The land God made in anger
Here’s a glimpse into the world’s oldest desert, desert which has many a surprise to discover
The desolate, windswept Skeleton Coast of North West Namibia is what might be the opposite of the Garden of Eden. It’s a place where whimsical, life-choking and constantly shifting sand dunes meet the frothy waters of the Atlantic. For centuries, dangerous currents have wreaked havoc on its shores and the bare, exposed ribs of ships, whales and sailors of yore give it its macabre name. Portuguese seafarers called it “Gates of Hell” and the San Bushmen, “The land God made in anger.”
The cold coastal Benguela current from Antarctica keeps the moisture from rising and forming rain clouds. Instead, on most mornings, a thick cloud of fog is born from the meeting of cold and hot air, and it moves 50 kilometers inland over the hyper-arid gravel plains, gnarled granite hills and parched riverbeds, not lifting till the afternoon.
Flying low into Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp in the Palmwag concession on a light aircraft, we could see lifeless, barren hills below us, and wondered whether there was any wildlife at all, but the views belied a strong pulse on the ground. On our game-drives, we saw a host of fascinating creatures that have figured out how to thrive on the meager offerings of this land. We found ourselves even more captivated by the hauntingly beautiful landscapes. Frozen fingers, sunburn, sand-in-the-lens, thorncuts and tick-bites would just have to wait; the oldest desert on earth was commanding our attention.
Life giving fog, oasis and flash floods
An amphitheatre of hills protected the stylish tented Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp from sandstorms and blistering winds, and a short walk away was the steep drop down to the Hoanib riverbed, along which grow acacia trees and shrubs that attract elephant, springbok, oryx, ostrich and the brown hyena. And lions. Without water for miles, you wonder how they survive here. While condensed moisture from the morning fog on the wet leaves is enough for the grazers and browsers, the lions and cheetahs have adapted their ways, carefully pooling their prey’s blood in its skin and lapping it without letting it run into the sand. They have knowl- edge of the area’s oasis and springs, and are tuned into nature’s rhythms and cycles. Occasionally, when rain falls on the eastern highlands, rivers such as the Hoanib flow suddenly, washing down silt and enough water to keep the hardy vegetation going.
A desert safari
Walking along the riverbed, our feet crunched the immensely beautiful curled-up pieces of clay formed by the fast drying silt of the previous flood. Tall mud banks on both sides were like the ramparts of a fort, and the soft sand heaped on the sides the buttresses. They formed a backdrop to the photographs of a lone, defiant giraffe. Five young male lions, a band of brothers, had taken down his companion in the early hours. Around the bend, our guide had us hide behind a tree as a male elephant with a reputation for being cantankerous made his way down a 20-foot dune by sliding down on his bottom. He was more comical than formidable. On our last day we drove to the smelly and raucous sea lion colony at Möwe Bay on the Skeleton coast, stopping en-route to surprise some flamingoes and to slide down giant dunes that roared like fighter jets.
Granite hills, the river bank and Hoanib camp in desert Namibia A lone giraffe on the Hoanib river bank in north-west Namibia A desert-adapted lioness
bags an oryx in the Palmwag Concession
We crunched the beautiful, curled up clay underfoot as we walked along the riverbed