The Skeleton Coast and Cape Cross Seals
A perfect day trip from Swakopmund, we hopped in the car and drove north to see the Skeleton Coast and its Cape Cross seal colony.
The Skeleton Coast - Perfect “If You Like Nothing”
When we were in southern Namibia, we received a - quite frank - description of the Skeleton Coast. Our apfelstrudel-slinging host at Canyon Farm Yard, clearly not sold on this rugged stretch of coastline, offered less-than-glowing praise: “If you like nothing, the Skeleton Coast is worth visiting.”
Context: the Skeleton Coast extends north from Swakopmund into southern Angola. And, this barren, windswept stretch, which looks more like Mars than anything else, has been called the most dangerous coastline in the world. Due to the constant winds, rolling fogs, and tricky tides, it has become a graveyard to ships - from the age of sail to today - with Portuguese sailors dubbing it the “Gates of Hell.” To the indigenous people from Namibia’s interior, a different moniker stuck: “The Land God Made in Anger.”
In such an environment, very little besides desert shrubs grows, and the inhospitable nature creates quite the barren feel. Or, as some apparently say, the Skeleton Coast is an area of nothingness.
But, for visitors to the area, this description absolutely sells the Skeleton Coast short. Driving north from Swakopmund, you have crashing waves and salt flats on your left and a desolate Mars-scape of reddish hills to your right, making for a stunning contrast of sea and shore.
Related to these flats, if you’re wondering where your salt comes from, it’s probably here. Aptly named The Salt Company, this local firm can produce up to 120,000 tons of salt per year from Namibia’s coastal flats. This explains why, lining the Skeleton Coast’s north-south road, massive, pink salt crystals (NOTE: probably not the geologically correct nomenclature) sit on tables. Little money boxes attach to each of these tables, with visitors able to use the honor system to buy one of these salty keepsakes.
Lunch and More South African Wine at the Cape Cross Lodge
While interesting, salt-related geology wasn’t our primary reason for spending a day exploring the Skeleton Coast. Instead, we were off to see Cape Cross, the rocky outcropping named after the stone cross, or padrao, placed there by Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão in January 1486 - two years before Bartolomeu Diaz raised his own outside of present-day Luderitz.
Cape Cross is now home to one the world’s largest (and, as we’d soon discover, smelliest) seal colonies, making it a major tourist destination. Embracing this appeal, the Cape Cross Lodge offers travelers a basecamp to explore Cape Cross and the broader Skeleton Coast.
Less than two hours from our Swakopmund apartment, it didn’t make sense for us to stay at the lodge. But, we definitely weren’t going to pass up the opportunity for a seafood lunch in its restaurant!
With panoramic windows overlooking the ocean, the Cape Cross Lodge restaurant offers up a delicious spread of local seafood. And, in a little walk down memory lane, the wine list included Springfield, one of the absolute highlights from our (very wet) day wine tasting in South Africa’s Robertson Valley.
Not a bad meal: 1) bottle of cold, crisp South African sauvignon blanc, 2) off-the-bone, local “line fish,” and 3) sweeping views of the crashing Skeleton Coast waves.
The Cape Cross Seal Colony
Stuffed and enjoying some wine-induced cheer, we headed over to see the Cape Cross seals. Only a mile or so from the lodge, the Namibian government owns and manages the protected Cape Cross Seal Reserve, home to one of the largest Cape fur seal colonies in the world.
On our Robberg Peninsula hike in Plettenberg Bay, we first experienced the foul stench that these seals generate. But, this initial exposure didn’t hold a candle to the Cape Cross smells. As we started driving over to the Reserve, the winds must’ve slightly changed, and the car filled with air so repulsive we almost expected an accompanying, cartoon-like green haze to seep out of the vents.
Despite the punishing smells, seeing the Cape Cross seal colony is an incredible experience. After paying the entrance fee, we wound up the gravel road and over a small ridge. Cresting this rise, it initially looked like the coast was strewn with brown boulders. Our eyes quickly adjusted, and these “boulders” became thousands of seals sleeping, playing, and just scooting along.
Smelly? Sure. But, the sheer scale of the colony - and the cuteness of the baby seals! - more than justify the trip. Plus, we got to see the “mayor” of the colony. Clearly enjoying some animal-kingdom-type symbiosis, we watched a jackal trot right into the middle of these seals - not a care in the world - and grab some scraps of food. Guy acted like he just owned the place!
Skeleton Coast Shipwrecks
On the way back south to Swakopmund, we stopped off to see one of the other tourist draws to the Skeleton Coast - a shipwreck.
Mariners try to navigate a wide berth around this treacherous coastline, and rightfully so. Wrecks litter the coast, with more recent ones still exposed as testaments to the area’s danger. One in particular - the Zeila - sits askew in the crashing surf just 50 meters offshore.
Ironically, the offshore fishing vessel was on its final voyage when it wrecked, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope to India to be scrapped. Welp, it didn’t make it. Due to some awful weather, rough seas, and just bad luck, the vessel grounded back in 2008. Fortunately, the entire crew survived, but the ship itself fell victim to the Skeleton Coast.
Definitely an awesome day trip, but seeing the waves crash over the slowly disintegrating Zeila, we were quite content to have our feet firmly planted on the ground!