We head to Namibia's Skeleton Coast to find a shipwreck in the desert. It's as crazy as it sounds...
On 5 September 1909, the Eduard Bohlen ran aground on a sandbank at Conception Bay on Namibia’s Atlantic coast. In a desperate attempt to dislodge her, the captain reversed the engines, but sand had clogged the cooling system and they seized. All 30 people onboard made it safely to shore, and a tug was summoned from Lüderitz.
But in the five days it took to arrive, the sand had welded the Bohlen into position and the chain they threw across snapped. At that point the 2,272 tonne, 310ft freighter that ran supplies from far-off civilisation to the remote diamond camps on this desolate coastline was abandoned to her fate. The Eduard Bohlen was another victim of the Skeleton Coast.
Words: Ollie Marriage
Photography: John Wycherley
For a while, as the sands shifted and the sea withdrew, she was used for storage and accommodation. After all, the Bohlen was the biggest man-made object for well over a hundred miles in any direction. But then the mines were abandoned and, as it always does in this hostile environment, nature moved in. Salt and sand have eroded the ship to a loose agglomeration of rust in a little over 100 years.
It’s an eerie sight when it first appears out of the drifting sea fog that made this coast so treacherous, a crumbling hulk now home to nothing more than bleached bones, hyena leftovers.
I’d envisaged this as the end of our journey rather than the beginning: the nearest thing man has to a ship of the desert paying its respects to the ship in the desert. We’re a day’s drive south of Walvis Bay, a day since we departed anything that resembles infrastructure or civilisation or evidence of man. Literally nothing. No black top, no radio stations, no phone reception, not even a vapour trail in the sky.
Just the Hilux. It’s the eighth-gen model, now claimed to be more refined with car-like NVH levels, a tougher ladder chassis, improved off-road abilities and a more efficient 2.4-litre diesel. But in essence nothing’s changed – this is the vehicle that keeps remote parts of the world turning. From outback farmers to South American loggers, the Hilux is the weapon of choice. Literally in more testy corners of the globe.
We left Walvis Bay yesterday. Our guide, Paul Lombard, met us at the airport and led us to two fully loaded Hiluxes, his and ours. Ours is bog-standard: Euro-spec Bridgestone Dueler tyres, standard intakes and filters, no extra sump guards. Just a Hilux. His… isn’t. His last-gen 2015 model has been modded with winches, bull bars, guards, a snorkel, the works. We drove five miles, reached the coast, gawped at the flamingos while dropping the tyre pressures to 1.0 bar, engaged Power mode to improve throttle response, disabled the traction control and that was it. Off grid. South, following the coast, sand to our left, water to the right, treading a careful line down the margin between.
I got less careful quickly. A swing right has me splashing through the surf; over to the left, and I’m romping through sand. Great fun, but name me two more harmful substances to vehicles than sea water and sand. Think of that gritty paste getting into bearings, springs, intakes, moving parts. It’s bad enough when it gets in your swimmers.
It’s a reminder of just how harsh this environment is. Those shipwrecked on this coast used to stumble in through the surf and imagine they were safe on dry land. The beach looks reassuring, familiar, but oh, how reality must have bitten. The heat, the desolation, the emptiness, the… seals?
The sea mist is starting to roll back in after the heat of the day when we come across the first colony. Three hundred heads pop up, waving around on rubbery, grey necks.
“Go and park between them and the water”, Paul instructs, “then get out and see what happens.”
“Won’t we be trampled under flippers?” I reply.
“Depends how much they fancy you.”
We step out. The seals hesitate a moment, then make a break for the water. Since we’re between them and it, they flap towards and around us, lurching and flubbering along. I’m not sure they’re scared – there’s not enough human contact out here for that – just being careful. So there is wildlife out here. The seals grow fat on the sea’s bounteous produce and they prop up an ecosystem that largely begins and ends with jackals. The occasional hyena. A proud oryx or two.
Jackals are the prime mover – opportunistic raiders that’ll stalk the tents during darkness. We camp that night back in the dunes. While Paul and his assistant, Penrich Gonteb, sort fire and food, photographer John and I take the Hilux up to the dune tops. Above us the canopy of the sky glitters in the dark, and we marvel at its clarity and brightness, entranced by the spectacle.
I look up. They say there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on Earth. I look down. I stoop, pick up a handful, let the fine grains trickle through the sieve of my fingers. Thousands of them. Underneath my feet, nothing but sand, dunes up to 300 metres high, stretching out for hundreds of miles, some so ancient they’ve fossilised. Everything is a grain of sand. Nothing but sand. And the stars outnumber them? It makes you wonder, that’s all.
I feel speck-like out here among these boggling numbers, suddenly finding the sand oppressive, the stars weighing heavy above, brain compressed in the middle. And then I remember another Brian Coxesque fact – there are more atoms in a single grain of sand than there are grains of sand in a desert. Brain melt.
Mist catches in the headlights, and I snap out of my reverie, realising too late that the mist is thickening to fog as the land cools and the cloud bank rolls in. We hurriedly pack camera gear away, but it’s too late – by the time we come to drive back down, we’re lost in a pea-souper. We try to follow our tyre tracks but we’ve driven around a fair bit up here, so we end up scouting on foot before finding the right set that lead back down into camp. It’s a warning.
The following day, we continue south, past the wreck of the trawler Shawnee that ran aground in 1976 and onwards to the Eduard Bohlen. The weather is overcast, the wreck is brown, sad and lonely and the Hilux sounds bored as it rumbles up to it – reaching here was meant to be the challenge, but the Toyota has barely broken sweat or traction. An anticlimax, then? Far from it. It’s utterly surreal.
