Along the most inaccessible shores of northern Namibia lies the desolately beautiful Skeleton Coast. Known for its inhospitality toward sailors, the surf is rough and allows boats to come ashore, but it's almost impossible to get out again. The ghostly remains of ships scattered along the shoreline provide ample evidence of just how treacherous the Atlantic Ocean is.
Due to its wild ways, the area has earned itself some interesting, if unflattering, nicknames through time. The San people referred to it as ‘The Land God Made in Anger’ and Portuguese sailors called it ‘The Gates of Hell’. The name Skeleton Coast, the more friendly really, has stuck.
The Skeleton Coast refers to the coastline from the Swakop River (Swakopmund) north to the Kunene River on the Namibian border with Angola. Some references include the whole coastline of the Namib Desert. The northern part - from the Ugab River is the Skeleton Coast National Park, and the southern, the West Coast Recreation Area, now part of the Dorob National Park.
There are over 200 species of birds that call the area home, both of the sea and land variety. They include flamingoes, Cape Gannets, Grey Loerie and Chestnut-banded Plovers.
The endemic Damara Tern nests and breeds on the gravel plains adjacent to the coast. Their eggs and chicks are incredibly well camouflaged. If you're walking through the area, watch and tread carefully, so as not to step on them. They are very rare and their longevity has been terribly threatened by human disturbance.
Despite the inhospitable nature of this desert landscape, a wide variety of animals - both small and large - live here.
In the Skeleton Coast National Park, large mammals usually congregate around the river beds and waterholes and include the famous desert elephant, giraffe, gemsbok, zebra, springbok and spotted and brown hyena. Desert-adapted lions are rumoured to be seen too.
Reptiles abound. The tongue-twisterly-named Gerrhosaurus skoogi, a large armour-plated lizard roams the dunes looking for !Nara melon bushes and any other tasty delights.
Again surprising, due to the aridness of the area - there are a number of endemic insects. It's worth stopping the car and looking for the little guys, while you experience the intense solitude of the desert silence.
Black or white tenebrionid beetles are but one of them. Running between small mounds of sand collected around dwarf shrubs, they shelter and feed, along with fish moths.
In the Skeleton Coast National Park, the protected area extends 1 km into the Atlantic Ocean, providing a safe marine environment for a variety of fish and sea creatures. These include Benguela dolphins, killer whales and humpback whales. The park is a firm favourite of local fishermen who flock to the two seaside campsites during season for fishing holidays extraordinaire.
Seal colonies are found throughout the Skeleton Coast, the largest population being at Cape Cross. Here the beach is alive with up to 210 000 cape fur seals who bark and bleat and fight and play. It's well worth a visit!
While the park is a desert landscape and, as such, provides incredibly beautiful, stark and arid landscapes, a number of plants also thrive in the area, mainly surviving on moisture from the heavy morning and afternoon fog. Commonly seen plants include the dollar bush, brakspekbos, the occasional ganna and some windswept Acacia trees.
By far the most fascinating flora, though, are the lichen which can be found growing on rocks on the gravel plains parallel to the sea. These tiny, plant-like creatures are a combination of fungi and algae and survive on moisture from the fog, closing up their leaves during the day to prevent moisture loss. Stop the car and have a closer look as they range from deep orange to green to black. Be sure, however, not to disturb them as they are fragile and sensitive to changes in position, besides being home to various, even tinier, creatures.
Look out for the fabled and ancient two-leafed Welwitschia plants, too, which tend to grow a little further inland.
The landscape in the area ranges from sweeping desert vistas of ever-changing sand dunes to rugged volcanic rock canyons and mountain ranges. The park itself is characterised by the level coastal plain, (mostly dry) river beds and an occasional rocky outcrop. The southern area is more gravel plains and further north, from Terrace Bay upward, the sand dunes dominate.
Thanks to the wind, the sand dunes march slowly along in perfect crescent shapes, constantly changing and ever-moving. Unlike their redder-soiled counterparts in southern Namibia, these dunes are lighter in colour.
Stretching over 500 km of coastline from the Ugab River in the south to the Kunene River on the border with Angola in the north, this 2-million hectare national park is known as one of the most inhospitable and least visited places on earth. It is not an easy place to get to and has very strict regulations about access, to protect the delicate desert environment.
The park is divided into two zones. The southern area is accessible to the public and the northern area, of which a small section can be accessed solely by one operator and only by strictly-regulated fly-in safaris.
Extending from the Ugab River to the Hoanib River, this stretch covers a length of approximately 210 km. The park extends inland no more than 40 km.
There are two gates into the park, one in the south, entering through the West Coast Recreational Area and the other in the east from Damaraland. Day visitors are allowed between sunrise and sunset and are not allowed to access the two campsites at Torra Bay and Terrace Bay.
A number of shipwrecks can be seen driving through the southern area of the park, but for the best views, you’d need to visit the park either on a fly-in safari or go on a scenic flight. This desolately beautiful area features spectacular sand dunes, multiple river beds (usually dry) and an array of plants, birds and wildlife.
Northern Skeleton Coast National Park
Often referred to as the Skeleton Coast Wilderness, the area extends north from the Hoanib River to the Kunene River, on Angola’s border. This stretches about 290 km along the coast.
Due to the extreme fragility of the desert environment, this area was proclaimed a no-access area by the government when the park was established in the late 1960s. One private operator is allowed into a small area, measuring 90 km by 30 km, and access to this exclusive and remote camp is only by air.
The temperature in the Skeleton Coast National Park is not as exceedingly hot as the rest of Namibia, due to the cold breeze of the sea. The Benguela Current which flows through the Atlantic along the Namibian coast sees to this. Daytime temperatures are usually around the low 20s (Celcius) in summer and high teens, in winter.
Dense fog is a regular occurrence and lends an even more eerie character to this desolately beautiful place.
The sunsets in the desert are, of course, indescribably spectacular.
While there are various campsites, lodges and guesthouses along the Skeleton Coast, most visitors choose to do a day visit and stay in the quaint seaside village of Swakopmund.
In the Skeleton Coast National Park, there are only two places to stay, and only in the southern part of the park. A campsite at Torra Bay is open during the tourist season (December, January) and has very basic amenities only. Everything, including water, has to be brought in. It is a favourite fishing spot. A little further up at Terrace Bay, there are chalets. The resort also has a shop, bar, restaurant and petrol facilities.
In the northern section - fly-in only - there is one luxury tented camp.
The dirt and salt road out of Swakopmund up towards the Skeleton Coast National Park is dangerous when wet. 4X4 vehicles are preferred for travel, with sufficient spares and water.
While tracks do lead off into the desert from the main road, it is not advised to take these unless you are with a seasoned desert traveller who knows the area.
Do not attempt to drive across the salt pans, even in a 4X4. Despite their hard and flat appearance, many a 4X4 has found itself stuck fast.
Please do not drive anywhere but along the road, as the environment is incredibly sensitive and has been irrevocably destroyed by uncaring drivers already.
The airport at Walvis Bay, which has both domestic and some international flights, is 35 km from Swakopmund.
Fly-in safaris and air trips over the Skeleton Coast Park are offered by various providers.
For an idea of the vastness of the area and a glimpse of the restricted northern parts of the park, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
A number of items are essential for a visit to the Skeleton Coast. They include:
Use the Google map to explore Skeleton Coast. Feel free to Print the Street Map when you're ready.
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