Our guide for the day, Wayne Hutchinson, guns the old Land Rover up a 100-foot dune along the Skeleton Coast. Our destination is Sandwich Harbour, a remote wetland home to thousands of pink flamingos. As we reach the top of the dune our ride quickly slows and growls to a stop. After repeated attempts to and fro to free ourselves, the Rover sinks down to its axles. “OK,” says Wayne. “Now the adventure begins.”
We unload the gear for the day and ready the jack. Each tire is raised above the surface of the dune, the hole filled in with more sand and then lowered back down.
After a half hour of this, Wayne drives the Land Rover away reaching solid sand on the top of the dune. “Before we go further, I’m going to follow these jackal tracks for a bit. Jackals always choose the path of least resistance through the dunes. We’ll just follow their route.”
Our guide returns 10 minutes later. We all pile in the car and speed off, following jackal tracks on an adrenaline filled drive through the dunes.
The Skeleton Coast of Namibia got its name from the number of ships that have wrecked here over the centuries. The first were Portuguese and Dutch trade ships making for Cape Hope on their way to the Orient for spices. But modern vessels also wreck here and that is not an uncommon occurrence. The shallowness of the coastline combined with fog, big waves and the formidable Benguela Current make this a maritime nightmare. The 976-mile (1579-kilometer) coast is littered with shipwrecks.
But the Skeleton Coast is also a place of extraordinary beauty. Towering dunes of the Namib Desert cascade down to the roaring Atlantic. Jackals hunt sea lions along here. Dolphins and whales can be seen. On our visit, much of the day was shrouded in fog, but by mid-afternoon blue skies and sun dominated. We got two very different looks at the place. We also got to hike on the dunes overlooking the ocean.
“Be careful while you’re walking here,” warned Wayne. “There are puff adders living in the dunes.” This venomous viper is responsible for more snakebite fatalities than any other African snake. Unlike the rattlesnake, puff adders give no warning before striking. Plus, they have long fangs and a potent venom that is produced in large amounts. “What do these snakes look like?” I ask. “Basically brown, but if you see straight-lined tracks in the sand, that is from an adder. They don’t make ‘S’ shaped tracks like other snake. Plus, they like the leeward side of the dunes. That’s where rodents mostly hang out. So stay away from those and you’ll probably be OK.”
Our crew successfully avoids encountering any puff adders. With hikes complete, we head to Sandwich Harbour. But to get there, Wayne must drive between the steep slopes of the dunes and the roaring Atlantic Ocean. At one point, the waves are lapping at the foot of a dune. “I think we can get by. The tide appears to be going out so there’s no problem returning. Let’s see if we can squeeze past this place.”
With that, our trusted guide/driver speeds forward in the Land Rover. We slow considerably. The back end starts to fishtail. But eventually the old road beast breaks on through to the other side. We are treated to a series of lagoons feeding into Sandwich Harbour. Birds abound including huge flocks of greater and lesser flamingos and pelicans. We even spot a couple of Cape teal ducks.
But by now the sun is close to setting. Driving in Africa at night is never advisable. Wayne turns the Land Rover and we speed north along the beach. But on the way we see two more jackals. One of eating what is left of a rotting seal carcass. The other trots along the beach, effortlessly avoiding incoming waves.
“I’ve never seen a wild animal move more efficiently that the jackal,” says Wayne. “Their trot is to be admired. It’s fluid, efficient, effortless.” The two jackals move north with us, undisturbed by our presence. After everyone has taken dozens of photos, we speed up as the sun sets over the Atlantic leaving the critters behind. We still have another 45 minutes to Swakopmund where we are camped. The day of the jackal is over. But the memories from this amazing trip will last for a lifetime.