Living on the Edge - Namibia's Skeleton Coast

Updated: Feb 2, 2021

Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, so-called apparently for the hulks of wretched ships littering the shores of this wild part of Africa’s west coast, is no place for the faint-hearted. Mighty winds blast the coast year-round and the Namib’s great wet equaliser, fog, blankets the coast for over 100 days a year. But this is also a place of surprises, of the unexpected and of wonder. A place where garnet dust reddens the shoreline, where dunes ‘roar’ and, where else in world would you find a lion scavenging on a beached pilot whale or elephant sliding down the slip-face of dunes?

Mostly hyper arid, the Skeleton Coast is dissected by large ephemeral rivers which, although they might not flow for a decade or two, nevertheless sustain almost year-round springs capable of supporting animals as large as elephant. Even when these rivers do flow they don’t always reach the sea, often disappearing into the desert sand. It is this resource which gives life to these ‘linear oases’ as the ephemeral rivers are called, providing safe havens for a host of desert-adapted creatures including birds, insects, antelope, zebra, giraffe - even rhino, lion and elephant.

The elephants have adapted to living in extreme aridity but are driven into perpetual motion by their need for water, even though they sometimes don’t drink for up to 4 days - incredible for so large an animal. Using ancient pathways, they are capable of covering over 70 km in a day, often at night. It is still possible, for the rare visitor to this torturous place of extremes, to see large herds in these seemingly inhospitable environments.

How long have they been here? Rock engravings at the Twyfelfontein World Heritage site dating back some 2000 to 2500 years show elephants among many other species of animals depicted in the engravings. Since the engravings also feature seals and dolphins, one assumes the San hunter-gathers, who fashioned the carvings, walked to the coast using these same linear oases to sustain themselves on the journey.

Like the elephant, they too no doubt knew which bark, seeds and fruit would sustain them along these natural highways.

Even after twenty eight years of guiding, Andrew Gillies still experiences a thrill when happening upon elephant or Black Rhino in these wild, arresting places. It is in these unguarded moments we might gain insight into what the poet Kahlil Gibran meant when he wrote:

It was but yesterday I thought myself a fragment

Quivering without rhythm in the sphere of life

Now I know that I am the sphere

And all life in rhythmic fragments

Moves within me

When all rational thought dissolves into pure sensate experience, no interpretation is required.

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