Exploring Damaraland: From Skeleton Coast To Twyfelfontein Past Ugab

C. Fraser Claire

Damaraland From Skeleton Coast: Bones, Beaches, and Brilliant Barrenness

From Damaraland Desert Lions, Whale Bones, and Shipwrecks on the Skeleton Coast To The Infamous Divorce Pass

Damaraland Links:
Damaraland Quick Travel Tips | What To Pack For A Safari To Damaraland in Namibia | Namibia Safari Destination Inspiration: Hobatere to Palmwag, Damaraland | Namibia Safari Destination Inspiration: Skeleton Coast To Twyfelfontein, Damaraland | Namibia Safari Destination Inspiration: Twyfelfontein and the Khowarib Schlucht, Damaraland |

Namibia Safari From Skeleton Coast To Twyfelfontein, Damaraland by The Safari Store

The Skeleton Coast has been on my bucket list for many years. The idea of lions on the beach has created within me a feeling of eternal childhood – a way to look at the world in perpetual and heady wonder. The miracle of life is heightened in this place where death arm wrestles endurance and often comes out the winner.

As a young girl, my imagination ran riot with a teacher’s stories of the western coast of southern Africa: a place of diamonds, elephants, and lions among the dunes; a place where civilisation ceased and only the brave sought to wander. As I have matured, it is this idea of survival despite the odds that has created an unlikely sentiment I’ve come to associate with the Skeleton Coast: hope. This isn’t a simple, immaculate hope. It is a wild, hair tussled, and brutish hope – the kind that stands up unvanquished no matter the severity of the blows and the ferocity of the circumstances, unyielding and with burning eyes.

How I’ve come to feel this way is hard to explain. The park gate is an island surrounded on all sides by great swathes of nothingness – long, flat, dry, and desolate dunescapes with a faint quiver of the sea in the distance. The dunes and volcanic rocky undulations mimicking the swell and the spray on wild winds mingles with shifting sand – an ancient dance-off, an eternal union. As the road took us through this place, I felt myself ripped open by the fact that so little could invoke so much; that what is superficially so unremarkable could be so undeniably extraordinary.

The Skeleton Coast is beauty in desolation defined, but it is unquestionably inhospitable. The San people who roamed the area called it “The Land God Made In Anger”. Portuguese sailors – men who saw and experienced the perils of the world’s oceans – called it “The Gates To Hell.” The Skeleton Coast whispers horror stories of hundreds of years of shipwrecks and a history of whaling that filled the beaches with bones. This is a setting that makes hope feel like a miracle – and a fundamental tool – in this great game of survival. It is something I feel acutely when I think of it. →

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Whale Bone At Skeleton Coast, Damaraland - A Namibia Safari by The Safari Store

Bone Tombstones
The beach at Skeleton Coast is strewn with whale bones, shipwrecks, and a latticework of hyena tracks - with beauty in the hostility for drifters like us.

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Brown Hyena Tracks, Skeleton Coast National Park, Damaraland - by The Safari Store

As the road forked close to the coastline, a roadblock loomed. As the friendly policemen asked us about the contents of our bags and ammo boxes, I noticed a brown hyena carrying a seal pup in front of us – my first ever sighting of a brown hyena. What followed was a comic exchange, “Search everything. We’re going to get a photo of the hyena.” We wouldn’t make good smugglers. This shaggy beachcomber shuffled past and disappeared behind a dune to enjoy its meal – and the solitude to which it must be accustomed.

We turned onto the coastal road and watched the Atlantic Ocean being bullied by the wind in fits of spray and surge and foam. On the other side, the dunes and shadowed mountains of inland Namibia were like a great wall that spanned length and depth, denying passage, spurning welcome.

From time to time, you are allowed to leave your car to view a shipwreck. Walkways lead onto the beach where whalers and ships are reduced to sarcophagi in the sand. Around them from time to time, great whale bones are wedged into the sand and hyena tracks circle – wild and human graveyards where the greatest sign of life is the ragged breath of the tides. Sand, sea, bones and relics. Landscape wins. →

Skeleton Coast Shipwreck, Damaraland Namibia Safari - by The Safari Store

Stripped Ship Carcasses
Whale bones are not the only evidence of maritime horror stories along the Skeleton Coast. Shipwrecks line the coast, eroded by the scavengers of time and tide.

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The signs along the coastline are clear: ‘Do not leave your car. There are lions here.’ There is a passage in The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway that reads, "He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them as he loved the boy.”

As a lion lover, I’ve never forgotten these lines for the pure imagery of these magnificent cats in this setting. I dream of places. I dream of lions of the beach. I couldn’t have known on my first reading of it that the place that would evince this so meaningfully would be the Skeleton Coast – and I couldn’t have predicted that such a barren location would be such a contemplative place. If Hemingway’s lost youth is held in lions on the beach, the Skeleton Coast is a place of earlier mentioned youth captured in amber forever.

Past a gate with skull and crossbones, whale bones and trinkets, back inland. The nothingness continued and pulsed into mountains. Mount Brandberg, Namibia’s highest mountain, was in front of us as we drove through great gravel plains. This is a place of ancient habitation for the San people and located deep within the mountain is a rock painting on an overhang featuring the famous ‘white lady’. While various hypotheses on the painting exist, the figure was initially taken to be a warrior, but it seems to be accepted that the figure is shamanistic, surrounded by other figures in a heightened spiritual state, and oryx – our inner connection with nature around us. →

Desert Lions Signs in Skeleton Coast Park, Damaraland - by The Safari Store

If Hemingway’s lost youth is held in lions on the beach, the Skeleton Coast is a place of youth captured in amber forever.
Road Near Twyfelfontein, Damaraland - Namibia Safari by The Safari Store

Moon-Landing Landscapes
Dramatic Namibian scenery renders one reverential around every turn. The diversity, magnitude, and harshness is a pastiche of moonscape, desert, and sometimes volcanic beauty.

