Skeleton Coast

This searing, rainless, fog-bound, treacherous shoreline with deadly crosscurrents is named for the littered remains of shipwrecks, whales, and human castaways unable to survive these harsh circumstances in a desert that begins right at the water’s edge. Annual precipitation averages less than an inch (25 mm) and every year falls in different places. Gale-force winds push up mountainous waves that pound the shore, and on land, create towering sand dunes which march and literally roar when the air pounds their hollows. (“I am proceeding to a river 60 miles north,” reads a slate found in the sand in 1860. “Should anyone find this and follow me, God help him.”)

Yet these wind-sculpted dunes, desert canyons, and jagged peaks have their own special beauty, and wildlife, both plant and animal, while not abundant are fascinating—in large part because of the adaptations that enable them to be here at all.

Desert elephants can go four days without water, then dig wells just as wide as their trunks in dry riverbeds. If these are too deep for elephant babies to reach, their parents draw up water in their own trunks and pour it into the little ones’ mouths. They may walk 30 miles (48 km) in search of promising places to dig, guided, it is thought, by ancient generational memory of these sources. But observations both here and in Etosha indicate they may also communicate with other elephants several miles away by infrasonic vocalizations inaudible to humans. Elephants sometimes come to water holes at a dead run, as if already knowing a water source is there.

Fog-basking tenebrionid beetles drink the only water available to them by standing on their heads in the early morning mist blowing in from the sea, causing drops of condensation to run down their bodies and thence into their mouths.

Lions here have adapted their prey base so that many live on seals captured by the seaside. (Recently some have moved inland for other prey as well.) Jackals subsist largely on what they can scavenge beachcombing. Rhinos, giraffes, kudus, Hartmann’s mountain zebras, and a variety of others have adapted to this inhospitable environment.

Rarely, water from rain in mountains far inland breaks through, causing a river that flows briefly toward the sea before it sinks into the sand again, but leaving succulent shrubs that offer respite to grazing wildlife. Other plants offer forage because they can depend for moisture on the thick fog, as do the ganna and more than 100 species of lichens.

More than 203 bird species have been recorded, most of them waders and seabirds that subsist on the rich sea life.

The Skeleton Coast is in two sections. The upper two-thirds, Skeleton Coast Wilderness Park, the most interesting from a naturalist’s view, extends 373 miles (600 km) between the mouths of the Kunene and Ugab rivers, no wider than 31 miles (50 km) at any point. Visitation is limited to fly-in group safaris by permit. The southern third is the National West Coast Recreation Area,a mecca for fishermen, home to 70 percent of the world population of Damara terns, also to the Cape Cross Seal Reserve with 80,000 to 100,000 breeding fur seals, open to regular visitation. with 80,000 to 100,000 breeding fur seals, open to regular visitation. Two resorts offer accommodations here; campsites available also (reserve ahead).

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