by John H Marsh

MARINERS call it "Skeleton Coast" and dread it. Treasure seekers know it as "The Coast of Diamonds and Death". Maps mark it merely as the Kaokoveld, which, freely translated, is Herero for "Coast of Loneliness".
Look at the map of Africa. In the lower left hand comer is South-West Africa. There in the north west of this territory, bordered on the west by the Atlantic Ocean and on the north by the Portuguese colony of Angola, is the Kaokoveld. Our story centres there.
The Kaokoveld extends for about 500 miles north-and-south and 100 to 200 miles into the interior. It is a little smaller than England, Scotland, and Wales combined. If your map is a good one it will be plastered with place-names. Most of them begin with "O" and they include tonguetwisters like Okamborombonga and Omurorauozonju. But do not be deceived by the multitude of names. They mean nothing.You cannot book your seat to Omahama or Otjobuku. No-one will take you there nor will you find anyone or anything there except sand. The names are merely descriptive ones given by the natives-Hereros, Bushmen, Hottentos and Klip Kaffirs-to particular mountains, water-holes, and sand dunes. How they got on to the map nobody knows. All that can be said for certain is that they are more likely to be wrongly marked on your map, than rightly. Europeans have not been to most of those parts.
The Kaokoveld is almost uninhabited. The reason is simple-most of it cannot be inhabited. Apart from the fact that the greater portion, including the entire coastal belt, has for years now been a closed area to which the Government prohibits entry except by permit, the country is so dry and sandy that only the hardiest and those who ask the least from life, can exist there. A few natives alone qualify. Much of the time they live upon wild animals, lizards, roots and berries. They only live in the Kaokoveld because they or their forebears had to flee from more hospitable territory when warrior tribes, or the white men, came to take it.
So there are no towns in the Kaokoveld. Here and there, sometimes hundreds of miles apart, are tiny native settlements, a lonely trader's store, or a two-man police post. There are no roads or railways, no flowing rivers. In the interior there are barren mountains, thorn bushes, and thick, dry grass where the hardier wild animals abound, out of reach of civilisation. They include elephant, lion, and buck. Along the coast are only sand dunes, salt pans, and desert. There is no sign of vegetation for hundreds of miles. Apart from a few jackals, hyenas and an occasional lion nothing moves in this vast waste of sand and silence.
Those who don't know would dismiss this desolate land as worthless. Yet actually it is the world's treasure chest-in the view of officialdom, at any rate. You would have to try hard indeed to obtain a permit to enter it. If you were found there without a permit and without a convincing explanation you would be prosecuted as a criminal, and the onus would rest on you to prove your innocence. All this is because there are diamonds there.
Nobody has ever seen those diamonds, as far as one can discover. But the soil is diamondiferous in parts, and there is every likelihood that the precious stones are there in quantity. Certainly they have been found in vast numbers lower down the coast, along the shores of Namaqualand, where conditions are almost identical. On parts of that coast poachers used to land at night, fill a few sacks with soil, and depart before dawn to sift it at their leisure and, as often, as not, to find therein diamonds worth hundreds and, perhaps, thousands of pounds. The South African Government, to prevent diamonds becoming as common as dirt on the world's markets, had to declare the whole zone a prohibited area, close it in with electrified wire, and maintain constant mounted, car, and air patrols by police to stop the poaching.
Those who live or work in that prohibited zone, including the guards, have to undergo an X-ray examination every time they want to leave the area, so that any diamonds they may have swallowed or hidden on their persons, intending to smuggle them out, may be discovered. Before the X-ray system was introduced they were compelled to take a purgative some time before they were allowed out of the area.
Although there is no record of diamonds having been found in the Kaokoveld, the South African Government, which holds the mandate over South-West Afrka, is convinced that it is as rich in diamonds as Namaqualand and, for the same reason, the wealth that lies in its sand must remain there for ever, or at least until South Africa's own fields are worked out. But the Kaokoveld is too large, inhospitable, and inaccessible to be fenced in and guarded in the same way as the Namaqualand fields are. Its virtual inability to support life and its inaccessibility are actually the best protection for its treasure. The police do not need to patrol the border. Here and there they have an outpost where policemen live sometimes for months without seeing another human being, and where they never see Europeans at all. The very absence of life would make any movement into the forbidden zone conspicuous. You cannot walk out of your back door into the Kaokoveld - unless you want to die. You have to make preparations for a journey like that. The police will know about them long before you are ready.
It is not easy to beat the police intelligence system. Many have tried and failed. The temptation to try to get rich quickly has so gripped some men that they have been prepared to risk all - even the unknown dangers of this coast. Knowing that the police do not normally patrol the Kaokoveld coastline, they have risked their lives to land through the surf, only to walk, as often as not, straight into the arms of the police. One ingenious poacher who lashed two of his cutter's boats together, laid hatch covers across, and successfully got a Baby Austin onto the beach, would at any other time have been commended all round for his skill. But a couple of policemen bobbed up from the other side of a sand dune and the upshot was that he paid a heavy fine in court for entering the forbidden territory without permission.
Another party of poachers who got ashore from a cutter were so busy sifting the sand on the beach that they did not see the approach of the policemen and were caught red-handed. The police had known of the poachers' plans long beforehand, knew just when their craft put to sea, and had sent camel patrols overland to await their arrival.
