Saturday 17 April 2021
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Shipwrecked on the Skeleton Coast: all alone in Namibia’s spectacular new lodges

Grains of sand hurtled through the darkness as an unrelenting wind buffeted the “shipwrecked” cabin in which I had sought refuge for the night.

A thunderous soo-oop-wa, the onomatopoeic name for the eerie shrieks and sighs that blow across one of Africa’s most notorious stretches of coastline, drowned out the roar of waves barrelling to shore.

Cast adrift on the Skeleton Coast, an untameable strip on the north-western fringes of Namibia and one of Earth’s last great wildernesses, I had never felt more exposed to the extreme forces of nature.

Oddly, in a region that evokes images of death, I had also never felt more alive.

My first stirring glimpse of the Kaokoveld, or “coast of loneliness” as it is known in the local Herero language, had come earlier that day from the window of a light aircraft: a vast cream sea of dunes, edged by the wide blue South Atlantic.

As we began a bone-rattling descent through swirling winds, roiling waves lashing at the shore, I understood why the Herero also call this “the land God made in anger”.
Harbouring a wish to set foot on this enigmatic land, I had been lured by the promise of wild adventure and an escape from the world: Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries on earth, second only to Mongolia, and the Skeleton Coast its loneliest corner.

Stepping from the plane, I was almost blown off my feet, but I was also struck by a sense of privilege. Access to the north of the Skeleton Coast National Park, which was established in 1971 and covers an area about three-quarters the size of Wales, is restricted to around 1,000 visitors annually.

The opening this summer of Shipwreck Lodge, one of few eco-hotels in the park and the first on its northerly shores, has made the Skeleton Coast marginally more accessible to travellers.

Walking out across the barren sand, it was as though I had landed on another planet. I was met by Niki, my guide for the next few days and, having waved the pilot safely back to the sky, we clambered into a jeep for the hour-long drive north to the hotel.

The dunes appeared devoid of life, but as we paused in nearby Mowe Bay, a huddle of weather-beaten huts for scientists and researchers, we encountered a colony of Cape fur seals lazing on rocks as a pair of black-backed jackals patrolled nearby.

Further along the coast we spotted a brown hyena skulking along the shoreline. Niki instructed me to keep a look out for elephants, giraffes and, if we were incredibly lucky, lions. In this harsh environment, which forms part of the Namib, the world’s oldest desert, I hadn’t expected such a diverse range of wildlife.

The jeep came to a halt and I was alarmed to spot a blood-red beach. Filled with horror at what we might find, I ventured out into the teeth of a howling gale.  On closer inspection I discovered the sand was made up of sparkling grains of garnet.

A dazzling display, and one that partly explains why this stretch of coast has remained largely off-limits: garnet often indicates a wealth of diamonds nearby. Alas, an abandoned mine stands as a warning for those who might be tempted here by get-rich-quick schemes. As the world around us vanished in a cloud of sand, Niki warned that even experienced guides can get lost amid this ever-changing landscape.
I fell silent as the jeep rolled blindly on. At last we caught sight of a row of blonde-wood cabins dotted above the dunes – a welcome sign of life. On entering, I was instantly transported into a world of convivial maritime luxury. Before I could embarrass myself with an “Ahoy, there!” to the staff, I was handed a welcome drink and directed to a comfy banquette overlooking the beach.

The coastline’s macabre modern-day moniker, which derives from the whale bones and shipwrecks strewn across its shores, was popularised by the publication of an eponymous book, by John H Marsh, in 1944.

This factual account of the loss of MV Dunedin Star, a British cargo ship which ran aground off the coast in 1942 en route from Liverpool to Egypt via South Africa, also inspired Nina Maritz, an award-winning Namibian architect, in the design of Shipwreck Lodge. Nina, who was also visiting during my stay, told me she had been “gripped by the tale”.

A discombobulating combination of coastal fogs, shifting offshore sandbanks and the Benguela, a powerful Antarctic current, has sent countless ships throughout history to a watery grave in these treacherous waters. When the Dunedin Star was wrecked, 63 men, women and children were stranded on the Skeleton Coast for almost a fortnight.

Marsh described the air, sea and land operation to save them as “one of the most amazing rescues of all time”.

The remains of a Ventura bomber, which crashed (without loss of life) after delivering food and water to the castaways, can be seen en route from Mowe Bay.

With the lodge’s many whimsical touches, from the bone-like ribs bolted to the exterior of each cabin to exposed panels of chipboard inside, Nina wanted to create the impression that this imaginative hotel could have been built by castaways using items salvaged from a shipwreck. “The Skeleton Coast is so exquisite; we owed it to the place to build something special,” she said.

Abercrombie & Kent (01242 547702) offers six nights’  full board at Shipwreck Lodge (three nights) and Hoanib Valley Camp, from £6,995 per person, including international and domestic flights, transfers and safari activities.

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