Welwitschia mirabilis engraving
Imagine a cold, barren, ghostly desertland whose fog-enshrouded coastline is littered with the sun-bleached wrecks of beached ships and the skeletons of dead sailors, whose sandy dunes not only move stealthily like stalking lions but also roar like them, whose pebbles unexpectedly split apart to reveal bright jewel-like flowers, whose ancient bizarre trees grow not upwards but lengthwise, extending enormous leathery leaves across the ground like alien ribbons, where elephants surf the sand dunes, and where slinking jackals and menacing hyaenas flit like sinister shadows around a long-abandoned oil rig that time and the elements have transformed into a towering edifice of rust and decay. This eerie, surrealistic vista may seem like the bleak landscape of a disturbed dream, but in fact it is an accurate portrayal of one of the world's most amazing regions - the Skeleton Coast, in southwest Africa.
Stretching over 400 km along the edge of northwestern Namibia and occupying more than 1.6 million hectares in area, the Skeleton Coast is bounded to the north by the Kunene River, to the south by the Ugab River, and is bisected horizontally by the Hoanib River. This remote, inhospitable territory was officially proclaimed a National Park in 1971, and in 1998 travel through it by tourists was formally permitted for the first time. Having said that, access to the northern half is still highly restricted, as this area is designated a natural wilderness, and adjoins Kaokoland, home to the nomadic, traditionalist Himba people. However, the southern half has swiftly become a very popular tourist attraction - for good reason. The Skeleton Coast offers strange, sometimes uncanny sights unique in the world.
Sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Namib Desert, it is chilled by the Benguela Current, travelling north from the frozen wastelands of Antarctica. Further cooling is provided by a dense night mist, which rolls 80 km or more inland every 10 days or so and condenses into a thick dew - but whose opaque treachery has lured many an unwary maritime vessel to its doom. Bearing silent testimony to this are the numerous disintegrating hulks of wrecked ships, fishing boats, even a downed bomber aircraft, and the whitened skeletons of their dead crew, resting for all eternity amid the sand - which earned this region its memorable name, coined by a local journalist during the 1930s.
Perhaps the most famous of such sights is the rotting fuel tank of the Dunedin Star, a British cargo vessel that was beached here in November 1942, and whose rescue resulted in a tugboat called the Sir Charles Elliott running onto the rocks and a Ventura bomber that dropped supplies subsequently nose-diving into the sea (its engine can still be seen here too). Other victims of the Skeleton Coast down through the years include the Montrose (wrecked here in 1973), the Suiderkus (beached in 1976), the Benguela Eagle (1975), and the steamer Eduard Bohlen (1909), as well as the fishing vessels Winston, Karimona, and Atlantic Pride. And long before any of these set sail, untold numbers of diamond seekers, anxious to gather the sparkling gems littering the sands of this ghostly terrain, paid with their lives when their boats were wrecked here.
Yet had they succeeded in landing safely, diamonds would not have been the only wonders to dazzle their senses. Had they explored the Hoarusib Canyon, for instance, they would have encountered an array of yellow-white, clay-constituting formations that resemble ethereal fairytale castles or weird exotic temples. They would also have marvelled at the 'living, talking' sand dunes known as barchans. Crescent in shape, and created by southwesterly winds in locations where there is little sand, these geological anomalies can travel up to 3 m a year, and as they move, they emit a rumbling basso-profundo roar.
But however spectacular its geological idiosyncrasies may be, they are no more so than its biological surprises. Bearing in mind that the Skeleton Coast embodies a veritable contradiction in terms, comprising a cold desert, it is little wonder that its wildlife is very definitely weird as well as wonderful. Take, for instance, its flowering 'pebbles'.
Look on the ground here, and you may well see what seem at first to be small, round, greyish-white rocks or stones, virtually covered in sand. A closer inspection, however, will reveal that these 'rocks' are actually pairs of succulent leaves - the water-storing leaves of Lithops, an amazing plant aptly dubbed the living stone. Expertly camouflaged, it escapes the attention of herbivorous animals during the dry season, but when the rainy season comes an incredible transformation occurs. Suddenly, the 'stone' seems to split apart - in reality, a stalk has grown up between its two leaves - and a large, bright, daisy-like flower blossoms. All too soon, however, the rainy season ends, the flower dies, and Lithops once more assumes its alter ego, as a pseudo-pebble amid a barren land of real ones.
Even more extraordinary, however, is the living fossil plant exclusive to this outlandish realm. Known formally as Welwitschia mirabilis, this ancient species is technically a conifer tree, but anything less like a tree yet nonetheless a plant would be difficult to imagine. To offset the harsh, inhospitable nature of this region, Welwitschia does not grow vertically to any extent - its trunk rarely exceeds 1 m. Instead, it sends out two enormous leaves that resemble thick leather ribbons, twisting and writhing across the sands, fraying at their edges but never shed and growing up to 5 cm every year, throughout the plant's life - and Welwitschia can live as long as 2000 years!
Never found more than 50 km inland from the Skeleton Coast's shore, Welwitschia utilises numerous tiny rootlets to absorb water stored in stream gravel after storms, and also obtains water from fog, condensing upon its pore-covered leaves. The plant's water and food supplies are all stored in a single massively thick root, up to 3 m long and resembling a gargantuan woody carrot, which anchors it firmly in the desert's soil.
As for its animal life, the Skeleton Coast can and does offer the eco-tourist an unparalleled spectacle of delights. Its mammals include prowling lions, elegant giraffes, burly black rhinoceroses, playful elephants that have been filmed surfing gleefully down the sand dunes, and graceful antelopes such as gemsbok and springbok that frequent the region's gravelly plains alongside stately ostriches. Equally noteworthy are its vivid diversity of waders and waterfowl, its ospreys, flamingos, ghost crabs scuttling sideways over the beaches, nocturnal gecko lizards that obtain water by licking dew off their eyes, and suitably-named headstander beetles that stand on their heads to catch precious drops of condensed fog, which trickle down their wing cases into their gaping mouths.
Perhaps the spookiest sight, however, are the phantoms that lurk in the shadows of a now-derelict oil-drilling rig, sited between the Huab River and the Koichab River. Some of these phantoms periodically take wing, revealing themselves to be cormorants, flying back and forth with fishes in their long beaks. Other, ground-based spectres prove to be jackals and heavily-maned brown hyaenas, scavenging for food. Most eyecatching of all, however, must surely be the Skeleton's Coast enormous breeding colony of Cape fur seals at Cape Cross, said to be the largest such colony in the world, containing 80,000-100,000 seals.
Bleak and barren it may be, but lifeless and dull the Skeleton Coast is certainly not, as testified by the ever-increasing numbers of tourists anxious to explore a land that is like no other on Earth - a land where the ghosts of the past and the wildlife of the present combine to guarantee a plentiful supply of sightseers in the future.