Skeleton Coast National Park
The Skeleton Coast (German: Skelettküste) is the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean coast of Namibia and south of Angola from the Kunene River south to the Swakop River, although it is sometimes used to describe the entire Namib Desert coast. The Bushmen of the Namibian interior called the region “The Land God Made in Anger”, while Portuguese sailors once referred to it as “The Gates of Hell”. The Skeleton Coast is so named for all the ghostly shipwrecks that are beached on these remote and inaccessible white shores. This 2 million hectare park is one of the most inhospitable and least visited places on earth – a challenge for those on a Namibia safari. To get there by road entails an equally tough drive through the rugged mountains of Damaraland.
On the coast the upwelling of the cold Benguela current gives rise to dense ocean fogs (called “cassimbo” by the Angolans) for much of the year. This fog accounts for the many shipwrecks and the unique ecosystem which gives life to most unusual plants. The strange ‘Elephant’s Foot’ plant anchors itself in rock crevices while desert succulents like lithops, look exactly like pebbles until a tiny yellow flower emerges. The winds blow from land to sea, rain fall rarely exceeds 10mm annually (.39 inches) and the climate is inhospitable. There is a constant, heavy surf on the beaches. In the days of human-powered boats it was possible to get ashore through the surf but impossible to launch from the shore. The only way out was by going through a marsh hundreds of miles long and only accessible through a hot and arid desert.
The coast is named for the bleached whale and seal bones which covered the shore when the whaling industry was still active, as well as the skeletal shipwrecks caused by rocks offshore in the fog. More than a thousand vessels of various sizes and areas litter the coast. Notable wrecks in the region include the Eduard Bohlen, the Otavi, the Dunedin Star, and Tong Taw.
The coast is generally flat, occasionally relieved by rocky outcrops. The southern section consists of gravel plains, while north of Terrace Bay the landscape is dominated by high sand dunes.
Evidence of some human occupation, in the form of the Strandloper people in the past, is evidenced by shell middens of white mussels found in portions of the Skeleton Coast.
Only 4 wheel drive vehicles dare enter for fear of getting stuck in the soft sand and running out of fresh water, and a fly-in safari is the only other alternative. The attraction for visitors is its untouched and mysterious barren beauty, swept by cold sea breezes and often enveloped in a dense fog.
The windswept dunes and flat plains give way in places to rugged canyons with walls of richly coloured volcanic rock and extensive mountain ranges. Elephants are animals that you would least expect to find here, but they have become specially adapted to their desert home and have even been filmed surfing down sand dunes. Brown hyenas patrol the shoreline and the ubiquitous black-backed jackal maintains a constant lookout for any opportunities. This strange land is worth a visit for the intrepid explorer.
- Stark beauty of the rugged and desolate coastline
- Fascinating desert-adapted plants and animals
- Spectacular fly-in safaris
- Shipwrecks and historical places of interest
- Exceptional fishing
The colony of Cape fur seals is one of the major coastal attractions in the Skeleton Coast. Up to 300,000 seals live and breed at Cape Cross, which is where the first European feet touched Namibian soil – those of Portuguese explorer Diego Cáo.
Fishing along the coast is excellent and there are many rudimentary fishing camps in the recreation area up to the Ugab River, which marks the southern boundary of the Skeleton Coast Park. Copper and cow sharks provide the sport – on tag and release – while delicious line fish include kob, steenbras, blackfish and blacktail.
Desert-adapted flora and fauna is rife: lichens, which are actually a symbiotic relationship of fungi and algae; the fascinating welwitschia; dune-creating dollar bushes; and whole ecosystems in the linear oases along the dry rivercourses. Jackals and the rare brown hyena prey on the seals at Cape Cross and elephant and rhino traverse the eastern parts in search of food and water; kudu, gemsbok, springbok, steenbok, genet and wild cat frequent the vegetated valleys and lure the occasional predator.
The turbulent Benguela Current causes strong winds, shifting sandbanks and powerful undertows that have led to many a sailor’s demise. The shipwrecks along the coast are an eerie testament to the humbling power of nature’s forces – they’re also quite picturesque against the stark desert-and-sea backdrop.
Map of Skeleton Coast National Park