Isles of Dead Ned

Elizabeth Bay. NamibiaElizabeth Bay. Namibia

The Isles of Dead Ned lie off the west coast of Namibia, barren, lonely and unknown.

The beauty of loneliness

The Isles of Dead Ned lie off the west coast of Namibia, barren, lonely and unknown - but achingly beautiful in their loneliness. They were once the scenes of great activity in the days of sealing and guano collection, the remnants of those days now found in the houses and working sheds on the islands. A brief journey through the buildings tells of dramas beyond our imaginings. I lived on one of the islands for six months, much of this time alone.Possession Island is the largest of the rocks lying off the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. It is 2km long and 500m at its' widest. It is windswept and desolate and the cries of the kelp gulls across the barren expanse echo absolute loneliness. In the brief spells when the wind dies the background din created by the colonies of gannets and penguins tears at the soul. Cormorants and other species also find solace on Possessions shores.

Graves of the wanderers

The buildings from the sealing and guano days are all still standing. Also still standing, but in various stages of dilapidation, are the graves of seaman who died in the course of their wanderings. The wind howls constantly, adding to the loneliness of the long dead seamen now lying for eternity beneath the shingled earth of the island. The crosses strike a very potent statement and I would often sit up among the graves and ponder on the stories and lives of these men and life in general.The mainland is only visible from the island on days when the wind is not blowing. When this occurs it can be quite intimidating as the sight of the harsh desert landscape of the Skeleton Coast greets you. At night the lights of the ghost town of Elizabeth Bay stretch eerily across the water. Now a ghost town, a remnant of the diamond glory days, it is used by officials of the mining company and the lights are left burning, creating an unreal image.

Haunted shores

It is said that the island is haunted. The one story is of the ship, the Auckland, that sank off the west coast and all hands were lost including the master and his wife. Some of the bodies washed up on Possession and were buried in the graveyard. It is said that the master's wife had her legs eaten off by sharks.

Her legless ghost can be seen staring out to sea accompanied by two hounds that were on the ship. A labourer once threw a rock at the hounds and his neck immediately began to swell. It was only when he left the island that the swelling subsided. I never saw the woman or the hounds, but at night when the wind howled across the barren waste I could picture her staring out to sea.With very little rain and no natural fresh water a holding tank is used to store the water that is brought in every three months by boat. There is the story of the time when the water was running out, and the boat was not due for a while, that a man decided the only way ahead was to seek help in Luderitz. He rowed across to the uninviting shore of the Skeleton Coast and proceeded to walk. Thirst overcame him and he died on the outskirts of the town. Fortunately the people who found his body realized what his mission was and sent water to the island.On Christmas day 1988 I was listening to the people at the SANAE base in Antarctica speaking to their families in South Africa. They had booked a time in advance and the family members were waiting for the call. One gentleman's wife had not got the message. His sister-in-law answered and told him that his wife was out walking. I listened as his voice started to crack up. I really felt for him but then it dawned on me that I was alone on a desert island with no way of communicating with my family.My duties included bird monitoring and general maintenance. As part of the monitoring I would check nests and record unusual behaviour. In all I identified 95 species of birds on the island, some of which were blown across from the mainland during one of the regular storms that howled across the Atlantic.I have visited some of the other islands off the Namibian coast as part of a bird survey. The names depict what must have been the longings of the sailors of centuries ago. Names like Roast Beef and Plumpudding Island speak of a deep yearning. Mercury Island is renowned for the fact that it has a channel running underneath it and when the waves break through the whole island shakes. These islands are not inhabited any more, although the houses are still standing, now taken over by penguins and fur seals.

By Leigh Kemp

African Safaris Guide to South and East Africa
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