seal colony on the Skeleton Coast
The coastline of Southern Africa is the only place in the world where you can find Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus, or the Cape fur seal, as they are more commonly known. They fight, mate, reproduce and fish in the Cape Cross Seal Reserve, home to the largest breeding colony of these seals on the planet, with at times up to 210,000 seals present during November and December. But it hasn't always been a cacophony of bleats and barks filling the air.
In 1486, the celebrated Portuguese seafarer and explorer, Diego Câo, erected a padrâo, which is a stone pillar topped by a cross, establishing his country's claim to the territory. He was searching for a sea route around Africa to India. The cross became a landmark and an important 15th century navigational aid known as 'The Cabo de Padrâo' and eventually Cape Cross in English.
Two years into the voyage, and after planting the padrâo at Cape Cross, the crew returned home without their captain who had disappeared into thin air. All of the documents relating to his expedition were lost in a fire and the search continues to find of his whereabouts. Archaeologists working on separate projects believe he may have ventured into what is now Sperrgebiet National Park, as they uncovered gold coins and collated other relevant clues.
This particular coastline, which includes the infamous Skeleton Coast, held little or no interest from any passing vessels. The existence of the cross remained largely unreported until the German possession of the land during 1883-1884. A wooden noticeboard was erected at Cape Cross by a Captain Raven of the frigate Wolf. This spiked up the interest of developing a harbour at Cape Cross and in 1893, a Captain Becker of the German flagship Falke rediscovered the original Portuguese cross in 1893 and took it to Duala Cameroon, where it was transferred to the steamship Stettin which took it to Wilhelmshaven in Germany.
It was on the authority of the then German Emperor, Wilhelm II, that a replica should be made and re-erected, eventually only 15m from the original placing on 23 January 1895. The original eventually ended up in the German Museum for Technology at Trebbiner Strasse 9, Berlin after a number of loan and transfers. Efforts to have it returned have failed due to political differences and both Namibia and Portugal have pressurized the German Federal Republic over the years for the return to its rightful owners. Berlin even refused to have it returned as 'a token of goodwill' in 1990 after independence after an appeal by the Founding Father, (former) President, Dr Sam Nujoma fell on deaf ears.
In 1980, a number of improvements were made near the cross on the initiative of the then Director of the State Museum in Windhoek, CG Coetzee. An additional cross, (manufactured from Namib dolerite) was erected on the exact site where Diogo Cão originally planted his, and was unveiled on 11th October 1980. Architect François Malan designed 3 circular and half-circular platforms. Three information stones, situated on each platform and near the crosses were placed in commemoration of in 1986 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Diogo Cão and his historical journeys of adventure and discovery.
Cape Cross is situated 53km north of the Atlantic coastal fishing town of Henties Bay. The replica of the original cross, erected by Cão at Cape Cross in 1484, as also the site of the original cross, were declared national monuments on 1st November 1968. The 2nd replica of the padrão does not form part of the proclaimed monument.
Many ships were wrecked on this barren Skeleton Coast over the 400 years after Cão landed. It wasn't until 1884 that the first sightings of Cape fur seals were recorded off the coast of Southern Africa, substantiated by entries into the log book of the German cruise ship, the Möwe. When guano, the waste left by fish-eating birds used as fertilizer, was discovered in 1895, people began to settle in Cape Cross. Guano is an Inca word for a mix of eggshell, feathers, decayed corpses and bird excrement. It became so valuable, that it was called 'white gold' and to this day is harvested from platforms off Namibia's coast.
A point of interest driving towards the seal colony on the left of the road, is an unnatural, curved line running between a granite outcrop and the edge of a saltpan. The line is in fact the remains of the first railway track in Namibia, all 21km of it, used to transport guano and seal skins to ships in the bay. Guano, dried bird manure, used as fertilizer and in manufacturing explosives, was discovered at Cape Cross towards the end of the 19th century. Exploitation by a British firm between 1899 and 1901, resulted in the loss of life of 92 men, half of the company's work force due to negligence in the work place. Inadequate social conditions whilst living and working in a harsh logistical environment took its toll. All provisions were ferried by boat from Cape Cross with supply ships often arriving behind schedule. Water had to be transported by ox wagon from the Omaruru River and European workers were unable to endure the Cape Cross projects for too long.
