The Skeleton Coast
Fewer than 800 outsiders visit the remote, harsh and absolutely breath taking northern Skeleton Coast annually. Access is via light aircraft and you’ll be utterly “off the map” for as long as you’re there. Expect to pay top dollar for an experience that registers with seasoned African travellers and safari professionals as one of the most exceptional journeys available in Africa.
the country’s bleak and savagely inhospitable northern seaboard, the Skeleton Coast has been a maritime graveyard for unwary ships over the centuries. Surviving sailors came ashore only to die in the pitiless wastes of the Namib Desert.
Today the far north is home to the Skeleton Coast National Park, conserving this rare location and sharing its drama, the solitude and outstanding natural beauty with a few visitors and conservationists.
- The northern Skeleton Coast Wilderness between the Hoanib (Mowe Bay) and Kunene Rivers makes up nearly 70% of the Skeleton Coast National Park. This truly desolate region provides a realistic chance of seeing desert elephant, rhino, giraffe and lion but is strictly off-limits to independent travellers and land access is only via fly-in safari.
- In the easily accessible south, the National West Coast Recreation Area is a frequent haunt of regional fishermen providing excellent angling. Cape Cross Seal Reserve north of Hentie’s Bay is the country’s best known breeding colony of Cape fur seals. The Ugab River Hiking Trail is a 3-day hike across the coastal plain into the jagged mountains and canyons of the interior.
The Skeleton Coast is named for the bones of whales and seals which have been bleached in the sun, a relic from times when whaling was a much greater industry than it is today. The shells of more than a thousand ships which have been claimed by heavy fog and rocks also hauntingly cling to the coastline. Sandy rivers reach the sea in several places along this coast, marking a series of green ribbons that randomly streak the land. Beside the sea, highly specialised vegetation such as lithops and lichen thrive on the air-borne moisture, whilst there are large seal colonies at Cape Cross and Frio that’s worth a visit.
The Skeleton Coast is one of the most infamous stretches of coastline along the west coast of Africa – it receives its name from the rusting skeletons of hundreds of ships that met their doom in the heavy fog and rocks offshore. The sun-bleached bones of whales and seals also haunt the expanse of sand and waves; relics from the days of extensive whale hunting.
Part of the Namib Desert, it is found along the northern part of the Atlantic Coast. Much of the area is covered by the Skeleton Coast National Park.
Sand rivers that bisect the Namib Desert reach the sea in several places along this coast, giving the end point of green, lush ribbons that randomly streak the land. These would have been a shipwrecked sailor’s only hope of living if they had found themselves on the stark beach of the Skeleton Coast. Supporting whole ecosystems, the rivers that are running underground in these areas are sometimes forced out of the sand by impermeable rock, giving valuable sources of water that are important to many different animals living in the area.
Animals that are supported include desert elephant and black rhino, as well as gemsbok (oryx), kudu, springbok, steenbok, jackals, genets and small wild cats. The brown hyena is also common in these areas, although it is hard to see. Sometimes giraffe, zebra, lion and cheetah will appear, with the predators using the valleys as hunting grounds. In the past the lions strayed onto the beach to hunt seals, but lions haven’t been seen on the beach for many years.
Beside the sea, highly specialised vegetation such as lithops and lichen thrive on the moisture on the air, giving an extremely eye-pleasing variety of colours on the ground. To the south, brown and red gravel plains are covered in lichen gardens; a stunning array of colours including reds, oranges, vivid greens, dark browns, greys and blacks that will captivates the eye. These lichens are not actually plants, but a symbiotic partnership of algae and fungi, the latter acting as a foundation upon which algae can grown on – whilst algae serves as an easy food supply for the fungi. In the desert they can take on the form of plants, or just cover the gravel, whilst on the beaches they coat the sand.
Damp early mornings are the best time to look at these fields, as the lichen will be moist and lively; for those who want to see them at their best during the day, stopping and pouring some water over a patch will bring about a miraculous transformation as the seemingly flat flakes uncurl and come to life before your eyes! An alien planet almost…
The gemsbok (oryx) has very limited sources of water from either the scarce rivers or by collecting moisture in their nostrils from the sea fog which comes inland overnight and settles on the land. Many of the reptiles and insects collect moisture the same way.
