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Disappointment at the Skeleton Coast: The Frustrating Side of Namibia

Rusted car wreck on self-drive through the desert in the Skeleton Coast, Namibia, Africa

I was in the Skeleton Coast, my excitement almost bubbling over. For so long I had wanted to visit this treacherous stretch of coastline where numerous ships had fallen to their sandy graves, becoming prisoner to the heartless desert. Sometimes known as ‘the gates of hell’, this eerie coastline of Namibia has always tugged at me to visit. I’m a sucker for abandoned things and so hunting for shipwrecks here has been on my bucket-list for a good few years.

Prior to visiting, I’d heard that most of the shipwrecks here were inaccessible. The same conditions that caused the wrecks were now forcing them to disappear altogether. However, I had read that one recent wreck, the Zeila was very easy to view, located just a few kilometres south of the town of Hentiesbaii. Of course, I was going to pay it a visit!

The drive from Damaraland to the Skeleton Coast was incredible – it had by far surpassed my expectations. In fact, most of our Namibian road-trip so far had exceeded my expectations. We had driven through nothing but sand for hours, bounding on an uneven gravel road. Out my window was a vast sea of golden sand, broken up only by the mirages which engulfed the horizon on all sides. At various points I thought we were nearing the coastline, until I realised that the blue line on the horizon was not the ocean but in fact a deceptive mirage. My partner couldn’t get over it, insisting that these visions in the distance must have been water. Even though I knew a lot about mirages, it was still so easy to be fooled.

Self-drive through the desert to Hentiesbaai in the Skeleton Coast, Namibia, Africa
Self-drive through the desert to Hentiesbaai in the Skeleton Coast, Namibia, Africa
Self-drive through the desert to Hentiesbaai in the Skeleton Coast, Namibia, Africa

As we pulled into the town of Hentiesbaai, I had a surreal feeling in my stomach. At first glance, it was so different to any of the other towns we had visited in Namibia. It was quiet. I could clearly visualise the tumbleweed blowing past. Sand criss-crossed over the smooth, tarred road leading into the town. Small palm trees were lined on either side of the road, poking valiantly from the thick sand. Behind them were flat, colourful buildings mostly painted red, orange or yellow. A man on a bike was riding through the desert beside us.

As we entered the town, more palm trees appeared of different sizes. I almost felt like I’d ended up in America somewhere. It was a faraway world from the rest of Namibia, that’s for sure.

As we filled up with petrol, I was pleased to discover just how friendly the locals were here. Even better, when we pulled into Spar, there was no hawkers to pester us. I felt confident leaving my car there and could thus experience a very enjoyable, relaxing trip to Spar. It felt like such a friendly, refreshing town.

Self-drive through the desert to Hentiesbaai in the Skeleton Coast, Namibia, Africa
Ella on self-drive through the desert to Hentiesbaai in the Skeleton Coast, Namibia, Africa
Self-drive through the desert to Hentiesbaai in the Skeleton Coast, Namibia, Africa

Everything was going so well. Now it was the part of the journey that I had been waiting for. We were going to see the shipwreck! We drove out of the pleasant town of Hentiesbaai and headed south to Swakapmund, where our campsite was located. I knew the shipwreck wasn’t far away, around 17km.

Then I spotted it on the horizon and it was huge. A towering chunk of metal was sticking out from the vast sandy landscape, perched precariously between land and sea. A haze of heat obscured my view, making the wreck wave slightly.

I saw several small roads leading off from the main road we were on, each signposted indicating various shipping spots. I knew the wreck had its own road which was signposted and I eagerly looked out for it. Then I saw it. My heart leapt in my chest as I slowed to turn right. But then I noticed at least 3 people beside the turn, leaping up in excitement and waving their arms at us. They stepped out onto the road. My heart completely sunk and I felt my blood pressure rising in nervousness. This isn’t what I wanted at all. Why were they waving me so frantically towards them? With a heavy heart I accelerated and was forced to leave the wreck behind me.

So, let’s go into this a bit more. I had read online that hawkers lurk around the wreck, preying on tourists which is disappointing enough. However, I did not expect it to be this bad at all. I couldn’t even get down to the wreck without 3 people hurtling towards my car. It’s terribly sad and terribly frustrating. A beautiful sight of Namibia is ruined because of a few individuals.

Some tourists may not mind being pestered but I can’t stand it. Plus, being the sparse country that Namibia is, I could see no other cars and I don’t know about you, but driving down a dusty side road as the only vehicle in sight surrounded by hawkers doesn’t make me feel comfortable. I couldn’t even see what was at the other end! Then there was the fact that I was heading to the wreck to take photos and walking around in the open with my expensive camera gear makes me even more uneasy. I’m the prime target for harassment.

