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The Kunene River mouth is one of the most inaccessible places on earth. Guarded by a deadly coastline and a merciless desert, this most north-western point of Namibia has for many years remained a no-go zone for 4x4 adventurers. However as Grant Spolander recently discovered, there’s change afoot.
Sun-bleached bones litter this coastline like KFC packets on the Durban beachfront after Boxing Day; if the Seychelles is paradise found then Namibia’s northern coastline is Auschwitz reincarnate. To travel this region alone is like donning a KKK outfit and joining a Hillbrow street party – you’re asking for [email protected] and you’re gonna find it.
For more than 50 years Namibia’s northern shores were out of bounds, not just because this region would rather see you as a cadaver than a tourist, but also because until recently, the Namibian government believed it to be a rich source of diamonds.
As it turned out, things weren’t as profitable as they’d hoped – but what’s bad news for them is great news for us! Thanks to a newly-granted concession, Namibia’s upper coastal stretch will soon be open to 4x4 adventurers. You can’t go solo, but after spending a week or so scouting the region with desert guide Volker Jahnke and licensed operator Ojipupa Investment Group, I can confidently say that doing the trip in convoy is the best way to explore these parts. The final details of this tour had yet to be confirmed at time of writing but this article should serve as a rough guide to what you might experience.
Originally, our Bush Editor was meant to do this trip, but plans changed and I was told to suit up. Luckily, Patrick took care of all the arrangements and helpfully informed Volker – via email – that I’d be taking his place, and that I liked pink drinks and wearing ladies’ underwear. Thanks Pat… On meeting Volker in Swakopmund I made sure to give him a manly, vicelike handshake while I explained that our Bush Editor likes a good joke.
Our journey northwards began in Swakop, but officially the area we were surveying for a proposed 4x4 tour only began at Angra Fria – the start of the new concession. Before that, we made a quick fuel stop at Terrace Bay (the last fuel stop along the coast) and moved onwards to Möwe Bay, which is the furthest public access point before a permit is required.
The gravel stretch from Terrace to Möwe Bay is pretty uneventful. That’s not to say it ain’t worth a visit, but unless you plan on doing some serious fishing, there ain’t much to see on this road.
However, the real magic starts after Möwe Bay when you say goodbye to the gravel and hit the soft sandy beach of the Skeleton Coast – on your left the icy Atlantic laps a barren shore, and grass-covered dunes lay scattered to your right.
The drive northwards is a long and varied one, completely unlike the corrugated dirt tracks of before; here the ride’s cushioned by pillowing sand, and natural peaks and troughs that hazardously lull you to sleep.
Although it may be a barren shoreline, quite surprisingly there’s ample to see along the way. Sure, you’re not gonna spot much in the way of wildlife (other than seals, jackals and the odd hyena), but the Skeleton Coast holds claim to many a shipwreck, the most well-known of all being the demise of the Dunedin Star.
In ‘42 this ship, a 160-metre cargo liner, was sailing from Liverpool to Saldanha Bay, but three days before making port she struck an obstacle just off the coast of Namibia – some 80 km south of the Kunene River mouth. Realising that the ship’s pumps couldn’t keep the vessel afloat, the captain ran her aground on the Skeleton Coast – not before sending a distress call to Walvis Bay. The ship grounded just 500 metres offshore, and a life raft was used to cart passengers to the desolate beach. After ferrying 42 passengers to safety, the motorised lifeboat gave up the ghost, leaving 43 passengers still stranded on the ship.
Meanwhile, a rescue tug, the Sir Charles Elliot, was dispatched to aid the sinking Dunedin. After picking up the remaining passengers from the Dunedin Star the tug itself ran aground en route to Walvis Bay, near Rocky Point. Three days on, four rescue ships managed to save the tug’s passengers, but due to adverse sea conditions none of the vessels could help the remaining 42 passengers still on land.
It was then decided that an aircraft would carry supplies to the castaways while airlifting woman and children to safety. Unfortunately, the plane’s landing gear ploughed deep into the sand, heavily bogging down the craft. After four days of digging and onsite repairs, the plane finally took to the skies again, but crashed into the sea some 40 minutes later.
Miraculously, the airmen, as well as the original survivors, were unharmed by the plane crash and managed to swim to shore where they met up with a land-based rescue party. It was only 26 days after the original ship wreck, on Christmas Eve in fact, that all the Dunedin survivors finally arrived at Windhoek.
For those of you unfamiliar with this region, it must be said that this stretch of shoreline is by no means a beachy paradise, and as far as shipwrecks go, there’s probably no worse a place to run aground.
Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is bounded by a cold Atlantic Ocean which is seldom anything but irate – if Poseidon is indeed the God of the Seas, then this is where he comes to blow off steam. To make matters worse, a tireless south-westerly wind rages onshore, leaving behind it a froth of angry waves.
But this is no ordinary wind either, for despite desert-like temperatures the wind here is icy cold at the shoreline – by midday (usually when the wind picks up) I was wearing a fleece jacket despite the ambient temperature being above 30º C. Move slightly inland – just enough for the scorching sand to heat up the moving air – and all of a sudden you’re frantically stripping off clothing. I’ve never been so thermodynamically challenged in my life.
