The treacherous Skeleton Coast reaches north from the town of Swakopmund to Namibia's northern border at the Kunene River. Cold water, carried by the Benguela current flowing north from Antarctica, meets the hot, dry air of the Namib desert and forms an early-morning fog that often penetrates more than 20 miles inland. The currents, the winds, the fog and the absence of protected harbors have made this stretch of Atlantic coastline a hazardous passage for centuries.
The morning fog is the only source of moisture for many of the specially-adapted plants that eke out a fragile existence in this forbidding environment. By late morning, the fog begins to burn away, revealing a windswept landscape of shifting sand dunes, crashing waves and the occasional black-backed jackal trotting along keeping a sharp lookout for an opportunistic meal. On the beach, several giant colonies of Cape fur seals (technically a species of sea lion) teem with the bleating sounds of babies and mothers trying to find one another among the multitudes as mothers return from feeding in the ocean. As mothers and babies make their way through the crowd, brief but spirited fights break out as neighbors are jostled and territories are trespassed.
At several points along the coast, "ephemeral" rivers traverse the dry sand en route to the sea. The rivers are "ephemeral" because they flow with water only for brief days or weeks during the rainy season. During the rest of the year they appear as dry as the rest of the strand. Looks, however, are deceiving. In many cases, the rivers still carry some water below the surface. Local plants have adapted deep root systems to reach down for the precious water. Desert elephants, which have also adapted to the harsh conditions, have learned to dig holes in the sandy river beds and wait for ground water to seep in. In some places, underground rock layers force the water to the surface in the form of small springs that attract animals from miles around.
It is an eerie experience to walk along the edge of the sea. During the heyday of whaling in the 19th century, seamen dismembered their quarry to process the meat and oil and threw the bones overboard. Many of the these bones washed ashore and remain visible today, preserved for more than a century by conditions that even decay-causing bacteria find inhospitable. There are also skeletons of young sea lions, trampled in a stampede in a crowded seal colony or perhaps snatched away by a stealthy jackal, then picked clean by the scavengers. At various points along the shore, one also sees skeletons of ships that have been dashed against the rocks and broken to pieces. In one area, there is a tomb to a seaman who lost his life along the coast (one of many to die but one of the few whose remains could be found).
Inland from the Skeleton Coast lies Namibia's Kunene Region (previously known as Kaokoland when the country was under South African control). Although the region is arid, desert elephants, giraffes and many other species have adapted to the dry conditions. In addition, the Himba people have lived in the area for centuries, raising cattle, sheep and goats. Because of their isolation, the Himba have been better able to maintain their traditional lifestyle than many indigenous groups in Africa.
Photos from the Kunene Region are available in a pop-up window by clicking on the link below.
Kunene Region: A look at the region of Namibia (formerly known as Kaokoland) inland from the Skeleton Coast. This region is home to the specially adapted desert elephant, giraffe, antelope and magnificent landscapes. (9 Photos) [Preview This Slide Show]
Himba People: A quick look at the Himba people that inhabit the arid Kunene Region of Namibia. They have managed to maintain their traditional, pastoralist lifestyle into the century. For more information about the Himba, visit the Himba People page. (12 Photos) [Preview This Slide Show]