We have a careful walk over the crumbling wreck (the stern only collapsed a year or so back) and formulate a plan. We need to test the Hilux properly, so we’re going to go deeper into the desert, back past the mining camps to the tallest dunes, some 20 miles distant.
This is why a few hours later, I find myself in mid-air. I have departed the desert, achieved temporary orbit over the crest of a dune; behind me I can sense all the luggage on the back seats rising up as gravity stalls… sand is not soft when you hit it at 45mph. Everything explodes: the glovebox pops open, the weightless bags turn instantly to lead, my back crunches into the seat and my stomach muscles seize. I’ve winded myself, and I’m pretty sure I’ve killed the Hilux. The load bay is full of tents and gas canisters and extra fuel and toilets, there’s no way the leaf springs could have coped. I’m pretty sure the only way back to civilisation now is for us to be strapped to Paul’s Hilux.
Not a single warning light. Not one. The diesel still sounds bored. Right, if it can cope with that…
The desert is now our playground sandpit, as Paul leads us on to other adventures. We surf down near-vertical slip faces, the only warning of their impending arrival is when I see the rump of Paul’s truck tilting up to the sky, then I tip over to join him, crawling down these sheer slopes, axle deep, pushing slow avalanches of sand ahead of us. We run vast bowls, banking over to daft angles. In the biggest, the size of a football stadium, I follow Paul in, the speedo nudging 70mph, the horizon canted over to a ludicrous degree, heart in my mouth, everything compressed, sucked like water down a plughole before exiting with a whoop of sheer, unbridled relief.
No part of this scenery is off-limits, so we try everything. We plunge into deep holes where the fossilised sand shows through at the base, we lock it into 2wd and attempt to coax enough power from the engine to drift, we stand at the top of mammoth dunes and survey the possibilities. And sometimes we get stuck. The first thing to learn about sand driving is that power matters. The second thing to know is that there comes a point where it doesn’t. And at that point, delicacy is everything.
Sand, which you’d been pounding over to stay on top of will apparently dissolve and swallow you to the belly pan and then you have to gently, slowly rock the car back and forth to try to compress a path out. On some occasions it takes much coaxing and many runs, reversing back, then getting a little further each time; on others we need Paul’s tow rope.
The tyres are our issue. The 265/60 R18s may be broad and plump, but they don’t have an open, blocky enough tread pattern to bite at the loose surface. Penrich moans about the placement of the front towing eye under the bumper, I complain about the gearbox. It’s a six-speed auto and won’t shift into low range on the fly. Left in low range we have a top speed, engine screaming, of about 40mph, which doesn’t give us enough momentum to get up the biggest dunes. The ’box doesn’t respond promptly to manual shifts either, but I still reckon it’s quicker than the manual would be.
There’s so much to learn about the sand, too. It’s firmer in the mornings when it’s moist on top (60 per cent of the 15mm of annual precipitation in the Namib desert, the second driest on Earth, comes from fog…), firmer also where the wind compacts it. But there are different types of sand: there’s one type that we don’t sink into at all, but has precisely no lateral grip, but telling one from the other, or why ridges develop in some places but not others… no idea. Paul, who’s been brought up driving in these dunes his whole life, has a sixth sense for it. Perhaps I’m over-thinking it, but only because the Duelers seem to struggle with so much of it.
A set of sand tyres like Paul’s Hilux is wearing, and I reckon ours would be near unstoppable. It feels properly tough, but it’s a stretch to consider it as habitable as any other SUV. The plastics are stark, the interior utilitarian – it’s not family transport. But neither should it be. Sand is everywhere, dragged in by our feet or churned up bythe spinning wheels, but we don’t mind – it’ll brush out. This is a workhorse, and it’s working.
And its role is utterly vital. Rescue (via satellite phone) is a long, long way off when there isn’t a single human within 100 miles of our position. Namibia is careful with its tourism – on average only one trip every two weeks is allowed out into this vast, vast area, and with the exception of ash and urine, everything that goes in has to come back out. Everything.
The Hilux is our lifeline; at night ours powers the shower, Paul’s runs the lights and cooking and a windbreak is strapped between the two. No longer is it a hoon machine, something to play with, now it’s our most vital bit of equipment, our survival blanket – we are utterly dependent on it. As we sit around the fire that night, burning wood we’ve carried with us, drinking cold beer and eating meat, salad, bread and fruit, before showering and crawling into a padded roll mat, I realise how well the Hilux is looking after us. I resolve to treat it better the next day.
We had hoped for a stunning sunrise, but 20 miles inland isn’t enough to escape the cloud bank. The high dunes end abruptly, so we drive to the top, stand among the crisp wind-blown folds and watch the wall recede, then chase it back towards the coast.
If we needed a reminder that this phenomenal place is more than just an off-road playground, it comes as we pass through the mining settlements at Warsasha and Conception Point. Abandoned before WWII, each used to support 600 or so hardy souls who’d find diamonds on the surface, literally sifting through sand on their stomachs in 45°C heat. Talk about a bleak, stark existence. These are haunting places, their nearby graveyards a testimony to the brutality of the Skeleton Coast.
Imagining the life those people had out here tempers our enthusiasm, casts a different light on this environment and how man intrudes into it. We walk in silence past the corrugated iron and the restored shack that commemorates the sacrifices made here. It’s tempting to consider how a Hilux would fare left out in this corrosive environment for a hundred years. Well, I suspect; certainly better than most other SUVs. Because like this place, like the Eduard Bohlen itself, the Hilux is designed and built for a more primal existence.