By the time the prevailing easterlies off the Indian Ocean reach the west coast of southern Africa the air is wrung dry. Unlike our own west coast where lush forest is nourished by rain from Pacific storms, the west coast of Namibia is lucky to get 15 mm of rain per year. Nothing grows there except lichen and the few trees that have tapped into water seeping seaward through the sand of dry riverbeds. The west coast of Namibia is a desert.
As we leave the bushveld of the high plateau and descend toward the coast even the clumps of hardy thornbush and euphorbia disappear, and at Cape Cross a strip of barren rock is all that separates the pounding South Atlantic surf from the sands of the Namib Desert. Except for the gravel road and a small snack shop nothing much has changed at Cape Cross since the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cao landed here in 1485 and erected a stone cross. To have made it ashore at all he must have arrived on a rare calm day. Unfortunately he didn't make it back and is buried on a nearby headland.
Diogo was followed by other Portuguese mariners searching for a route around Africa to Asia. They called this part of Southern Africa's coast the "Sands of Hell." For more than a thousand kilometres, from the Angolan boarder south to the border with South Africa, there is virtually nowhere a ship can find shelter from the sea. And the sea off Namibia's shore is notorious for treacherous currents, shifting sandbars, and impenetrable fog. Countless ships have been wrecked along its coast and the seamen who survived the groundings faced the burning heat and thirst of the desert. "The Skeleton Coast" as it's now called, is a graveyard of sorts – for ships half buried in the all-encompassing sand, and the bones of men and animals bleached white by the desert sun. For almost 300 years after Diogo Cao first landed at Cape Cross the Skeleton Coast was given a wide berth by ships heading to and from the Cape.
Before leaving Cape Cross and continuing on to Swakopmund we walked out to the seal colony. First the smell, then the sound, and finally the sight of thousands of cape fur seals – females and pups lounging on the rocks, using one another as pillows and generally ignoring the hyperactive males frantically trying to defend their harems. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 seals haul out on these rocks to give birth and mate. They consume a staggering tonnage of fish but thanks to the Benguela current there is an abundance of food. Flowing north up the west coast of Africa the cold nitrogen-rich waters of the Benguela are loaded with plankton, which support huge shoals of sardines and other pelagic fish.