I decided that seeing the wreck wasn’t worth the trauma and hassle. I’m on a road-trip to make great memories and have wonderful experiences, not to tick sights off my list and if this sight was going to come with this much agro then it really wasn’t worth it for me. You can tell I’m irritated.

I truly believe the situation needs regulating as there are other ways of making money which don’t involve shoving your face in my car window. For example, the many quaint stalls we saw driving through Damaraland were wonderful and cute. I truly regret not stopping off at one to purchase something. The people on those stalls stood patiently beside the road, smiling and being non-intrusive. Plus, it seemed like a much better method as I saw at least 5 tourist vehicles stopped at the stalls, one being a minibus with at least 10 people on. I’ve yet to see a hawker successfully sell something. It must happen sometimes otherwise they wouldn’t keep doing it but perhaps not so often.

Rant over.

Toyota Hilux self-drive through the desert in the Skeleton Coast, Namibia, Africa
Can you spot the sea in the distance?
Self-drive through the desert in the Skeleton Coast, Namibia, Africa
The sea!

I was pretty bummed for the rest of the journey, to be honest. I’d likely never come back here as I constantly love exploring new places and my only chance of seeing that wreck was now ruined.

I was forced to stop at the side of the rod when I noticed all the velcro which keeps the tent cover firmly on the roof-tent was hanging down over our windows. I braced the elements trying to strap them back on, shocked to see that the cover was hanging on by a mere one velcro. Damn, we nearly saw the back of that tent-cover. The rental company would not have been impressed. I can only assume that the severe winds were really putting strain on the velcro and forcing it to come loose.

To make matters worse, I got completely lost in Swakopmund trying to find our campsite which wasn’t even in Swakopmund. It was meant to be just outside it. I spent ages going round constant roundabouts and somehow finding myself on a weird train-track in the back-end of an industrial estate.

When I finally got out of the industrial estate and back into the centre of Swakopmund, I noticed a car flashing at me. What now? I thought bitterly. The car drove alongside us in the right-hand lane. A woman wound her window down and pointed frantically to my roof. Oh, great. The tent-cover was falling off again. I gave her a thumbs up to indicate that I knew about it and give a kinda ‘thanks’ but I’m not sure she understood what I meant. It was nice that she had wanted to warn me and I felt warm inside. Was that faith in humanity restored? Not quite yet although I was very pleased.

Eventually, we arrived at our campsite and I could unwind for the rest of the day. At least here I had 3 dogs to cuddle, although I had a feeling that they were more interested in the mince I was cooking than keeping me company.

Despite my disappointment, my mind quickly reverted to looking to the future and the exciting adventures that lay ahead. Tomorrow we were heading into the Namib-Naukluft national park and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Before I could completely calm down, I had a few campsites to reorganise to ensure the journey was as pleasant as possible. A 4 hour drive tomorrow was a little too ambitious so I managed to cut it down to a 3 hour drive and push my other 2 campsites back a night each. Reorganising campsites was surprisingly easy, especially considering I had great phone signal practically everywhere. Funny that. My phone signal back in the UK is rubbish but in Namibia, notorious for its poor phone signals, I had full bars. The world is full of mysteries.

What’s your opinion on hawkers? Have you had any encounters with them?

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Thursday 11th of January 2018

I always thought it would be great if there was one day a week where hawkers had the day off ???? but I guess they are trying to make a living and survive. It can put a dampener on activities, what a shame.


Friday 2nd of February 2018

I know - it's such a tricky one as on the one hand I feel sorry for them but on the other hand... please don't make everyone feel uneasy! Maybe I just need to learn to be tougher.


Thursday 11th of January 2018

Well-written and detailed post. Great work here. The pictures painted a vivid scenery of the events. Truly we live in a world filled with mysteries.


Friday 2nd of February 2018

Thanks for your comment!


Thursday 11th of January 2018

Oh wow that's a shame!! We had this in some parts of Italy. They didnt bother us too much as unfortunately they did prey on the older tourists who looked very much like "tourists". But we did venture into one part of Milan where we suddenly felt so uneasy and turned around and walked back quickly to the strip near our hotel. It might have been fine but I just felt very nervous suddenly!


Friday 2nd of February 2018

I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one. I felt a bit like a frightened whimp at points. It was hard for us to get away from the 'typical tourist' stigma with a bloody roof-top tent on our car ????

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