The Skeleton Coast is a vast, harsh stretch of coastline lined with ghostly shipwrecks.
The Skeleton Coast is a 'no man's land' where hot desert meets cold sea along an inhospitable shoreline. Here there is no drinking water or food. It is the most inhospitable part of Namibia. On the beach lies numerous wrecks - a reminder of the many disasters that have befallen seafarers on this coast. From the Orange River to Walvis Bay, the Skeleton Coast fringes the Namib, which is surely one of the harshest landscapes in the world. The area is swept by cruel winds with vicious sand storms.
The attraction of this remote area of the Skeleton Coast National Park lies in the color, changing moods and untouched profile of its landscape. Its aura of mystery and mightiness is largely due to the dense coastal fog and cold sea breezes caused by the cold Benguela ocean current from the arctic, and the bones scattered on its beaches from where the park derives its name. The landscape in the park ranges from sweeping vistas of windswept dunes to rugged canyons with walls of richly colored volcanic rock and extensive mountain ranges. Its level coastline characterizes the park, only occasionally broken by scattered rocky outcrops.
The Skeleton Coast National Park, a seemingly hostile, barren environment, will allow you to experience the mystery and subtlety of nature hidden in its fragile mistiness if you take the time and utilize all your powers of observation. It is a fascinating area, with its history of rumors of "diamond rich" deposits that lured the hopeful and proved to be an illusion.
It might sound harsh, but one of the reasons that the Skeleton Coast is so mesmerizing is because it is almost uninhabitable. It makes it so much more amazing that plants and creatures such as lions and elephants cannot be deterred by the environment. Instead, they adapt to ensure their survival.
It is almost impossible to imagine fauna and flora to live in this environment. If you didn’t see it with your own eyes, you would probably not believe that people have been inhabiting this area for hundreds of years as well. Venture out to the Kunene region where you can meet the Himba people.
There is something very uncanny, and yet absolutely mesmerizing about the whale, seal, ship and even human carcasses that are strewn across the coastline – half disappearing into the sand, half obscured by fog. It is a feeling of immense humility, as you realize, again, that Mother Nature is not to be toyed with.
Guests traveling to the Skeleton Coast usually do so after traveling to the more southern areas of Namibia. Nevertheless, you will be welcomed at OR Tambo International Airport and assisted in transferring to their flight to Namibia. If you are flying directly to the Skeleton Coast, Walvis Bay or Swakopmund would be best. If the destination is a part of a larger Namibian tour, you would most likely travel to Windhoek first.
The Skeleton Coast constitutes approximately one-third of Namibia’s coastline, and stretches approximately 650km from Swakopmund to the Angolan border. Guests will be transported to the various destinations on their itinerary through this vast stretch of land via private, air-conditioned vehicle driven by an experienced guide.
The Skeleton Coast can be visited throughout the year, but is at its best in the spring and summer, from October to March, when the skies are clearer and there is much less fog than in the cold winter months. If you are visiting one of the more wildlife-rich parks in the area as part of your safari package, however, the winter months are more ideal, as the wildlife is not as abundant in the warmer months.
In the dry winter season, it can be very foggy and strong cold winds press the fog inland. The weather is quite comfortable during the day, although the evenings and early mornings are usually cold. The summer is the best time for bird viewing, and the afternoons are relatively warm, but it is not as uncomfortably warm as other areas of Namibia.
The name 'Skeleton Coast' was given to this desolate stretch of land due to all the whale and seal bones that littered the coast when large scale whale hunting was in its heyday and seals were hunted for oil, fur and some fishy tasting protein. The first recorded use of the name 'Skeleton Coast' was by a newspaperman, Sam Davies, in 1933. This coast is also no stranger to human skeletons of sailors that became stranded in this unforgiving landscape. Before that, the Portuguese sailors referred to this area as ‘the Gates of Hell’ and, earlier still, the Stone Aged Bushmen called it ‘The Land God Made in Anger’. The area is best known for the shipwrecks dotting the coast. More than a thousand ships have met their end here.