Other highlights of this area include the large seal colony at Cape Fria – birthing time is late November to early January when the great, smelly mass of seals can be seen fighting, fishing and rearing their pups at close quarters. Jackal hang around on the fringes with vultures circling vicariously overhead.
Enormous sanddunes are to the north of the coast which include the Roaring Dunes and the dunes provide many hours of entertainment in a 4×4 Landrover as the photograph on the Destinations page shows.
There are only two small, exclusive camps in this area and the best way to experience this unique landscape is to take a 4 day fly-in safari.
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The Ovahimba people of the Kunene region and southern Angola are semi-nomadic pastoral people who’ve inhabited the area over the last five centuries. They’ve maintained most of their traditions despite recent political change in Namibia. Their traditional hairstyles, intricately designed jewellery and red ochre with fat body lotions set them apart in the larger towns of Puros and Opuwo. Read more about the Himba people here
Cape seal males fight heroic chest-to-chest battles in mid-October to establish breeding colonies. Pregnant females will arrive on shore to give birth by early December. Some males lose up to half their body weight during the annual slimathon, but its worth it to control up to 70 females! Beware the ‘dash to gag’ smell which is a pungent combination of fish, seaweed, poo and seals.
The dense ocean fog (called “cassimbo” by the Angolans) which rolls in daily through most of the year together with constant heavy surf and rocky offshore outcrops has resulted in over a 1000 vessels being destroyed along the coast here. Early sailors who survived the waves then became stranded on a desolate shoreline hemmed in by high dunes known as the “Gates of Hell”.
The northern end-point on the C34 road into the Skeleton Coast National Park just 10km north of the ephemeral Hoanib River mouth. It serves as the park’s HQ approximately 80km north of Terrace Bay and is strictly off-limits to casual and independent travellers.
Möwe Bay houses a small museum recording the history of local shipwrecks with artefacts and skeletal remains of wildlife found in the area. Remnants of the Suiderkus wreck are found on a nearby beach which is strewn with semi-precious stones and pebbles. The local seal colony provides rich pickings for scavenging hyaena, jackal and on occasion desert-adapted lion.
Several springs forming part of the linear oasis system with in the Hoanib valley are located nearby within the National Park.
Marks the end of a 270km long journey into the Atlantic from a vast 17,200 km² catchment area. Every few years heavy rain in the hinterland causes a massive flood wave to pass through the valley. Most of this seeps into a large sub-surface aquifer but in really wet years the river flows into the Atlantic. (Special permit required for access)
One of the larger springs found in the linear system of oases in the Hoanib dunefields
Part of the linear oasis system in the lower reaches of the valley
Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp managed by Wilderness Safaris is located at a classic spot straddling the Palmwag Concession and the Skeleton Coast National Park in one of the most remote areas of the Kaokoveld.
Africa’s wild and unexplored areas whilst increasingly rare are still available to intrepid travellers. These largely uninhabited places are all remote, often with limited or zero road access. Expect to travel roughly or pay a premium if done in safe comfort. You’re not going to see tourist crowds, you’re very likely to be in the company of top professional guides, rich rewards are a certainty.
The Kaokoveld is home to one of Africa’s two populations of desert-adapted elephants. Small herds are wide ranging and are regularly seen in the Huab, Hoanib, Hoarusib, and Khumib river beds. Regularly surviving without drinking for days at a time during drought conditions they’re selective feeders too and rarely knock over trees, strip bark or break branches like other elephants. Read more about desert elephants here.
The long term conservation of a unique population of desert-adapted lions in the Kunene region has been the focal point of Dr Flip Stander’s research project since 1998. Despite harsh conditions lions are highly adaptive, resilient and breed well in the right conditions. With expansion of their range human conflict in Kaokoland was inevitable and has demanded careful management. Read more about desert lions here.