The edge of a saltpan, mentioned in the previous paragraph, was where ships once brought in provisions, but all that remains of the guano industry today is rusted pieces of metal and a graveyard near the reception office at Cape Cross.
Near the 2 crosses is a 'seal stone' with an English summary of the Latin and Portuguese texts from the padrâo; an engraving of a caravel and the coats of arms of the national monuments council, a long flat stone with German, Afrikaans and Portuguese inscriptions and Câo's coat of arms engraved on an oval stone.
Visitors can view the seals from a 200m walkway, constructed of recycled plastic suitable for wheelchairs. Other facilities include information points, toilets, a picnic spot, (if you can handle the smell with your baguette) and reception. Permits are available on site and drivers please note that there is no petrol and very limited water here.
In mid-October bulls come ashore to establish breeding colonies, defended by heroic chest-to-chest combat, pushing, biting and waiting for pregnant, adult females to arrive on the scene. Not to be outdone, the females fight for a place within a territory, and eventually a male may lose half his body weight establishing his 'patch.' But the rewards are well worth the effort in the annual forced slimathon; control of your own territory and a harem of between 7 - 66 females!
As in all walks of life, it is the females who get the rough end of the stick when it comes to giving birth and rearing their off-springs. Females breed in synchrony once a year and after an 8 month gestation period, give birth to 1 pup in late November/early December. Within an amazing 34 day cycle, 90% of pups are born at Cape Cross and they weigh between 4.5 - 6.4kg and are 60 - 70 cm in length, similar in size to human babies, (but with no umbilical cords to cut or bottoms to smack!)
Pups suckle soon after birth, establishing a strong bond between mother and pup, essential if mother is to find their young in the midst of tens of thousands of bleating pups. Sound and scent play an important role in mother-infant recognition, and in the first few months after being born, life is perilous to say the least. The infant mortality rate is 30%, with jackals and brown hyenas amongst the principal predators. At only 8 months, it's time for mother and pup to take to water to fish, sometimes staying out to sea for 4 or 5 days. Pups continue to nurse from their mothers for a year, and at the age of 3, females are ready to mate. It's definitely a man's world at the Cape Cross Seal Reserve!
One of the most endearing features of Cape fur seals is their ears; they have external ears, as opposed to true seals, who don't. (Wow!) It is also 1 of 3 species of fur seals that occurs off the coast of Southern Africa, but they do not migrate, although they have been known to travel 1,600km in 20 months. (Adventurous!) They have also been found 200km from shore. (Lost!)
Not surprisingly, an adult Cape fur seal has a healthy appetite and eats about 270kg of food a year. Favourites on the seal menu are Cape horse mackerel, Cape hake, lantern fish and pelagic goby. But the hunter is also the hunted and at sea, sharks and killer whales prey on Cape fur seals. If they make it safely to the shore, the danger continues in the form of black-backed jackals and brown hyenas, not just content on feeding on pups.
One thing no seal or human can escape from is the unpleasant odour at Cape Cross. A combination of dead seals and excrement really chuck it up, and the strong winds stir the smells of the sea with those on land, delivering them straight to your nostrils!
The only accommodation available near Cape Cross is the Cape Cross Lodge, most people choose to stay at accommodation in Swakopmund or Henties Bay and and make Cape Cross a day trip. Cape Cross is open from 10am until 5pm daily.
Good mid range lodge situated directly on the beach near the Cape Cross seal colony
An upmarket lodge on the Skeleton Coast - only visit-able as part of a fly in safari.
Accommodation in the Skeleton Coast, really catering for fisherman but hardened visitors who absolutely have to spend a few nights inside the Skeleton Coast Park may choose to stay here
A campsite in the Skeleton Coast Park, popular with fisherman during the summer holidays