Some of the poachers have paid for their daring with their lives. They were either drowned in the surf or died of thirst or starvation among the sand dunes. A very few got away again safely. Whether they found what they came for nobody knows, and they themselves would be the last to tell.
There was a yachtsman who called at Cape Town a few years back. He sailed, with one deckhand, ostensibly for England. Weeks later he put back with two mysterious passengers below and a broken windlass on deck. He said that he had called at the lonely island settlement of Tristan da Cunha, in the middle of the South Atlantic, that the windlass had been damaged in a storm, and that he had had to put back for repairs. The police seemed to show an unusual interest in the tiny yacht and its complement, and the customs men at the dock gates were even more vigilant than usual when the people from the yacht passed through. A long time after an old boatman confided to the author how he had smuggled out of the docks a packet of uncut stones worth many thousands, on behalf of someone on the yacht. He is dead now, and whether or not he was romancing, as sailors love to do, no-one will ever know.
It is the coastline of the Kaokoveld that particularly concerns this story. As has already been mentioned, most of it is unknown territory to Europeans. The coast itself is uninhabited, and only one white man has ever claimed to have travelled the 500 miles of its length, from Walvis Bay to the Cunene River that separates South West Africa from Angola. He is an old German now living at Swakopmund, and his story is that he made the journey some 60 years ago with four donkeys, loaded with food and water. The only other white men. who have visited the coast at all are diamond poachers, police patrols, and shipwrecked folk. None stayed to explore. They went back the way they had come as soon as they had completed their business, or, at last abandoning hope of rescue, died among the sands.
Mariners have good cause to fear this coast. Its white sands are strewn with the skeletons of ships and men. Many indeed are the ships that have stranded here, and few indeed are those that have escaped to make another port. And of the crews and passengers that found themselves castaways on this coast of death, only a handful survived the tortures of hunger, thirst, and exposure till rescue came. Countless skeletons lie beneath the sand dunes or bleach white in the blazing sun. Nobody will ever know their indentity. Some of the ships, too, whose timber and iron frames stand out blackly against the white surf and sand, could provide the key to ocean mysteries that have puzzled the world for generations. Their wrecks were never recorded. They were simply posted "'missing at sea".
There is no more treacherous coast in the world than this. Not only has it never been completely charted, but such charts as have been drawn by observation from the sea are unreliable. The shore supports little or no life, but it is alive itself. It moves. Day by day, month by month, it is moving westward, further and further out to sea. Not only do the charts, poor as they are, prove this. There is visible evidence in the wrecks of ships that are today high and dry in the sand, far from the water's edge. Best-known of all is that, further down the coast, of the German Woermarm liner, Eduard Bohlen, which stranded in 1909 and is today well over half-a-mile inland. She rests on an even keel, with masts and funnel still standing, for all the world as if she were sailing through the desert. Natives from a near-by copper mine often take up their abode in her and then lights shine again at night through her port-holes.
Prospectors looking for diamonds once dug into a sand hill hundreds of yards from the beach, and found an ancient galleon. She must have lain there for centuries. Traces of an ocean beach have been found as far inland as seven miles from the water's edge.
While the coast creeps seaward it changes its contour and appearance. Nearly a century ago a Captain William Messum, exploring part of the Kaokoveld coast from seaward, recorded that he had found a small harbour, "with a good road leading from it into the interior" at a place called Cape Frio (locally known as Rocky Point). You will find no trace of either today. If the harbour or the road existed they must be well inland, probably swallowed up by the shifting sand.
Ships navigating in these waters have to contend not only with a moving coastline, the possibility of uncharted rocks, and the powerful Benguella current which often sweeps at four knots up the coast, gripping unwary vessels and setting them in toward the shore. They have to contend, too, with occasional subterranean eruptions which change the sea bed, push up islands where there was deep water before, and produce other strange and startling phenomena.
At Walvis Bay, at the southern end of the Kaokoveld coast, an eruption some years ago brought up an island of mud, 150 feet across, overnight. Three months later the island vanished one night as quietly as it had appeared. Subterranean eruptions in this area are frequent. They are followed by myriads of sulphuretted hydrogen bubbles that rise to the surface and make the sea boil. The smell of sulphur hangs heavily in the hot air. Millions of dead fish are cast up on the beaches. Columns of yellow smoke, and even flames, have been known to rise out of the sea during these underwater disturbances.
Nature plays weird tricks, too, along the shore. Here and there are wide rivers, with steep banks, that wind from far inland through the sand dunes down to the sea, though few people have ever seen water in them. Years sometimes pass without rain falling. Then, almost without waring, the rain comes down in torrents, the rivers fill, and the water rushes headlong down to the sea, tearing away drifts and banks and flooding the countryside. Almost as suddenly as it came, the water disappears. If you knew where to dig you might find the river then, carrying on far below its bed. Here and there it comes to the surface to run in its normal channel for a short distance, then to dive underground again. The Kuiseb River runs like this right under the settlement of Walvis Bay. Many of the town's houses are built upon stilts, six feet above the ground, in case the river should come up in flood below them one day.
There is a wind, known locally as the "soo-oop-wa" from the noise it makes, that blows almost perpetually across the sand dunes. It sighs weirdly as it travels over the crests. On some parts of the coast, as you walk over the dunes, the sand shrieks beneath your feet. At other places you hear the beach groan as you disturb its surface.
That, then, is the Kaokoveld coast.

Copyright Michael Marsh(2005)

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