THE CAPE FUR SEALS OF CAPE CROSS ON NAMIBIA's SKELETON COAST
By Patrick Cardwell, Avian Leisure: FEBRUARY 2010
The 'Beach Master'
A stern trawler hard aground on the Skeleton Coast
A Namaqua Chameleon orientating towards the sun in the heat of the day
Gray’s Larks foraging together (Warwick Tarboton)
Part of the Cape Cross Seal Rookery
A contented Cape Fur Seal sunning itself on a well used rock
Mother and Child Reunion
Cape Gannet about to plunge dive
The 120 km long drive on the salt road north from Swakopmund to the start of the Skeleton Coast cuts across a lunar like landscape punctuated by the odd tussock dune and occasional sighting of a distant mountain seemingly suspended in the haze above the far eastern horizon.
Closer to the fog shrouded coast the pounding of the wild surf on the hidden reefs is the only sound one is likely to hear along this desolate and uninhabited stretch of the Namib Desert so aptly and evocatively described by mariners of old as the Skeleton Coast.
All around there is a pervasive sense of unrestricted dimension and expansiveness. Views in every direction taper off into timeless infinity, as they have done for millions of years, in this one of the oldest deserts in the world. Inland of the coastal dunes pale pink gravel plains merge with the shroud-like fog banks driven inland with nightly regularity by prevailing south westerly winds. Add to this the cooling effect of the cold Benguela current as it sweeps northwards along the African coast and you have a sense of complete desolation.
It is indeed a formidable and lonely mind numbing landscape that would have presented itself as an impenetrable barrier to castaways of a time long ago. These were the days in the mid 19th century when guano vessels and whaling boats from as far away as Nantucket Island ran aground with monotonous regularity as they still do on this shoal guarded rocky coast.
The Skeleton Coast takes its name from the large number of bleached whale bones and seal carcasses scattered along the length of this barren coastline. Here too one finds wrecks of varying vintage drifting in a sea of constantly shifting sand as the coastal dunes gradually shift back and forth in response to prevailing sea and wind conditions.
Yet it is not all doom and gloom to the astute observer for there is life within the Namib Desert that has evolved successfully over the millennia to take advantage of prevailing environmental conditions.
Here there are lichen fields of varying types and striking colours that 'bloom' in the morning fog and a suite of beetles, chameleons, geckos and snakes that share this unique world with Namibia's only true endemic bird species, Gray's Lark. This 'grey ghost' of the quartzite gravel plains matches its surroundings perfectly and is most often encountered in small flocks actively feeding on seeds and insects as it scurries about its chosen habitat within the fog belt.
Further north the road veers westwards to a prominent headland jutting out into the nutrient rich Benguela current that is home to thousands of Cape Fur Seals. This is Cape Cross and the point of landing in 1485 for Diego Cao, a knight of the Portuguese court, during his voyage south to find a sea route to the lucrative markets of the Far East. An engraved cross bearing the coat of arms of the royal house was erected and stood for over 400 years before being re-discovered by Captain Messum in his search for guano deposits along this treacherous coastline. Today the cross resides in a museum in East Berlin, having been collected as an historical artifact by the Germans in 1893.
Far from sharing in the silence of the desert interior Cape Cross is a riot of raucous seal activity as 'beach masters' spar with one another and bellow for females while unattended seal pups bleat incessantly for attention within the heaving mass of seals within the rookery. It is indeed an awesome and fascinating sight as seals cavort about in the waves and jostle with one another for prime basking spots as soon as the fog burns off.
A newly constructed boardwalk traces the eastern edge of the rookery providing excellent views of the constant interaction between seals all around one. Photographic opportunities of seals in various statuesque postures abound in close proximity while nursing mothers and gamboling pups are all around in turmoil of frenetic activity.
Within the melee Ruddy Turnstones make their way gingerly between basking seals and hyper-active young pups as they forage for isopods and scraps within the heart of the rookery.
Offshore the blinding flash of Cape Gannets plunge diving and White-chinned Petrels careening about the incoming swells testify to the richness of this dynamic coastline as it stretches north towards the Kunene River on the Angolan border. Somewhere in the vastness to the north lies the remains of the 'Dunedin Star' which ran aground during the Second World War and gave rise to a desperate rescue mission involving aircraft and a convoy of vehicles traveling overland from Swakopmund.
Today the “Twists of Sand' so well described by Geoffrey Jenkins in his novel of the same name continue to entwine the skeletons of wrecks and mammals within this timeless environment of lost ships and ancient legends that add to the romance of this ancient and fog shrouded land.
Truly a place to visit for anyone with a sense of adventure in search of a road less traveled into one of the last remaining unspoiled wilderness areas left in the world.
This excursion to Cape Cross was part of a tour we did for Island Holidays UK.
The owner Libby Weir-Breen who was also on the tour had this to say: ' A beautifully planned and executed itinerary with first class guiding'.
For more information on birding tours and wildlife safaris with Avian Leisure for birders, wildlife enthusiasts and travellers with photographic interests, contact us at email@example.com