The Skeleton Coast

Key information: The Skeleton Coast

  • A stunning 150km trek in the desolate, deserted, isolated Namib desert.
  • Jean McNeil's account won our Walkopedia Travel Writing Competition 2011!
  • Natural High Safaris offer trips to the Skeleton Coast.

Walkopedia rating

  • Walkopedia rating86
  • Beauty30
  • Natural interest19
  • Human interest5
  • Charisma32
  • Negative points0
  • Total rating86

Vital Statistics

  • Length: 150km
  • 5-7 days
  • Level of Difficulty: Strenuous



The following is Jean McNeil's piece on walking here, which won our 2011 Travel Writing Competition. Thank you, Jean, for bringing this walk to our attention!

The Skeleton Coast

5. Ugab River

September 2011 - spring in the southern hemisphere. The days lengthen perceptibly, they lean into the long dry summer months to come.

Eight kilometres beyond the Save the Rhino camp the finish line awaits. This is such a trifling distance for us now, after walking 20 to 30 kilometres every day in the desert heat for the past seven days, that Jan doesn't even put on his trainers. "I used to track in these," he says, sliding his feet into flip-flops.

There are consequences to walking 150 kilometres in a landscape that Jan and his fellow rhino trackers call 'Mars'. My feet are swaddled in zinc tape and smeared with mythalamide, a lurid lotion that stops blisters from bleeding. We've even had to bandage the dogs' paws; Tiki the little herding dog pads along on plasters.

For six days now we've seen no-one but ourselves, apart from a couple of Landrovers full of lost South Africans. Yesterday was our longest day, 30 kilometres. We walked over red boulders and through dry cuts in the desert under an indigo sky.

We stop to taste desert lettuce. It is a succulent; in Namibia many plants survive on the sea mist which drifts inland from the Skeleton Coast, a desert littoral raked by a frigid ocean current from Antarctica. The lettuce tastes of the sea.

Suddenly there is an explosion from the river grass. A creature sprints past me, pursued by Tsaurab, Jan's ridgeback. It's a kudu, a dusk-coloured antelope. They tear down the sandbed of the Ugab, an ephemeral river - so-called because it flows only a few days a year.

"Will he catch it?"

"Not on his own," Jan says. "If there were three or four of them, maybe."

I remember I nearly died five days ago - or was it six? This near-event resonates on the voluptuous frequency of the words this landscape elicits - succulent, ephemeral - such ornate words for this denuded place. It is one of those landscapes that sinks into you like a thorn you try to extract, but which never quite comes out, and so is absorbed and dissolved into your body.

4. Hyena Camp

Jan, Elise, Caro and I sleep outside with a bedroll and sleeping bags. The 'Aunties' as Jan calls them (not to their faces) - Alice, Jacqueline, Maya - sleep in tents. There are very few lion and leopard around - so we hope - and a few desert elephant. We have no rifle, no all-night fire, only the Pajero and the LandCruiser as a cordon.

All night I hear jackal and hyena. The jackal's bark ripples, it is almost a coo, like whales communicating underwater. I wear a British Airways eyemask against the Cyclops glare of the moon. The Bushmen said "we are the Dreamer's dream," and it's not hard to imagine a remote intelligence in these dark skies curdled with constellations.

In the year and a half since I was last in Namibia Stephen, my poet friend who wrote a collection of poems about the Bushmen called Return of the Moon, has died. I am doing this charity trek in his name, or his memory - I'm not sure how to put it. But here I am on his behalf, a proxy.

This area of the Namib was formed when the Atlantic retreated 300 million years ago. By day we walk through eerily vacant Gondwanaland plains. "Ten years ago this place was teeming, man," Jan says. Now weekend hunters come from Windhoek or Swakopmund in portly 4x4s. We have seen a secretive black rhino, scared the living daylights out of a mother giraffe alone with her calf, scattered nervous springbok and ostriches - all of them eyeing us, stiff with the imminent threat of slaughter.

3. Doros Crater

Three days into the trek. We walk for seven hours without rest. The last hour is a 30 minute vertical scramble to the top of Doros Crater. I rest and read Stephen's collected poems. "I wrote Return of the Moon because of a dream I had sleeping out in the bush," Stephen told me last year. "The Bushman came to me in the dream and said, write this down. I give my students that question, now, as an exercise: What dream did your character have the night before the story started?"

2. Dunes

Barchan dunes stalk the Skeleton Coast. These are the classic dunes from those chilling aerial shots of the Namib: a solid wall of sand on one side, a cold beach stripped of fur seals by beachcomber hyenas, then a relentless line of breakers which no sailor, once shipwrecked, could re-enter. We climb up and down these "undulations," as Jan calls them. It is hard going: the sand is soft, there is no wind.

1. Puff Adder

It is quarter past seven in the morning when I nearly step on the snake. I know well enough what you are supposed to do when you encounter a puff adder: stop dead, back away. It strikes at 300 kilometres an hour - that's faster than a jet departing the runway. It doesn't move at a human's approach; "I'm going to kill you so why bother" sums up its world-view.

Instead I step over it thinking, oh, that's a bloody puff adder.

Jan lifts the snake up on the end of Jacqueline's walking pole. His belly is a vanilla bronze and glitters in the early morning sun. Jan says, "I used to play with these but then a mate of mine got bitten on the hand and we had to cut off his fingers so he wouldn't die."

There are no shadows in this land; the sun cauterises them. At night temperatures plummet to near zero; we migrate between winter and 40 degrees every day.

In Stephen's poems, a Bushman says that a man is truly dead when his spoor fills with rain. All people who die become stars:

There are whole clans of people- / Men, women and children- / Long since become stars. 

Reading his poems in the yellow wind of the Namib, I see how he absorbed the tense, resinous tone of this land so thoroughly. I understand now why he was an expeditionary walker, how walking and poetry are twinned. I like listening to the pleasing click of mind that walking with such intensity elicits. I put down the book of poems and stare at the dun hills. Stephen's voice - as a poet, as a person - still rings in my mind. Only when you stop remembering what someone's voice sounds like are they truly dead.

0. The Dream

The night before I nearly step on the adder I wake from a dream to the gurgle of jackals hunting in the shadow of the Brandberg. I was in my flat in Cape Town and there was a strange man in my shower wearing only chocolate-coloured Ugg boots. The man was flimsy, urban, a writer type. I say to the dream in a bleak panic take me back, take me back please! And I wake in the Namib, the dogs asleep beside me. There is always a dream the night before the story starts, but we don't always remember it.

Other accounts: share your experiences

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Name: Lavinia
Posted on: 08/04/2014
Hi Please can you tell me who you booked your trek through? I am looking at organising a charity trek in the Skeleton Coast for 5 days and am trying to find out companies that might offer private treks. Alternativly if you have any other ideas of how to go about it please do let me know. Many thanks, Lavinia

Walkopedia replied: we found your email address so were able to respond - please email us with questions, it is easier to get an answer to you!

Name: Jack K
Posted on: 11/11/2016
In order to undertake an independent/unsupported expedition of the entire coast, what special permissions are required?

Walkopedia: we don't know yet!

Your comments on this walk, your experiences and suggestions, and your photos are very welcome. Where appropriate, you will be credited for your contribution.


Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.


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