Just a few clicks from the Kunene River mouth, I began questioning the purpose of such a journey. Why on God’s green earth would anyone want to visit a place that’s hot, cold, windy and desolate, especially when you can head on down to Vilanculos for palm trees, turquoise waters and ice-cold Deuce M?
Then, after driving past the umpteenth carcass of yet another ill-fated creature, the answer dawned on me: this is the real deal, true 4x4ing at its best.
Think about it, countless tourists have seen places like Etosha, Moremi and the Kalahari, and although these places are best visited in a 4WD, all of them are accessible in a 4x2. What’s more, many wildlife parks and reserves can be explored on foot (or horseback), but these means of transport won’t get you anywhere near the Kunene River mouth. For that, you need a reliable vehicle that’s designed to tackle tough terrain while carrying loads of life-saving supplies.
Every seemingly unimportant wheel rotation took us beyond our human capacity, and although I knew it would take a series of bizarre, coincidental events to cripple our convoy of five Toyotas, the story of the cursed rescue of the Dunedin Star kept any self-righteous arrogance at bay. Here, life hangs in the balance no matter how prepared you are, and the only thing that’s gonna see you through is your vehicle’s ability to run on all fours.
As we drew closer to the river mouth, the landscape to our right slowly transformed from an endless horizon of Mars-like terrain to a quivering heat mirage of giant ageless dunes emerging in the distance. The further north we travelled the bigger the dunes climbed, but always at a distance that felt infinitely immeasurable.
The mouth itself was unexpected; the ocean quickly took on a brackish tinge and before we knew it we were standing at Namibia’s most north-western point, barred by the choppy waters of the Kunene River. It was hugely disappointing.
I’m not quite sure why, but I assumed the river mouth would be a tree-lined oasis brimming with birdlife. It ain’t. The water’s brown, murky and dangerously uninviting, and as far as wildlife goes, there’s the odd seal carcass lying about, pecked to teeth and bones by dozens of gawking crows. The wind howls on.
Further up river things begin to change; the embankment becomes taller, leafy-green reeds gather densely, and a perfect grass clearing makes for the ultimate campsite. As the western sun plunged into the Kunene mouth, the wind calmed its relentless onslaught and I marvelled at our isolated location… then two locals arrived.
Yep, I was just as confused as you. Two local guys swung by in their old FJ40 Land Cruiser. At that stage I could only assume that the ever-changing hot, cold, hot, cold situation had demented my brain into hallucination. I mean, I don’t want to be one of those guys who loosely uses the term “We were in the middle of nowhere”, but seriously, I can assure you, we were quite literally in the middle of nowhere – a river, an ocean and a sea of sand, that’s it.
But unbeknown to me, a small diamond exploration mine was operating close by; so small in fact that I wouldn’t be surprised if our two visitors were the only employees of this make-shift mine. They joined us briefly at our camp and it didn’t take long before one of them noticed our rubber duck. With an eye-popping exclamation the miner quickly turned to his colleague and made a concerned head gesture towards the raft.
Upon enquiry, we were informed that just a week prior to our arrival a co-worker of theirs was paddling down river when a huge croc attacked his inflatable duck. As luck would have it, I was deemed the tour’s official photographer so river exploration was a prerequisite for me.
Most of us can remember just about every holiday, trip or tour we’ve ever been on, but only a few of these qualify as truly unforgettable adventures. Once you’ve tasted the dangers of the Skeleton Coast, its salty sea air will linger on your tongue like strong coffee while its barren landscape remains inscribed in your mind like a jailhouse tattoo.
WANT TO DO THIS TRIP?
WHERE TO BUY PROVISIONS
Coming from the south, your best bet for beer, ice and braai chops would be Henties Bay, but I recommend you stock up before that in Walvis Bay or Swakopmund where there’s a larger number of shops to choose from.
There’s plenty of sand driving on offer so recovery equipment is a necessity. Include a puncture repair kit, compressor, and if you’ve got one, a portable fridge / freezer – you ain’t gonna find ice out there. Two spare tyres would be a good idea too.
CONVOY OR SOLO
This trip is a guided route only. Those unaccompanied by a licensed tour operator, or without a permit, will be turned away at Möwe Bay.
The coastal road from Swakopmund to Torra Bay is a broad, good condition salt road. From Torra Bay onwards a corrugated gravel track takes you up to Möwe Bay. Other than the corrugations, this road is in pretty good condition with few potholes to deal with; however, we did pick up a puncture on the way.
The gravel roads through the Hartmann Valley, Orupembe and all the tracks leading to the C43 freeway are in a bad state, and it may be a good idea to stock up on tyre plugs, and if you can, carry an extra spare.
MAPS & DIRECTIONS
Because this route is guided only, there’s no need to worry about a map. Also, not many people have visited this area so navigation software ain’t gonna help you much; here you’ve gotta put your trust in the guide.
Softroaders are not be permitted on this trip, and nor are normally-aspirated diesels – dune driving requires high revs and lots of power.
At the river mouth you’re hundreds of miles from civilisation so be sure to pack a comprehensive medical aid kit; plus, the Kunene River mouth is reportedly a malaria area so bring mozzy spray and prophylactics.
It’s advised that you have a total capacity of some 200 litres. If you’re driving something more economical than a 4500 EFI Cruiser you might be able to get by with less. Be sure to top up at Terrace Bay, the last available fuel source before the start of the trip.