southern Africa, the desert runs the full length of the Namibian coastline. Namib, coming from the Nama language, simple means “vast place” and well, the name fits quite well. The desert runs for over 2,000 kilometres, covers over three million hectares, and completely cuts off the interior of Namibia from the coast. Between the grasslands of the interior and the sea, lie hundreds of miles of sand dunes, some of the biggest in the world. This is not just a desert but an extreme environment with annual precipitation ranging from as little as 2 millimetres.
Now before I scare you off ever visiting, let me tell you about the incredible beauty of the Namib Desert. At the interior edge of the desert you will find remarkable species of plants and animals, uniquely evolved to survive the harsh environment. As you journey into the desert, you start to see less and less plant life as the grasslands turn to sand. This is not a dull land of dusty brown sand though but a place of incredible sand formations in colors ranging from bright oranges to pinks.
The real highlight of a visit to the Namib Desert though is the coast. Here is a land that has inspired myths and legends for generations. After endless miles of some of the world’s tallest sand dunes, the desert falls right into the sea. There is nothing gradual about it. One minute you stand in the middle of a vast desert and the next you are at the edge of the ocean. This is the Skeleton Coast.
While the Namib Desert is almost entirely empty of human life, the edge of the desert, along the coast has a few man made oases. But why would a land as harsh as this ever be settled? The answer can be found in the sand – diamonds! There is an old story of a shipwrecked sailor, finding himself washed up along the Namibian coast. As he lay in the sand something caught his eye – a diamond, sitting right on top of the sand. In the next few days he filled his pockets full of diamonds, enough for a lifetime of wages as a sailor. A few days after that, he died of thirst.
The desert here is no joke and has earned its fair share of nicknames including – “The Land God Made in Anger” and “The Sands of Hell.” It is not just the harsh desert landscape that caused the area to earn such a harsh reputation but also the way the ocean and desert interact here to form one of the world’s most hazardous coastlines. Offshore two currents, one hot and one cold combine to form a dense fog belt all along the Namib coastline. In many areas along the coast, settlements can experience up to 180 days of thick fog. Add to that strong, constant surf and it becomes apparent why so many myths and stories from this region involve shipwrecked sailors. Today you can see over a thousand wrecks along the coast and hundreds more have been pulled into the sea over the centuries. It is easy to see why the region has earned its most iconic and well known nickname – the Skeleton Coast.
Despite the harshness of the desert and the danger of the sea, Namibia’s coastline has become a modern day travel destination. Once you see the striking image of the sand meeting the sea, you are almost sure to fall in love with the otherworldly like landscape. The beauty has added a thriving travel industry to the area, which was once a land only populated by diamond miners and dealers.
Of course you have to drive along the coast but if you have the budget, there is nothing better than seeing this unique landscape from the air. Helicopter and plane companies offer charter flights on the few clear days and there is also the option to see the area from a hot air balloon. If you can’t get into the air, at least climb a sand dune and see the beautiful vistas of endless sand. Some of the largest sand dunes in Namibia are found at Sossusvlei, an area located inside the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Here you can climb the famous “Big Daddy” and the most photographed dune in the world, Dune 45. The changing, moving sand mountains, with their deep red sand color, contrast beautifully against the blue sky and make for some great photos.
While visiting the desert during the day is part of the experience, so is a night out beneath the desert sky. Namibia is the second least densely populated country in the world and at night the lack of light pollution, combined with the vast empty landscapes, mean you can often see the milky way stretch from horizon to horizon. The stars here are so bright and if you are lucky enough to get a fog free night, there is no place better for stargazing in Africa.
It isn’t all desert and sand though. Oddly enough, a real highlight of the Skeleton Coast is the little German oasis of Swakopmund. Founded in the late 1800s by German settlers seeking the riches of the area, Swakopmund still today has a strong German identity. Of the 42,000 inhabitants, many still speak German as a first language and the old center of the city looks straight out of rural Germany. The city is a great place to start or end your Namibian coastal visit with most of the Namib Desert tourism companies set up here. Besides booking your sand dune tour or star-viewing trip, Swakopmund is also a great place to try the local cuisine. Combining great seafood, traditional German recipes, and 100% African ingredients, the restaurants here are not to be missed.
The Namibian coast truly is one of the harshest places on earth and yet, it is filled with life, movement, and beauty. From the friendly people to the breathing scenery, this area of the world holds so much to experience. Whether you come for the sand dunes or the stars, the wildlife or the sea, the Skeleton Coast’s haunting beauty is sure to stay with you for years to come.