Kelbe Photography

Life In A Blink Of An Eye

Skeleton Coast

The name conjures a frisson of excitement tinged with fear. Very Indiana Jones! It refers of course to the notorious history of centuries of shipwrecks on this coast and the poor chances of survival even if you made dry land. This desert comes right up to the coast with miles of sand dunes and gravel plains. The vegetation is sparse and highly adapted, huddled in fingers of dry and secret river beds and gullies.

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Namibia has taken the laudable and imaginative step of protecting its whole coastline in a national park giving us the chance to enjoy the vast unique and largely unspoiled landscape.

On arrival at the coast the fresh sea breeze is a welcome respite from the burning dry interior heat less than 50 km away but as the sun sets and the wind whips up with icy fingers you had better make sure you remembered to pack some warm clothes for this desert trip.

Terrace Bay

The skeleton coast park is split into north and south. The north remains the exclusive preserve of the high end lodges and fly in safaris but the southern end, stretching from the Ugab river mouth to Terrace Bay, holds a wealth of interest and bleak beauty

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Terrace bay is the northern most point for self drive. It is in the site of an old diamond mine and the old buildings have been loosely adapted to house the camp. It retains a desolate and run down air which is belied by the rather high end price for a nights lodging but it does come with breakfast and dinner and a respite from the cutting cold winds off the sea. We were lucky to get a nights stay here and only after the guard at the entrance gate pulled a few strings. It has become an increasing observation as we travel in Namibia that the default position, especially of municipal or government run places, is that they are full up. This is despite finding hardly anyone there when you finally wheedle your way in. NamIbians we have met on our travels claim this is an underlying laziness of the government employees who get paid whether or not. Anyway we have learnt , even when turned down, to keep asking until someone lets us in and so it was we found ourselves en route to Terrace Bay

The visit was very worth while, despite getting stuck in the sand as we tried the silky sea exposures and almost missing supper, a surprisingly good 4 course banquet I may add.

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The cape cormorants have made the generator barn their roost, enjoying the heat rising against the roof for the cold windy nights. They nest on broken concrete pillars swooping and diving in the early light.

Uniab River Delta

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The skeleton coast is criscrossed by many rivers making their way to the sea from the Kaokaveld and Damara mountains. Most of these are dry river beds and the only indication of their presence is in depressions between the dunes and an increase in scrub vegetation. There is water in these rivers, just underground for the most part, flowing infrequently if at all. The Uniab to the North flows once a year (some years) and has some small pools which persist in one tributary as an attraction for water birds. It feeds an incredible small water fall just by the beach. Imagine that, a waterfall in the desert surrounded by steep red rock like a crack in the earths surface in the middle of a desert plain. Looking at the jackal , hyena and antelope tracks it's no secret to the wildlife and I am sure it would be a welcome sight for any shipwrecked sailor. Perhaps the only place you may expect to survive and find a way out with water and food.

One of the main reasons we were so persistent about getting to Terrace Bay was because you cannot otherwise access this area of the park allowing exploration of the Uniab. It was well worth the effort.

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Ships and Shipwrecks

Well this is the skeleton coast after all and we eagerly scanned the horizons for the outline of a beached vessel, imagining the coast line dotted with Spanish galleons. We were swiftly disillusioned. After following the coordinates for the 5th shipwreck on T4A ( and getting stuck in sand again! ) it became clear that most of these points marked the site of a previous wreck but all physical evidence was long gone. I am sure had we considered the likely effect of the harsh winds and weather it would have come as no surprise.

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The wreckage simply does not last long on this coast, buried in sand or collapsed by the sea and few iconic images remain of the once great vessels, only a few rusting and decaying hulls and shards are found to justify the continued use of the name. However let's face it, if they were easy to find would you still appreciate the magic? I can only report we visited every shipwreck site on T4A and collected photos of anything we could reasonably identify as wreckage. Of course in the northern section of the park where the wealthy tourists go they probably have Spanish galleons galore!

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Mines And More Mines

It seems the history of the skeleton coast is dotted with mining disasters, a fact we are very happy about. The remains of diamond mines can be seen at Terrace Bay and Toscanini but neither seem to have survived to financial viability. Interestingly we were later told that both mines were a scam and an entrepreneur called Du Preez seeded the areas of Terrace Bay and Toscanini with diamonds to fool investors into developing the mining operations under which he intended to profit. Who knows Now they add texture to the landscape with scenically rusted equipment left on site for the desert to sculpt and the birds to perch.

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There is also an old oil rig just asking for HDR photography. Who knows what this desert would have looked like if these had been successful ventures. I am sure we would never have found out as the skeleton coast would not have retained its status as a unique ecosystem and nature reserve but instead turned into a highly guarded industrialized eye sore.

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Further south , close to Swakopmund, there is a uranium mine called Rossing. This does seem to be active and viable and there is controversy about its water use when Swakopmund is suffering from serious water restrictions. Apparently the life of a uranium mine is only about 10 years so the argument is that the water for the mine will be re diverted back to Swakopmund in time with overall benefit to the town. In the mean time the mine offers tours twice a month to engage in some much needed PR. We have not visited (yet) but the reports sound impressive with a massive open cast working dwarfing the trucks like dinky toys. Photo op? Maybe but enough industrial art for now, let's return to the natural stuff.