The sands of hell


"So where is the turning for Durissa Bay?" Asks Charlie. This is the last stop before the Skeleton Coast - a 1600km strip of desiccant earth running down Namibia’s Western coast.

Belligerent currents and thick sea frets have made it treacherous. Historically, those shipwrecked on this savage expanse would have little chance of survival. Until the 19th century there were no settlements for a thousand kilometers. Few drinking sources meant survivors competed for water with ravenous lions and leopards. Its name represents castaways’ skeletons and rusting, beached ship carcasses. The Portuguese simply called it: "Sands of Hell."

We’re already approaching the entrance to the park. Something is wrong. Durissa Bay must be 50km back.

"How did we miss it? Did you see any signposts?"

Charlie shakes his head. We are tense. We have to be out of the park before 5pm. It is 2pm. A roundtrip to Durissa Bay could take two hours. If we go back for petrol we won’t make it. We only have half a tank. I take a sip from our only bottle of water. I’m getting prickly heat.

We draw up to the gate. On it, the mocking image of skull and cross bones. The pirate’s warning – enter at your own peril - a nice sardonic touch. I would laugh if I weren’t so uneasy.

We edge across the bleak emptiness. The Skeleton Coast gives up few secrets. Much is cordoned off for diamond mining. Tracks towards the sea pique our curiosity but we dare not explore in case we get stuck in quicksand.

We eventually find a decayed schooner and like scavengers take pictures; I cannot shake the sense we are desecrating someone’s tomb.

Further on, a derelict rusting oilrig lies crumpled on the ground – a vast fossil of warped iron.

Then nothing - just hours and hours of driving. Usually talkative we are silenced. The barrenness of the earth spreads to our brains. We fall into a trance. We drive into a seemingly endless nowhere.

Then out of nothing comes something. We snap out of our reverie. A road sign pokes up from the monotony - the first for 200km. It is our turning, if we miss this we are done for. We pass through the gates 15 minutes before they close, relieved to have made it and not to be another two victims of the desert’s whim. The plains soon fall away to a lunarscape of towering orange tepuis.

Our trip to Namibia took in many wild and beautiful places. The Namib Rand, a stunning grassland speckled with steely Oryx. Sossusvlei, where we scaled mountains of red sand and marvelled at Martian dunes. And Dara Nawas, where desert adapted elephants crashed through riverbeds; and we slept under the ancient stars.

But it is our brush with the fabled Skeleton Coast that will haunt me, for many years to come.

L Edgecumbe-Ansdell

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