Pipe Dreaming Saturday: The Skeleton Coast and Death Valley

I’m afraid this installment of PDS might be a little on the morbid side…

For about 300 miles, the coast of southwest Africa becomes a deserted wilderness that harkens back to the days of whaling and shipwrecks. It’s called the Skeleton Coast, and it attracts travelers in need of incredible vistas and bone-chilling sights.

The African Bushmen called the Skeleton Coast, “Land God Made in Anger.” The Portuguese agreed, calling it, “The Gates of Hell.” In fact, until modern conveniences of the 20th century the Skeleton Coast connoted fear and worry among sailors. During the past few centuries, coast-hugging explorers and merchants have shipwrecked countless times on the Skeleton Coast’s pristine shores.

An exposed portion of a whale skeleton sits in front of one of the hundreds of shipwrecks along Namibia's Skeleton Coast. Photo courtesy of The Cardboard Box Travel Shop.
An exposed portion of a whale skeleton sits in front of one of the hundreds of shipwrecks along Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. Photo courtesy of The Cardboard Box Travel Shop.

Fronting the surf of the mighty South Atlantic, the Skeleton Coast winds along Namibia’s northern coast: where the Namib Desert meets the sea. It’s an incredibly rugged region of sand dunes, peaks, and canyons; truly the Gates of Hell for previous explorers. With no settlements in the area in previous years, marooned sailors had no choice but to venture into the unforgiving interior to search for necessities. Most of them didn’t make it back- and more recent shipwrecks even have the skeletons of some unfortunate crew members. The Skeleton Coast also gets its name from the bones of whales and seals, as the waters in this area fostered a prosperous whaling and seal trapping industry during the 19th century.

To keep the aura of mystery and slight creepiness alive, the Namibian government only allows 800 visitors at any given time into Skeleton Coast National Park. Permanent settlements are few and far between, so most visitors hop on a fly-in safari (flying in by light aircraft and continuing the rest of the journey by Land Rover), staying at surprisingly swanky tented settlements like Hoanib Camp and including Namibia’s other points of interest.

Just because the Skeleton Coast is a desert doesn’t mean it’s devoid of life- animals from the famous desert African elephant to cheetahs, giraffes, and even a lion (who I guess they call the king of the desert here?) can be seen roaming the stark sands of the coast’s interior.

It is probable that most people have never even heard of a country called Namibia, so naturally that means it’s tough to reach. And that fly-in safari will have you digging extremely deep into your pockets.

Thankfully a better option exists- and it’s something with which the majority of Americans are familiar- Death Valley. While not exposed to the chilled sea breezes or eerie shipwrecks & bones of the Skeleton Coast, Death Valley has its own chilling qualities.

Fall Canyon, one of the many twisting cracks in the barren Death Valley. Photo courtesy of the US National Park Service
Fall Canyon, a twisting crack in the barren surface of California/Nevada’s Death Valley. Photo courtesy of the US National Park Service.

The hottest, driest, lowest place in North America, this basin has been infamous for having one of the most unforgiving climates in the entire world. Nowadays it’s a lot safer and more accessible, but the landscape still connotes the quintessential ‘desert’ feeling in the minds of visitors. A part of the American National Park system, Death Valley also has every modern convenience while not distracting from the natural beauty- definitely a plus for visitors who aren’t quite ready to go without private bathrooms.

Mountains frame a rugged backdrop for the 3000 square mile concentration of sand dunes, canyons, salt flats, and rock formations- all born from the desert sand and sculpted by the combined forces of nature and time. And there’s the unexpected: like the Devils Hole- a strange occurrence of aquifer-fed geothermal heated water filling in underground cavities and breaking through the desert surface- which is the only home of the rare Devils Hole Pupfish in the entire world. Or Darwin Falls, at the park’s western edge, a cascade that attracts flora and fauna alike- and makes the sandy landscape quite lush.

There aren’t any posh glamping options or fly-in safaris in Death Valley- but you will find up-market options like the AAA Four-Diamond Awarded Furnace Creek Resort, located among the green of an 18-hole golf course. Of course, there are plenty of camping options although those would be exclusive of air-conditioning.

Those looking for the quintessential desert experience would be happy either on the bizarre Skeleton Coast or rugged Death Valley- both offer vast expanses of sand, strange rocks, unique natural wonders, and an incredibly clear night sky. And despite the two regions’ monikers, both are very much alive.

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