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Ugab STR Camp, Damaraland Namibia Safari - by The Safari Store

I’d found a small camp online called Ugab Save The Rhino Camp. The road took us along shaly, sharp rocks – all in shades of grey and black, with little vegetation to speak of. How does anything survive here? Not even colour survives here. Eventually, we arrived at a very basic campsite with immense views. Top Gun-esque cool Namibians in aviator sunglasses were offloading firewood from faraway locations from the back of a Landcruiser, beaming smiles of welcome. The cost to stay was a donation of any amount. They drew a map in the sand for the next day’s adventures – along a track that ran parallel to the notorious Divorce Pass and past craters left by meteors (I don’t write fiction, people).

We set up camp against a vertical rockface that looked out over the bend in the dry river. There were a few Ana trees and – a quick walk along the riverbed revealed – an incredible record of animal tracks, most notably an elephant bull’s dinnerplate feet with ceramicist signature ripples. It turns out colour does survive here. Dusk convinced us and dawn repeated the lesson.

The next morning, we followed the track from the sand-drawn map into the great unknown – over more animal tracks that led the eye forward, while great mottled red cliffs drew sight up to the sky. Other people’s tracks converged and our sense of direction made us wonder: why is it called Divorce Pass; are we about to find out by travelling the parallel road? →

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Ugab STR Camp Sunset - Damaraland Namibia Safari by The Safari Store

Rediscovering Colour
The dark rock, broad swathes of sand, and diminutive plant life around Ugab STR Camp made the colours cast by sunset a rediscovery of colour. In fact, this palette of stone and sand was magnificent in the changing light of day.

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I’ve never seen scenery more like The English Patient in all of my Southern African travels and, under every overhang, I imagined rock paintings immortalising the ideas of the earliest storytellers. We reached the crest of a hill where a heart had been made in stones and we looked down over long, flat stretches reminiscent of the moon. We could see a tangle of tracks below. Getting lost was a certainty. Getting lost was a blessing.

We managed to load a blurry Google Map on my phone. At one point, we worked out we were driving past meteor craters we couldn’t see on ground level. We turned on to the sand riverbed of some unknown river, past the disdainful gaze of giraffe in the shade and over unexpected elephant tracks. Riverine trees alluded to a different time, another season – much like the volcanic mountains in the distance.

Fuel gauge low, we spotted powerlines which, we later learned, may be a sign of civilisation but do not equate to people. As my imagination started to go down sandy and isolated avenues of possibility, a gravel road appeared – the main road to Twyfelfontein. →

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Pass From Ugab STR Camp To Twyfelfontein, Damaraland - by The Safari Store

Desert Giraffe Near Twyfelfontein, Damaraland - Namibia Safari by The Safari Store

Tall Stories
Thinking back on our drive from Ugab STR Camp to Twyfelfontein, I almost can't believe the things we saw, the roads (and non-roads) we drove. In the heat of midday, desert giraffe watched us from the shade of riverine trees and long eyelashes.

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Self-Drive Namibia Safari To Skeleton Coast, Namibia - by The Safari Store

The Gates
The understated entrance gate into Skeleton Coast relies on its surroundings for ceremony. A feeling of Mordor shifts, recedes, and returns as you drive down through the national park to the Atlantic Ocean.

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Self-Drive Namibia Safari, Damaraland Near Twyfelfontein - by The Safari Store

Through Passes and Across The Plains
The day started driving through the pass from Ugab STR Camp, with sheer cliffs on both sides. Eventually, as we left the pass, height gave way to distance and we looked down across gravel plains and undulations that are a lesson in the power of empty space to captivate.

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Dunes Near Twyfelfontein, Damaraland on a Namibia Safari by The Safari Store

Namibia Desert Destinations
As we took the rudimentary back tracks along the Huab River to Twyfelfontein, the view contained a patchwork of beautiful red desert views and dark mountain sentinels.

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Skeleton Coast National Park, Damaraland on a Namibia Safari by The Safari Store

Negative Space
In the stark Namibian light, the gravel tracks along the Skeleton Coast cast shadows that look like a photographic negative at times - lined with a fringe of blue mountains in the distance.

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Namibia Safari Links:
Damaraland Quick Travel Tips | What To Pack For A Safari To Damaraland in Namibia | Namibia Safari Destination Inspiration: Hobatere to Palmwag, Damaraland | Namibia Safari Destination Inspiration: Skeleton Coast To Twyfelfontein, Damaraland | Namibia Safari Destination Inspiration: Twyfelfontein and the Khowarib Schlucht, Damaraland | What To Pack For A Safari To Etosha National Park | Quick Travel Tips For A Safari To Etosha National Park | Safari Destination Inspiration: Etosha National Park | Safari Destination Inspiration: Jackalberry Lodge, Nkasa Rupara National Park | Safari Destination Inspiration: Nkasa Rupara National Park, Caprivi | Steve’s Off The Beaten Track Safaris: Skeleton Coast | Desert Namibia | Namib Naukluft National Park & Sossusvlei | Namib Desert and Namibrand | What To Pack For A Desert Namibia Safari | Quick Tips For The Namib Desert & a Desert Namibia Safari |

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