The Skeleton Coast in Namibia conjures up shipwrecks in foggy coves and dunes crashing into the sea. But it was life at the margins that caught our imagination while driving the Skeleton Coast.
Trapped between the Atlantic Ocean and the central plains, the Skeleton Coast in Namibia is one of the driest places on earth. Yet the cold currents propelled on-shore from the Atlantic form a dense fog that covers the coast for over 200 days a year. It’s this fog that has confused captains and wrecked ships.
The name Skeleton Coast comes from the whale and seal bones that litter the beaches. But human bones have also been etched into the land, as stranded sailors struggled to survive in this challenging environment.
Many independent travellers skip driving the Skeleton Coast and head inland to Brandberg and Twyfelfontein. But we decided to explore a truly remote outpost of the world and see if it lived up to expectations.
Here’s what to see exploring the Skeleton Coast, Namibia.
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WHERE IS THE SKELETON COAST?
The Skeleton Coast stretches 500 kilometres on the northern part of the Atlantic Coast in Namibia from Swakopmund to the Swakop River near the Angola border.
WHAT TO DO ON THE SKELETON COAST, NAMIBIA
1 – SKELETON COAST SHIPWRECKS
The thick fog that often envelops this coast has claimed many ships. Over the centuries thousands have been stranded on the rocks and sandbars that stretch out into the sea and many sailors have met a watery grave.
Just south of Henitesbaai you’ll find the Zeila, a boat sold for scrap metal that came detached from its towing line in 2008 and ran ashore.
South of the Ugab Gate is another Skeleton Coast shipwreck: the Winston. It’s a long bouncy side road to get there and almost all of it has washed away. North of the gate and just off the main road are the remains of the South West Seal, a 90-tonne South African fishing vessel that caught fire in 1976.
One of the best Skeleton Coast wrecks is not a ship at all but an oil rig. In the late ’60s and 70’s Ben du Preez and Jack Scott came looking for oil. Digging down to almost 1,700 metres, they found nothing, leaving a hunk of metal in the middle of the Skeleton desert.
2 – CAPE CROSS SEAL COLONY
The thousands of seals at the Cape Cross Seal Colony produce an enormous stench and a cacophony of sound as they make their way to and from the sea to feed on hake, mackerel and lantern fish.
They also fight a lot. In October, males mark out territory to establish breeding colonies. It’s a brutal time, and in the battles to secure their land and protect their females from other intruders, they may lose half their body weight.
In November and December, the pups are born and the colony swells to around 200,000 becoming the largest cape fur seal breeding colony in the world. Within 6 days of giving birth, females are ready to start it all again and begin mating. The pups are born the following November and December.
The car park at the Cape Cross Seal Colony is surrounded by seals. A 200 metre walkway takes you over their colony. It is a remarkable sight. Seals headbutt each other and bicker for position, the noise is intense and the smell extreme.
3 – THE MARCHING DUNES OF THE SKELETON COAST
In the southern section of the Skeleton Coast Park, the scenery is stark and desolate. Wide expanses of flat grey gravel reach to the horizon where it shimmers and distorts from the heat of the earth. It’s impressive in its own inhospitable, bleak way.
It’s a remarkable thing to witness such an stark environment. Getting out of the car and exploring a little on foot, it’s incredible to find insects, lizards and rodents surviving on the moisture of the sea fog.
It’s not beautiful scenery, but thoroughly interesting.
For golden sand dunes that meet the Atlantic sea, head to Sandwich Harbour near Walvis Bay.
4 – LIFE DEFYING THE ODDS IN DRY RIVER BEDS
There s almost no rain on the Skeleton Coast. The cool air from the sea and lack of mountains in the area stop clouds from forming, making it one of the driest places on earth.
With a lack of water, life out here is tough. But, river beds, dry for most of the year, form tiny natural pools as underground water seeps to the surface. These waterholes bring life.
The Hoanib River is a great place to stop on a Skeleton Coast road trip where you’ll find a pool with Egyptian Geese, Moorhens, and other small waders. Further north, explore the wide delta of the Uniab River, an area with a number of reed-fringed pools. Quietly exploring on foot, we saw two flamingos and an ostrich taking a drink, defying the odds in this harsh environment.
