The Eerie, Lunar Nothingness of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast

We had been driving for four hours and hadn't seen another soul. There were no people. There were no cars. It was just eerie, lunar nothingness stretching south to the horizon. To the left, desert, and to the right, ocean. The road was packed with salt. The three surfaces faded into a single gray-brown color under the overcast sky.

The end of the Earth is often referred to as the Skeleton Coast of Namibia.

The title was apt because of the view through the dusty window. The Skeleton Coast begins at the northern border with Angola and continues 300 miles to the former German colonial town of Swakopmund, where strudel-filled bakeries and beer gardens still line the streets.

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The port town of Swakopmund was founded in 1892 as an Imperial German colony. The Herero people were killed in a concentration camp during the Herero Wars. The town became a tourist destination for white people.

The region has a combination of cultures, landscapes and species that are unlike anything else on Earth.

We were driving the C34 highway along this stretch of remote, perilous land midway through a road trip across Namibia in early 2021. We packed up our lives and left our home and jobs in Seattle to travel around the world, only to be stopped by the global shutdown just weeks into our trip. We were locked down in Portugal for seven months, in what turned out to be one of the more unique pandemic experiences.

There is a house in the area.

We decided to revisit our original itinerary as things opened back up. Which countries are currently allowing in U.S. citizens? Very few. Where did we feel safest going based on the current Covid-19 case numbers? Even fewer. If we got sick, where would the health care system be without us?

The colors of the salt pans in Walvis Bay are caused by a microalgae.

The country rose to the top of the list. It was a place where we could travel independently and it was among the least densely populated countries. We didn't know how awe-struck we would be.

I knew little about the country before we set our sights on it. I felt the pull of the Skeleton Coast when I learned about it. I knew I had to experience and photograph it after seeing the wildness, desolation, and mystery of it all.

The Ugab Gate, the southern entrance to Skeleton Coast National Park, is decorated with twin skulls and whale bones as a warning about the hostile conditions that await travelers who pass through them.

The gates through which we entered the park were guarded by skulls and whale ribs. The objects were a warning to all who entered.

We were required to give our names and information before crossing into the 6,300-square-mile area of protected coastline in exchange for a transit permit and a healthy dose of apprehension. We crossed our fingers and held our breath as we drove through the gates, praying that we wouldn't blow a tire on the rented, tent-topped Toyota Hilux that had been our home in recent weeks, or get eaten by beach lions in the no man's land ahead.

The C34 highway is also known as Skeleton Coast Road.

Many unfortunate sailors, ships, aircrafts and animals have died due to the violent desert. The park's hostile conditions are visible in the carcasses of their vessels and bones. It is an inhospitable place where almost nothing grows, and where dangers, from wild rip curls to thick coastal fog, abound.

The world's least densely populated country is Namibia. Its population is close to that of Houston in a country that is 18 percent larger than Texas.

The park is often visited by visitors. Hundreds of vessels have met their fate along this span of shore and were devoured by the elements. Some can only be reached by plane or four-wheel drive.

There are traces of the Dunedin Star left to the far north. The British Blue Star liner foundered in 1942, stranding 106 passengers and crew. Several of the crew members of the plane and tugboat were lost during the rescue effort. The Eduard Bohlen cargo ship ran aground in 1909 and now can be seen from above, a quarter mile inland.

The South West Seal was a fishing vessel that ran around in 1976.

The remnants of the South West Seal, a vessel that crashed on the beach in 1976, are now just a scattering of wood and rusted metal, while the Zeila, a fishing boat that was stranded in 2008 near Henties Bay, is mostly gone.

There are few traces left of man in this area, which is in a state of decay: Road signs are faded and decomposing, an abandoned oil rig is little more than a pile of rust, eaten away by time, sand and sea air. I pulled over every few minutes to take the pictures, stretching what should have been a six-hour journey into one that lasted 11 hours.

One of the world's largest fur seal colonies can be found at the Cape Cross Seal Reserve. Over 200,000 seals rule over the protected area of coastline.

The Cape Cross Seal Reserve, home to over 200,000 foul-smelling fur seals, and the Walvis Bay Salt Works, where massive salt pans are colored bright pink by the presence of Dunaliella salina microorganisms, are some of the strange things we passed by. The prawns were in the wetlands. There were shift tables on the road north of Swakopmund, which were often used to hold salt crystals and money boxes in exchange for treasure.

Heading west from the gate.

Salt, sand and sea air destroy the remnants of an old oil drilling rig.

The skull of an eland, an ox-like African antelope, and other animals are fastened to a wood post along the highway.

The landscape was barren and powerful. Both frightening and exhilarating. The coastline and colors slowly changed, the sand reddening, as we headed further south and entered the world's oldest desert: the Namib.

The Namib has existed for at least 55 million years, and is now the young country's namesake.

The solitude and apartness we were chasing when we sought out this lonely part of the world, escaping from human-borne disease, and also from the monotony of our daily lives, was waiting for us in spades. In the best way, Namibia made us feel small and insignificant, a perspective that I often crave in a world overwhelmed by instant gratification and never-ending battles for my attention. In a war between man and nature, nature always wins, and in the end, the Skeleton Coast was a beautiful reminder that we humans are powerless against time.

At dusk, Dune 7 rises above the world's oldest desert. It is the tallest dune in the country.