The teenager stood 10 feet in front of our vehicle, a large branch hanging like a giant frown from his mouth. His ears were spread wide and his trunk, held long and low, tipped up at the end to smell us. He looked and he waited, shifting slightly from one foot to the other. It was clear that he was curious and that he wanted to intimidate, but equally important was his desire to impress Papa G, the giant bull elephant twice his size to our left who was ignoring his performance.
Gertz, our guide and driver, told us to be quiet and not to move. No reason to turn a cheeky bull into an angry one, and after a few moments of giving us the pachyderm version of the stink-eye he sauntered away. With his trunk, he reached towards Papa G’s mouth, a common submissive greeting, but Papa G walked forward as if the young bull didn’t exist. There would be no bromance this morning.
As we passed the rejected elephant, he chased the vehicle half-heartedly but did his best to make a show of it with a strong shake of his head. “That’s right people, move along! You’re in my riverbed!” he seemed to say. Still, Papa G remained unimpressed.
It was sunrise on my third day as a guest of Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp in the Palmwag concession of Namibia. We were embarking upon the camp’s signature excursion: a daylong journey to its namesake, the infamous Skeleton Coast—a formidable strip of merciless desert, thousands of miles long that melds with the serrated shores of the Atlantic ocean in the country’s remote northwest.
(A glimpse of the view driving on the Hoanib Riverbed)
The drive would take 4-5 hours across 40 miles of otherworldly landscapes leading us to the water’s edge. We’d begin by navigating the deep, dry channel of the Hoanib riverbed until we hit the flood plains—an ironic term considering the flood which hit the area two months earlier, was the first in 15 years. From there we’d venture through a sea of sand and the Roaring Dunes, beyond the Klein Oasis and the gravel plains, and then on to the ocean where remnants of decades old shipwrecks still dot its merciless shore.
An hour into the drive we found ourselves grounded, watching Gertz assess a flat tire—not an uncommon occurrence when you’re driving over rocks, tree roots and gravel everyday. The bad news: the wrench he needed to free the spare was missing. After calling for assistance, he inflated the flat tire and told us to get back in the jeep. Help was on its way but with miles of difficult terrain yet to cover, Gertz wanted to continue, albeit handicapped, until the mechanic caught up with us.
We’d re-inflate three times before help arrived, the second in the flood plains, once cracked and raw, now almost tropical as a result of the flood. Normally, the drive wouldn’t include any stops but the flat tire gave us an excuse to walk around and explore while poor Gertz dealt with the vehicle. Knee deep in flora of all kinds, we watched giraffe, ostrich and springbok meander in the distance, dwarfed by the mountains that rose up behind them.
It was hard to imagine the immense field of green was once bleak and barren, or that no one ever saw a drop of rainfall from the sky. It fell far to the east and then flowed down the Hoanib River through the plains and the dunes until it almost reached the Atlantic Ocean. We heard talk of confused animals staring at the rush of water unable to comprehend what they’d never seen before.
The reality was bittersweet, what looked lush and thriving was living on borrowed time. The heat and lack of water would kill most of the plants in a matter of weeks. They were not endemic to the plains but their seeds had washed down with the flood and taken root. Their leaves, larger than their desert-adapted counterparts, allow too much water to evaporate and would eventually be their death sentence.
Our third and last pit stop was miles beyond the plains at the top of a hill where the dunes begin. Unable to drive any longer, we waited while the camp’s mechanic worked on the tire. To our delight, an entertaining drama unfolded in front of us. A female elephant on her way to a nearby watering hole, stopped 50 feet from our jeep to wait for her calf who was lagging behind.
At first the cow waited patiently, casually dusting herself with sand and calling to her calf with low, gentle rumbles. As the minutes ticked by she became more impatient for the calf to arrive—Gertz thought perhaps the calf could smell us and was afraid to approach. Eventually the cow, exasperated, went looking for the calf who’d turned around and was walking in the opposite direction. The female was not happy. When she caught up with her unruly offspring they “discussed” the situation with great enthusiasm. After numerous stops and starts, trumpets and rumblings, the calf appeared to win the argument for they chose another route to the water.
Once the tire was fixed and we were on our way, we found ourselves high atop a mountain range of butterscotch-colored dunes. Except for the delineation of the bright blue sky, It was hard to tell where one dune ended and the other began, or how far one was from the other. I began walking towards what I thought was the edge of a ridge but after 5 minutes I still hadn’t reached it. When I turned around and looked behind me, I found that I’d walked a considerable distance downhill. I was completely bewildered, I hadn’t felt the sensation of descent whatsoever.
I made it back to the vehicle huffing and puffing, only to learn that the nearly 100 foot vertical drop in front of us was next on our list of “to-dos.” My heart sank; I imagined the dune collapsing beneath me. It was a foolish thought, the sand held strong and easily supported me as I walked down its steep incline. The others chose to navigate the dune on their behinds, a strategy I opted against for fear I’d be shaking sand out of my pants for the rest of my trip.
Once I reached the bottom, I watched the gang shimmy down the dune. And then it happened: the low resonate hum of a jet plane emanated from the shifting sands. When they stopped, it stopped. I was floored. Welcome to the Roaring Dunes! I wish I could give you an easy explanation for the phenomenon, but I can’t. It has something to do with the right amount of humidity, grain size and percentage of silica in conjunction with the amount of sand displaced by their cumulative butts. Frankly, it went over my head. I hope you’ll be content with it simply being a fascinating natural wonder.
Lunch was served al fresco at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Gazing at the water’s tumultuous ebb and flow, the view was savagely beautiful. Huge jagged rocks jutted out from the water’s surface warning of hidden dangers beneath. And when I looked at the mangled, rusted wreckage of a small boat on the rocks beside us, it was clear how the Skeleton Coast had earned its moniker.
Our adventure was nearing its end but there were still some visual delights yet to be enjoyed. We spent a short time at a small (and slightly creepy) skeleton museum on a desolate street of Mowe Bay, and then watched as hundreds of Cape fur seals playing in the surf nearby. While their sweet faces and boundless energy kept us enthralled, the stench from the colony was like a hard slap in the face. My nose burned and I had to breathe through my mouth to avoid retching from the odor.
By 4pm, we found ourselves skimming over the coastline in a small plane headed back to Hoanib. Moving inland, we passed over dunes that rolled and undulated beneath us like liquid gold, and then bursting with green, the flood plain came into view. Soon the familiar twists and turns of the Hoanib River followed, winding its way towards the dark grey mountains that signaled we were almost home. Moments before touch down our last view was of camp, beckoning us home after an exciting, adventure-filled day.
Click here for more stories and photos about my recent trip to Namibia