“Strangely enough, the first European visitors did not appreciate the beauty and solitude; they would have given their entire fortunes to get out of the Skeleton Coast, preferably alive.”
The Skeleton Coast is described as ‘untouched’, ‘spectacular beauty’, ‘magnificent isolation’ and a whole lot of other over-the-top phrases. The problem is that when writers visit the place, sensible words tend to fail them and they get very descriptive. But it is beautiful, and people shell out thousands of dollars just to spend a few days in this place.
Strangely enough, the first European visitors did not appreciate the beauty: they would have given their entire fortunes to get out of the Skeleton Coast, preferably alive.
One of the most common adjectives used in connection with the Skeleton Coast is ‘treacherous’. Conditions off the coastline are absolutely foul: gale force winds and heavy surf are normal. Apparently this affects the thought-processes of mariners and, instead of heading away from the coast line, they try to get as close as possible, occasionally running aground and providing interesting stories for writers such as well-known Namibian author, photographer and Skeleton Coast explorer, Amy Schoeman, as well as adventure writers such as Wilbur Smith and Geoffrey Jenkins.
The biggest attraction of the Skeleton Coast is probably not the fact that it is a ‘beautiful’, ‘isolated’, ‘untouched’, ‘pristine’ ‘desert wilderness’ that borders ‘the mighty Atlantic’ in which you can ‘find your soul’ by ‘experiencing the power of nature’ and ‘discovering the Land God Made in Anger’. In fact, everyone really wants to see the shipwrecks and walk on the same ground where other people had adventures.
The most famous wreck, and story, is that of the Dunedin Star. Just in case you are one of the six or seven people on earth who aren’t familiar with the story, here it is again…
On 29 November 1942, the Blue Star Liner, Dunedin Star, heading for the Middle East, and carrying passengers, as well as munitions for World War II, ran aground off the Skeleton Coast. The crew managed to get off a distress signal which was received in the port of Walvis Bay to the south.
The environment was anything but friendly: hot in the day, cold at night, very dry with no friendly little villages to take in the survivors and give them mugs of hot chocolate or medicinal brandy. Everyone was very concerned.
A tug, the Sir Charles Elliot, was dispatched, but ran aground before it reached the Dunedin Star. Two of its crew members jumped overboard but were drowned before they could reach the shore.
A bomber was sent from the Cape of Good Hope to land with supplies and water for the survivors who had made it to shore. It landed, but got stuck in loose sand when trying to take off. A second bomber was sent to replenish supplies. As it did not land, merely dropped its supplies, it had no problems at the site of the wreck. Instead it crashed into the ocean on the way back. Three crewmen made it to shore and began their long walk.
A ship called the Nerina made it to the site, but only managed to pick up 29 survivors. This left 63 on site. A convoy was dispatched from Windhoek but, to the best of my knowledge, had major vehicle difficulties and had to return. A second convoy was sent off. This made it to within three kilometers of the survivors. They trudged the rest of the way. One wonders what the survivors had to say when they saw their rescuers arrive on foot. On the way back, they also collected the airman who had swum to shore from the bomber that crashed into the ocean.
The survivors made it back safely some 26 days later, arriving in Windhoek on Christmas Eve. Apparently, you can still see some of the cargo. I have not seen this myself, but have seen the memorial to the crew members of the tug, Sir Charles Elliot.
In addition to this, there are a number of other wreck sites worth seeing. Up until well into the last century, the place seems to have been a magnet for shipping disasters, hence its exciting name.
Dangerous places make the world a more interesting place, so instead of heading out to the Middle East and seeing places where battles were recently fought and will probably be fought again in the very near future, the Skeleton Coast is a destination that is interesting without being stupid.
There is a lot of adventure to imagine, enough hardship to make it a great story without coming back scarred, the beauty is a huge plus and it has the wonderful benefit of not being of any geopolitical significance or a future war zone.