It was their sun-bleached skeletons, especially a high number of whale and seal carcasses, and the remains of thousands of shipwrecks scattered all over the shores that gave the coastline its name. Stretching 500 kilometers between the old German colonial town of Swakopmund in the South and the Angolan border in the North and into the sand dunes of the Namib desert to its East, the Skeleton Coast is virtually uninhabited and thoroughly untamed. The eerie coastline has long been considered a dangerous area for naval vessels due to the unpredictable Benguela current and the persistent foggy weather that clouds the coast for most of the year. As part of the northern Namib Desert, the Skeleton Coast, is arguably one of the loneliest stretches of coastline in Africa, and certainly among the continent’s most fascinating and untouched wilderness areas.
The name of this the elusive coastline was introduced by John Henry Marsh in his book about the dramatic rescue operation of the sinking Dunedin Star (a 530-foot-long British liner) that took place before Namibia’s shore. The book, published in 1944, eventually became the beginning of the name Skeleton Coast. As described by Marsh, the seaboard has the extraordinary power to sink ships before they reach the shores. The wreck of Dunedin Star is still visible today, as well as other strewn vessels along the coast – the Eduard Bohlen, the Otavi, and Tong Taw to name a few. The area is the world’s largest ship graveyard. The skeletons of an estimated 500 ships are scattered along the coast, from wooden Portuguese galleons that were submerged hundreds of years ago to modern steel-hulled vessels. With some of them buried deep in the dune-filled landscape, far from the foggy shore. Not surprising then, that the early Portuguese sailors once referred to the coast as ‘The Gates of Hell’, while Namibia’s indigenous Khoisan bushmen referred to it as ‘The Land God Made in Anger’.
The Skeleton Coast is protected within an acclaimed national park established in 1971, covering nearly 310 miles of coastline, from the Angola border south to the Swakop River near Swakopmund. This 6,500 square mile park, which is possibly the longest, skinniest, and most inhospitable one in Africa, features clay castles in the Hoarusib region, salt pans near Agate Mountain, and a large seal colony at Cape Cross. There are only few places on Earth where the desert meets the ocean. Scenery varies from lengthy beaches and towering sand dunes to rocky coastal valleys, oasis-like springs and sandy peninsulas that jut into the South Atlantic. Thus, making the Skeleton Coast as one-of-a-kind destinations, it is not for just anyone. It offers experiences that are unlike any others. The area is alien and foreboding, and this is its charm. It is so the most remote and sparsely populated places on the planet, that it challenges only adventurous visitors to truly take it in. Because of the highly sensitive environment and serious conservation efforts, not all of the Skeleton Coast is accessible to people. Just 800 visitors per year are allowed to visit the northern section. Certain areas (north of Mowe Bay) are off limits to any visitors, while the southern parts, entrances between the Ugab and Hoanib rivers, require permits. Accommodation in the park is provided in a rest camp at Terrace Bay, previously a diamond-mining settlement, and at the Torra Bay camping site (open only from 1 December to 31 January). Overnight visitors must be in possession of a valid reservation for Terrace Bay or Torra Bay. Visitors with a 4WD vehicle are only allowed to go as far as the Ugab River Gate (196km from Swakopmund). Access is strictly controlled, and guided excursions are the only way to explore. Skeleton Coast is the only place on Earth where a lucky, well-timed visitor can hear the roar of the sand dunes. Air trapped between billions of grains of sand creates a low rumble that has many tourists looking up thinking there’s a jetliner passing above. Skeleton Coast is also an ideal spot for surfers seeking endless summer waves. These waters off Namibia’s coast is incredibly cold, difficult to get to, and full of sharks. The Benguela current from the south produces some of the strongest surf and longest barrels in the world, it will take determined surfers 200 kilometers out. Most of the prime surf spots are south of Swakopmund (around Luderitz and Walvis Bay), but fearless types can head up to Skeleton Coast hotspots such as Cape Cross and Ovahimba Point. Based in Swakopmund, Element Riders offers surfing safaris up the Skeleton Coast, as well as surfing lessons and competitions.
In terms of wildlife, the untamed desert environment means that such a hostile region does not conjure images of flourishing wildlife. Yet, it is one of the few places on Earth where elephants, black rhinos, giraffes, and lions are found together in a desert environment. The famous “desert elephants”, for example, are known to travel between feeding-grounds and waterholes as much as 70km (45 miles) apart. These large animals have all managed to adapt to the desert surroundings, but perhaps not quite so successfully as the Namaqua chameleon, who spend their lives waiting for the fog beetles to come out during the sea fog. Marine life off the Atlantic Coast is abundant with seals and sea birds and the waters that are touched by the icy Benguela current are filled with fish. Up to 250,000 Cape fur seals gather at Cape Cross Seal Reserve at any given time. Visitors can see them roaring, lazing in the sun, or fighting and mating via a 200-meter-long platform at the visitor centre.
There are generally two feasible ways to explore the Skeleton Coast. Driving north up the coast from Swakopmund will take visitors through some of the stark landscapes of the National West Coast Tourist Recreation Area before reaching the seal colonies at Cape Cross. Further north and six hours from Swakopmund visitors will be immersed in wilderness of the National Park, with Terrace Bay being the last feasible place to stay. The second popular option is to explore through fly-in safari through the Schoeman family-owned Skeleton Coast Safaris who have operated tours here since 1977. Through a thrilling combination of light aircraft flights with birds-eye views over the coast and Land Rovers that take the guest to the desert-based camps where they will stay in the heart of the unique natural environment. Fly past flamingo, over weaving patterns of ancient rivers and waterways, bright multi-coloured swathes of sand that peak and trough, and mountain ranges that etch into the distant horizon – this is for many, the most breath-taking way to explore.
Skeleton Coast can be visited throughout the year, but the ideal time is during the warmer months from October to March. These months see a little bit of rain, which keeps the skies clear. Mornings are less foggy and it’s warmer at night than in the winter months. However, wildlife viewing is a less productive at that time.
Whilst the Skeleton coast is notorious for being harsh and desolate. Yet it’s undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places on Earth, the images can only capture minutiae of what is an unfathomably vast place that must be experienced in person to fully appreciate its grandeur. It’s an incredible place to visit for adventure seekers, animal lovers, historians, and photographers alike. The Skeleton Coast is home to a delicate ecosystem that deserves the respect of all visitors. It is a protected area for a reason.