Searching the dunes, more signs of life appear. Beetles scurry over the gravel, rodents pop their heads above the surface and birds of prey swirl overhead. A jackal suspiciously roams around while his mate searches the coast for dead seals.
Life is tough here and finding it is hard. But working hard for it makes each sight all the more rewarding.
5 – TERRACE BAY RESORT
Terrace Bay Resort is the end of the road for a road trip on the Skeleton Coast. It’s a desolate place with a handful of small huts sitting on grey gravel looking out to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s peaceful and about as remote as it gets.
Fishermen from up and down the Namibian coast use Terrace Bay as their storage point for their catch and somewhere to sleep on their long trips away from home.
The restaurant at the resort is decorated with messages from previous guests, sribbled on the wall from floor to ceiling. After dinner the fishermen make the rounds, going table by table to say hello to all the guests, in at least 3 different languages.
It’s not a glamorous resort, but the friendly atmosphere, wide-open spaces and expansive views across the ocean make it well worth the trip.
6 – THE DRAMATIC CHANGE OF SCENERY IN DAMARALAND
The endless desolation of rock, sand and gravel is the hallmark of the Skeleton Coast, but as you drive inland on C39 towards Damaraland, the landscape slowly changes. The flat plains start to rise, allowing more clouds to accumulate and evidence of more rain is obvious.
Small patches of soil allow golden grasses and prickly shrubs to grow. The dry river beds are a bit wetter and trees can be found on their banks. Where plants can survive so can animals. Springbok, gemsbok and oryx were dotted on the horizon. Instead of one or two birds, flocks began to gather and swoop on our car.
Exiting the Skeleton Coast National Park at Springbokwasser, we entered the Torra Conservancy and the flat gravel horizons finally give way to hard red basalt rock with towering mesas cut by deep valleys.
It’s a truly glorious scene and one of our top moments in Namibia.
SHOULD YOU DRIVE THE SKELETON COAST?
Drive the Skeleton Coast is a wonderful things to do to see the sheer barrenness of this unique place.
Come to see how men and animals have forged a living. Come to see how – from just a few extra drops of water each year – a landscape can change from grey to red and provide life to creatures great and small. Come to watch the endless battles between seals. Come to chat to the local fisherman and to see and do nothing.
The shipwrecks are few and far between and some quiet difficult to get to, so we wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to see them.
Also, if you’re looking for golden sanddunes crashing into the ocean, you’re looking for Sandwich Harbour, Walvis Bay.
TIPS FOR DRIVING THE SKELETON COAST IN NAMIBIA
Car Hire // The Skeleton Coast can be driven in any car, although a high clearance vehicle or 4×4 is helpful if you want to explore some of the side tracks. Read our driving in Namibia post for helpful tips.
Entrance // Entrance to the Skeleton Coast National Park is either through Ugabmund Gate to the south or Springbokwasser to the east.
Opening times // Ugabmund Gate is open from 7:30 – 15:00 and exit is between 7:30 and 19:00. The Springbokwasser is open from 7:30 to 17:00 and exit is from 7:30 and 19:00.
Supplies // Terrace Bay Resort has a set menu restaurant, bar and small shop. Accommodation is in chalets overlooking the sea and includes breakfast and dinner.
Timings // The drive from Swakopmund to Ugab Gate is 2 hours and 20 minutes, from Ugab Gate to Terrace Bay it’s 2 hours and 10 minutes, and from Terrace Bay to Springbokwasser it’s 1 hour and 20 minutes.
Fuel // Petrol is available at Palmwag to the east, Mile 108 to the south and Terrace Bay (for guests).
SKELETON COAST PERMITS
There are three possible permits you will need to visit the Skeleton Coast National Park.
A transit permit to travel between the two gates is free and can be obtained at either entrance gate. However, this is just for transit. You can’t drive on the road from Torra Bay to Terrace Bay. This means you can’t visit the Uniab River delta on the transit permit.
An overnight permit allows you to stay at Terrace Bay Resort. The permit can be obtained at either entrance gate and you’ll need to provide evidence of your booking at the resort. The costs are N$80 per person ($4.80, €4.30, £3.80) plus N$10 per car on top of your accommodation. The overnight permit allows you to drive up to Terrace Bay, but not any further north.
To visit any other part of the park you will need to obtain a permit in advance from the National Parks office in Windhoek.
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