“Folks, welcome to the gates of hell,” George, my Namibia guide, says deviously, taking on a satanic persona.
Or maybe I’m imagining it. The Skeleton Coast has already gotten into my head. Maybe it was the eerie quiet of the road, or possibly the lunar landscape showcasing vast dessert dotted with green salsola-topped baby sand dunes and natural salt flats that’s making my fantasies run wild. Pulling into the Terrace Bay Resort, the cloudy skies provide the backdrop for a flock of cackling crows — literally, not sea gulls, cackling crows — with lonely cottages lining the shore and small gravestones directing traffic.
Namibia‘s ancient bushmen actually called the Skeleton Coast the “Land God Made in Anger,” while 15th century Portuguese explorers called it the “Gates to Hell.” The more modern name “Skeleton Coast” doesn’t paint anymore of an upbeat picture, either. The name comes from the many whale bones (from when the whaling industry was big) and 1,000+ shipwrecks scattered along the desolate shoreline, both on the sand and in the water. Many believe that the first known death on the Skeleton Coast was of Diogo Cão, a 15th-century Portuguese explorer known for placing a cross at what is today known as Cape Cross, home to the world’s largest seal breeding colony, with hundreds of thousands of Cape fur seals along this eery shoreline.
Terrace Bay ends up being a simple yet über hospitable property on the water with a haunted feel. After dark, I constantly think I hear ghosts crawling out of my closet — okay, I’ll even admit I checked mine throughly before bed. It sort of adds to the appeal of the location, as do the mix of upbeat and chilling messages written on the onsite restaurant walls, like “No Shipwreck Only Death.”
My group does indeed survive the night, and we begin our journey back to civilization bright and early at 7am. The sunrise is spooky but beautiful, a charcoal grey sky accented by bright pinks, with a fog making it all seem like a dream sequence. The crow is even back, cackling from a seemingly out-of-place palm tree as if to say “You haven’t gotten out alive yet, my little tourist.”
Looking toward the beach as we continue to the aforementioned Cape Cross there are old tires mounted in the sand telling people not to drive on the shore, though the deep vehicle tracks tell that people are not really listening. The visitors that come to this remote destination have driven hundreds of miles to be here, and they want to explore every inch of this unusual landscape.
The sun finally comes up around 9am and uplifts the gloom slightly, though instead of yellow the sand glistens with grey silver. For an added energy boost our Toyota is soon pummeling over what George calls “massage roads,” bumpy stretches from basalt underneath the sand that make our vehicle bump up and down, a roller coaster stomach feeling taking over every so often. I open my window and throw my camera on sport mode, trying to add some stability to the movement as I snap photos of the endless baby dunes backed by giant mounds, springbok and jackal popping into view every so often making me wonder how the hell they survive in such a resilient landscape. The scene reminds me of Chile’s Tierra del Fuego, but with less mountains and more vastness.
Finally we come to a cutoff toward the ocean, showing us one of the Skeleton Coast’s famous shipwrecks, the South West Seal. The 90-ton South African fishing boat crashed in 1976 when catching fire. From the top of the hill where we park the shipwreck pieces make up what looks like a giant fish bone against deep blue Atlantic water and just as deep red sand, light rust and sky blue accents creating a contrasting scene. The beach is beautiful, and if it’s warm I’d definitely recommend bringing your swimsuit here.
That being said, I’m surprised not to see more shipwrecks since this is what the Skeleton Coast is known for, but George explains that which shipwrecks are visible changes over time as the boats disintegrate into the ocean, and that certain shipwreck locations require 4x4s or scenic flights to experience. As of now, there are really only about three shipwrecks one can easily drive and walk to in the Skeleton Coast National Park.
We exit the park at the Southern Gate, which my group dubs the “Gates of Hell” due to its skull and cross bones exterior and giant whale bone accents. There’s also a table adorned with animal skulls selling local quartz, an odd sight to see that further convinces me I’m living Namibia’s most beautiful nightmare.
If you come for the endless shipwrecks you may be disappointed; however, if you come to get off the beaten path and placed right into an Edgar Allen Poe piece you won’t be disappointed.
Stay: Terrace Bay Resort is a simple, clean and spacious accommodation with a budget-friendly onsite restaurant and bar (wine was about ~$0.95 a glass), wonderful hospitality and an awesome beachfront location. Keep in mind there are no fans or air conditioning, though keeping a window open allows the ocean breeze to cool you down, not to mention this location is typically cooler than many other parts of Namibia. Rates range from about $35 to $55 per person per night.
Local Guide: I used Vulkan Ruin Tours & Transfers and was extremely impressed with their dedication to responsible tourism and education. My guide, George, and driver, Martin, were both fun and knowledgable, helping to facilitate all activities in a way that helped our group get the most out of them. I would recommend requesting them when making your booking.
When To Go: Namibia is a year-round destination; however, for wildlife viewing June through October is best as it’s dry season.
Currency: The Namibian Dollar. As of March 3, 2016, the exchange rate is about $1 USD = $15.67 Namibian Dollars.
Language: English is the national language, though most also speak Afrikaans and German (Namibia experienced a period of German rule from 1884 under German South-West Africa).
Staying Connected: If you travel a lot a KnowRoaming Global SIM Sticker affixes to your SIM to give you local rates and eliminate roaming charges in 200+ countries. Otherwise, you can purchase a local SIM card from MTC. My starter pack cost about $5 and lasted me for eight days of pretty consistent use. Note: You’ll need an unlocked phone to be able to do this. You can call you cell phone provider to have this done if it’s not already.
Dress: Dress is casual and comfortable. While I’d read many guides saying you must cover your shoulders and knees, I didn’t find this to be the case in reality. While I’d skip dressing provocatively, shorts, tanks, tees and sundresses are totally fine.
Outlets: The four of us on my tour group ALL mistakenly brought the wrong converters. I even brought a 150+ country converter and it still didn’t work. Make sure to get this one.
Must-Pack Essentials: Along with your typical gear, make sure to have:
- Light long sleeve shirt to block sun (I love the insect-repelling NosiLife line from Craghoppers)
- A hat (I like this insect repelling one from Craghoppers)
- Scarf-shawl (great for chilly nights and plane/car blankets)
- A Telephoto lens
- Namibian/South African Converter
- Personal alarm siren (I didn’t feel Namibia was dangerous, but I always carry this)
- Pickpocket-Proof Garments (again, something I always pack)
- BUFF (for sun and dust protection)
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