Cape Cross Seal Reserve: A Journey Through Time

6 May 2022

The Namibian coast, where the hostile Namib Desert meets the roaring Atlantic Ocean, is fascinating in its own way. Shipwrecks and lonely dilapidated buildings bear witness to failed dreams; at the same time, the coast is a paradise for nature lovers, passionate anglers, surfers and adventurers.

The Dorob National Park in the central coastal region was proclaimed in 2010 and reaches from the Kuiseb Delta south of Walvis Bay to the Ugab River. One of its highlights is Cape Cross, home to one of the largest seal colonies in the world. 



That's where we want to go today to watch the seals; not suspecting that this excursion will give us many more interesting impressions. After a delicious breakfast at The Delight Swakopmund - the name says it all - we set off.


Small treasures along the way

Soon after Swakopmund we notice a knee-high barrier next to the road, stretching over several kilometres. Since the eye doesn't register anything out of the ordinary at first glance (Desert, after all!), one wonders why.


Photo: Olga Ernst
Photo: Olga Ernst


The barrier protects a huge lichen field that provides food and habitat for many other desert organisms and stabilise the soil. Lichens are a symbiosis of tubular fungi and blue-green algae. There are 120 species of lichens in the Namib, most of them rare, many endemic. They can survive in harsh conditions, but are very susceptible to pollution and mechanical damage. Namibia tries to keep people and vehicles away from the lichen fields through signage, education and demarcation.  



The 130 kilometres from Swakopmund to Cape Cross fly by. Shortly before we arrive, we discover little tables with shimmering salt crystals along the road. No vendors to be seen far and wide; the salt crystals are for sale on an honesty system. Choose one and simply leave your donation in the provided tin, thus supplying workers from nearby salt mines with some extra pocket money. But watch out. No matter how pretty the salt crystals might look, in closed rooms they cause metal to rust.


Sailors' yarns and seals at Cape Cross


After paying our entrance fee at the reception of the Cape Cross Seal Reserve, we continue towards the Atlantic Ocean to see the seals. They are lying everywhere, blocking the viewpoint. We open the car door to take a closer look at the historical landmark with two stone crosses – and hold our breath. What a stench! For the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are glad to have a face mask with us and wear it without complaint.

"In the year 6685 after the creation of the world and 1485 after the birth of Christ, the brilliant, far-sighted King John II of Portugal ordered Diogo Cão, knight of his court, to discover this land and to erect this padrão here." This is the inscription on the memorial stone.



After a long sea voyage, Diogo Cão was the first European to set foot on the headland in 1486 at what later became Cape Cross, and erected a padrão. 400 years later, a corvette captain from the then colony of German Southwest Africa removed the weather-beaten stone cross and took it to Germany. A replica was set up, to which another cross, more like the original, was added at the end of the 20th century. The original padrão by Diogo Cão was returned to Namibia in 2019.

Seals cavort and sunbathe around the two stone crosses. The Cape Cross Seal Reserve is home to one of the largest colonies of Cape fur seals in the world. More than 200,000 seals can be observed, either lying lazily on the beach or playing in the Atlantic waves. The ranger at the reception tells us that brown hyenas and black-backed jackals usually help keeping the beach clean and the seal population in check. Recently, rabies has taken a heavy toll on the jackals.



Modernisation in harmony with nature

In the vicinity of the reception, which forms part of the Cape Cross Seal Reserve park station, some new buildings are being constructed. Next to them are brand-new solar panels. The works are part of the government's NamParks V development programme, executed by the Namibian Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism and co-financed by Germany. The programme aims at an even more sustainable management of Namibia's coastal parks.



Progress is making its way, even here, in the oldest desert in the world; cautiously, in order to preserve the natural beauty of this unique landscape and its biodiversity.

On the way back to our temporary home, The Delight Swakopmund we take stock. Our trip to Cape Cross was much more than 'seal watching'. Richer by a salt crystal and numerous photos and memories, we agree that our journey through time in the oldest desert in the world was definitely worthwhile.


More riches of bygone times at Cape Cross can be discovered here.


Inke Stoldt

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