Namibia is a country on the south-west coast of Africa. It is one of the driest and most sparsely populated countries on earth. The Namib Desert in the west and the Kalahari Desert in the east are separated by the Central Plateau.
The colony of Cape fur seals at Cape Cross is one of the largest in the world and marks the spot where the first European explorer Diego Cao set foot on the coast of Namibia in 1486. The spot is now home to a thriving colony of more than 200 000 seals.
In 1484, Portuguese navigator and explorer Diogo Cão was ordered by King John II of Portugal to advance south into undiscovered regions along the west coast of Africa, as part of the search for a sea route to India and the Spice Islands. While doing so, he was to choose some particularly salient points and claim them for Portugal by erecting stone crosses called padrões. During his second voyage, in 1484–1486, Cão reached Cape Cross in January 1486, being the first European to visit this area. He is known to have erected two padrões in the areas beyond his first voyage, one in Monte Negro, and the second at Cape Cross. The current name of the place is derived from this padrão.
Going to see the replica of the padrão was one reason for coming to Cape Cross the second was to see the Cape Cross Seal Reserve, home of one of the largest colonies of Cape fur seals in the world.
We stopped at the office at Cape Cross to pay our entry fee and drove a couple of kilometres to the car park.
The first thing to know about the fur seal colony is that it is noisy and smelly. Also, good to know is Cape fur seals bite.
The seals are everywhere, even in the car park. There is a boardwalk from the car park, with gates at the entrance, to stop the seals being there too. As you walk along the boardwalk, there are seals underneath, lying against the fence and, others poking their snouts through.
The path leads down to the rocky shoreline, where thousands upon thousands of fur seals cover every inch of space on the rocks. It was a hive of activity, with seals entering and leaving the sea, riding on the waves, whilst others just wanted to get somewhere else by clambering over the top of resting seals. The noise was deafening and the smell overpowering, even for my poor sense of smell.
The boardwalk is only about 250 metres long, but we found ourselves stopping frequently to watch the antics of the seals.
Once we had exhausted our seal viewing capacity, we took the short walk to the replica padrão or stone cross.
The original Cape Cross padrão was removed in 1893 by Corvette captain Gottlieb Becker, commander of the SMS Falke of the German Navy, and taken to Berlin. Until 2019 the cross was held in the Deutsches Historisches Museum, before being returned to Namibia. A simple wooden cross was put in its place. The wooden cross was replaced two years later by a stone replica.
At the end of the 20th century, thanks to private donations, another cross, more similar to the original one, was erected at the cape along with the first replica. The inscription on the padrão reads, in English translation:
“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”.
We returned to the car and retraced our route towards Swakopmund. The road we were on follows Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, which is named for the whale bones and the hundreds of broken ships that litter its beaches. There are estimated to be 500 shipwrecks off this coast.
One of the most visible wrecks is just off the beach, so on our way past we just had to stop and take a look. I just love to photograph older boats … the more rust the better.
The Suiderkus was a relatively modern fishing trawler, the Suiderkus ran aground near Möwe Bay on her maiden voyage in 1976, despite a highly sophisticated navigational system. After a few months, most of the ship had disintegrated but a large portion of the hull survived. The hull is home to cormorants.
Planning your visit to Cape Cross
Cape Cross is open daily from 10:00 to 17:00. Permits are obtainable from the office at Cape Cross. Admission fees are payable, which include a fee per vehicle and a fee per person. No accommodation is available, only drinking water and toilets. Pets and motorcycles are not allowed inside the reserve.
Best time to visit Cape Cross
- Between the months of January and July, the climate is perfect. At lunchtime, it’s 22°C on average and rains about 0% of the time in July.
- In the month of August, the climate is favourable. The temperature rises to 21°C and it rains about 1mm each month.
- From September to December the climate is perfect. On average, in the morning it is 19°C and it rains about 12mm each month.
In mid-October, fur seal males arrive at the colony to establish their breeding territories, fighting noisily for the best spots. With their attention consumed by the task at hand, the males do not have time to fish and can lose up to half their body weight by the time the females arrive in November. However, the sacrifice is worthwhile for males who secure the best territories, as they will have the right to mate with a harem of up to 60 females. The majority of the females arrive already pregnant with pups conceived during the last breeding season, and will also fight for birthing space within the territory of their chosen male. Once they give birth, they are able to conceive again within a matter of days.
Peak breeding season runs from November to December, and as many as 210,000 fur seals have been recorded at the rookery during this time. Pups stay on land until they are weaned (between four and six months), so December to June is a good time to visit if you want to see plenty of plump babies. Be warned that you may also witness the grisly spectacle of a jackal or hyena predation, although seeing these predators in action is a privilege in its own right. No matter when you visit, there will always be some seals to see as mothers and pups return to the rookery throughout the year. The reserve is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and permits must be purchased from reception.