— When the first European explorers arrived on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast in the late fifteenth century, they named it As Areias do Inferno ("The Sands of Hell").
In those days, they weren’t exaggerating.
Over the centuries, sailors shipwrecked on this treacherous coast would sometimes find alluvial diamonds lying in the sand at their feet. Then, after filling their pockets with the equivalent of a lifetime’s wages, they usually died of thirst within days.
Today, thankfully, even visitors on a tight budget can experience Namibia’s extraordinary desert coastline in considerably more comfort — or, for those with enough dollars to spare, in luxury.
Westerners first arriving here tend to find that this is far from the Africa of movie clichés like vast herds of migrating wildebeest or bored-looking professional dancers dressed up for tourists in gaudy traditional costume. Instead, the very harshness of the landscape here is what makes it unique, a blend of grandeur in some places, emptiness and stark beauty in others — and sometimes just sheer oddness elsewhere.
The Namib Desert stretches the entire length of the coast, nearly a thousand miles from the South African border in the south to the exclusive Skeleton Coast Wilderness toward the Angolan border.
Between the two lies a breathtaking coastline of surprising contrasts, from vast orange dune fields (including "Big Daddy," the world’s highest sand dune at Sossusvlei) and lunar landscapes to genteel colonial settlements and comfortable lodges. Further north, ghostly shipwrecks litter the Skeleton Coast, with great rusting hulks stranded between cold Atlantic breakers and a shoreline described by 19th century explorer Charles Andersson as one of "frightful desolation."
How to explore Namibia
Predictably, things have changed along the Namibian Coast since the early seafarers first struggled to survive. Activities for visitors now include just about everything humanly possible on a desert coast, from boat-fishing trips, bird-watching and desert golf to balloon flights over the dunes, dolphin-watching trips, canyon-hiking, kite surfing, 4-wheeling, sand boarding and surf skiing. In short, there are enough adventure activities to exhaust the hardest-bitten adrenaline junkie or wilderness trekker.
The ideal base for exploring the coast is the town of Swakopmund, easily reachable by road or rail, and a delightfully odd place to visit in its own right. The 2009 television miniseries "The Prisoner" starring Jim Caviezel was filmed in the area, a perfect location to suggest incongruity and desert isolation.
Part of the former German colony, the town still retains its strong Germanic influence, which makes for a bizarre contrast against the harsh African desert coastline. Colonial buildings from charmingly colorful private houses to a full-on neo-baroque church stand alongside German bakeries, cafés and bars, fine restaurants (especially for seafood and game dishes), tour operators and the full range of accommodation from backpacker hangouts to luxury hotels.
But for many visitors, the desert itself is what makes a visit here so unforgettable. Take, for instance, the Fish River Canyon in the south (at 1,800 feet deep second only to the Grand Canyon) and the strange "roaring dunes" of the northern Skeleton Coast, which produce bizarre acoustic effects, thought to be caused by electrically charged sand particles.
It’s not all jaw-dropping vistas, however. At first glance, for some stretches of the Namibian coast one can see little life in the landscape. Yet on closer inspection, at different times of day, one realizes that life goes on here after all, cunningly adapted to cope with an annual rainfall of almost zero.
What initially seems ugly and odd soon looks ingenious, with its own strange beauty, like beetles that perform handstands to collect condensed mist (their only source of moisture here) and the "fossil plant" Welwitschia, which can live up to two millennia. There are flora so curious-looking that Bushmen legend insists they grow upside down with their roots pointing skywards.
The treacherous ocean holds its own rewards. The cold Benguela Current sweeping northwards supports the best fishing on the southwest coast of Africa, and in season South African anglers flock here to catch steenbras, galjoen and blacktail.
Nature at its rawest
But all the comforts of the coastal settlements and tourist lodges rarely disguise the fact that nature in some of its rawest forms is all around you. What at first appears still and timeless is in fact in constant motion, the dune landscape steadily shifting and transforming before the ocean breeze, inch by inch. This is nowhere more evident than the "Ghost Town" of Kolmanskop near Luderitz in the south, a spooky colonial diamond settlement finally abandoned half a century ago and since slowly consumed by the desert.
For many, the highlight of the Namibian coast is the incredible peace and beauty of the Namib. But this is peace and beauty with a slight edge to it. Even close to the settlements, once the sand-boarders and 4-wheelers have retired for the evening to the coastal bars and restaurants, the silence in the desert can be enjoyably eerie — especially when dense fog creeps inland from the ocean, or on clear nights when the Milky Way and Southern Cross above the desert shine with extraordinary brilliance.
Even visitors not generally given to reflection have found themselves setting aside their sand-board or bottle of Windhoek Lager, and instead questioning their place in the grand scheme of things. Despite the fragility of its precious ecosystems, the Namib Desert — the oldest in the world — has been here for a very long time.
Best catch it while you can.
With its temperate climate, the Namibian coast can be visited at any time of year (fishing is best November to March). Bring sunblock. Nights can be chilly, and inland temperatures can soar. English is widely spoken in tourist areas.
Tours and activities
For many activities and trips you can make arrangements after arrival in Namibia, either in the capital Windhoek or in Swakopmund on the coast. Hotels, guesthouses and lodges can often make arrangements for you. However, if time is limited or you're set on some of the more exclusive destinations, such as the Skeleton Coast Wilderness (fly-in tours only, numbers strictly controlled), book well in advance before leaving home. Contact the Namibian Tourist Board or your preferred travel agent at home for advice on tour companies, trips and permits.
For exploring the coast you’ll need to hire a vehicle or arrange a tour. Most operators in Swakopmund or Windhoek can tailor your itinerary. One of the best is Wilderness Safaris, which also has exclusive access to some parts of the Skeleton Coast Wilderness.
For colonial luxury in Swakopmund try the Hansa Hotel, built in 1905. Aristotle Onassis stayed here, and the restaurant is highly recommended. Cheaper and more modern is the quiet and tasteful Sea Breeze Guesthouse in Swakopmund. If money is no object, for an exclusive luxury retreat the Skeleton Coast Wilderness Camp (run by Wilderness Safaris) is unbeatable. Camping is also possible in many parts of Namibia.
In Swakopmund, The Tug is actually built around a tugboat, with excellent seafood, ocean views, and very popular with the locals, so advanced booking is essential. A favorite bistro pub is the Swakopmund Brauhaus, serving German and Namibian game and seafood dishes.