The reason such a large amount of ships were stranded here is due to the dense fog around the coastline. The fog is caused by the cold, moist air traveling over the icy waters of the Benguela current that collides with the warm air of the Hadley Cell. On average, the region experiences 180 days of fog a year. Small boats could land on the beach, but the strong Atlantic surf then made it impossible for the boats to launch again. An unnamed vessel that stranded in 1860 was only found in the 1940’s. Alongside it were a dozen skeletons and a slate reading: “I am proceeding to a river 60 miles north, and should anyone find this and follow me, God will help him.”
For such a barren landscape, there is an unexpected amount of wildlife. The largest land mammal of all, the famous desert-adapted elephant, survives in this harsh environment. The elephants have even been seen sliding down the enormous sand dunes. These elephants have been known for going without water for three days, then drinking up to 230 liters of water when they find it. Elephants and baboons dig down in riverbeds to gain access to water that then enables other species to quench their thirst. Even the endangered black rhinoceros makes a living here. The most abundant mammal would be the Cape fur seal, of which approximately 250 000 can be found along the coastline.
Even lions have been documented visiting the coast to utilize the abundance of seals. Scavengers include black-backed jackal and brown hyena that comb the coast for carrion. Killer whales hunt the seals in the water, and humpback whales and Heaviside’s dolphins have been spotted. Desert-adapted gemsbok and springbok are the main antelope species in the area. Birds are plentiful, with 247 species already documented. The largest bird of all - the ostrich - can be found here, and large colonies of marine birds such as cormorants nest on some of the old shipwrecks. It is also one of the only places that the near endemic Damara turn can be found. Highly specialized desert reptiles and insects are plentiful.
The Skeleton Coast is renowned for its hauntingly beautiful terrain. The landscape includes largely untouched wind swept dunes, rocky gullies and mountain ranges. The regular occurrence of a dense coastal fog adds to the mystery and wonder of the region and its features. Whale and seal carcasses as well as the remains of various ships that met their end on the coast litter the sands, and have become as much a part of the landscape as the sands in which they lie. The Skeleton Coast stretches from the mouth of the Ugab River north to the Kunene River, and makes up almost a third of the Namibian coastline.
The northern parts of the Skeleton Coast have been established as a wilderness area, and guests can only visit by means of exclusive safari tours. The area includes the clay castles of the Hoarisib and the salt pans of the Agate Mountain. The vegetation is classified as Northern Namib and is relatively sparse, the most common being the dollar bush and brakspekbos and various forms of lichen. Most of the plant species found on the Skeleton Coast rely on the coastal fog that is blown in from the Atlantic for water. The area crosses four rivers, named the Ugab, Huab, Koichab and Uniab. The rivers rarely flow, and when they do, only for a short period of time.
Exploring the vastness of the Skeleton Coast is best done by driving in a 4x4 vehicle. It is the easiest way to cover a large amount of territory in the shortest amount of time and offers spectacular viewing and photographic opportunities of the different landscape. A scenic flight over the region give visitors an altogether altered perspective, which can best be described as otherworldly. If you want to keep your feet firmly on the ground, guided nature walks are an excellent way to immerse yourself in the startling scenery and inspect the vegetation, mammals and birds that have adapted to survive in the harsh desert environment.
The coastline itself is one of the main attractions and visitors can explore the beaches where numerous shipwrecks lie broken and bleached under the covers of the fog. The Cape Cross Seal Reserve is home to a large breeding colony of Cape fur seals. There are estimated to be between 150 000 to 200 000 seals in the reserve. The area has a very distinctive smell and sound, and you can be sure that you won’t forget it. Guests can also visit the nearby Cape Cross, where the Portuguese navigator Diego Cão erected a stone cross in 1486. Anglers can make their way to Henties Bay, which is one of the region’s premier fishing spots.
Travel to South Africa for an unforgettable African tour, safari or honeymoon.
Botswana is a safari enthusiast's paradise, replete with wilderness and wildlife.
Namibia's travel destinations range from wild Etosha to seaside Swakopmund.
Zambia's isolated national parks make for exceptionally authentic safaris.
Zimbabwe is sought-after for its spectacular view of the Victoria Falls.
Mozambique's 1000km coastline is flush with pristine beaches and coral reefs.