Driving the Skeleton Coast conjures up images of ships wrecked in foggy coves, and dunes crashing into the sea. But it was experiencing life on the edge that really caught our imagination.


Trapped between the Atlantic Ocean and the central plains of Namibia, the Skeleton Coast it 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.

And it wasn’t derelict wrecks or scattered bones that caught our imagination, but the barren slowly changing scenery and the struggle for life in this bleak place.

WHAT IS THE SKELETON COAST?

The Skeleton Coast is the coastline of Namibia that runs north from the Swakop River in Swakopmund to the Kuene River on the Angolan border. The majority of this area is within the 16,500 square kilometre Skeleton Coast National Park. The park itself is split into two areas, the southern section (south of Terrace Bay Resort) is accessible to independent travellers and day visitors, the northern section – designated a wilderness area – requires special permits from Windhoek.

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.

But, as navigation techniques improve, fewer and fewer ships are succumbing to the perils of the coast. Because of the relentless pounding of the sea, most of the ships that met their fate here have long since broken up and disappeared. For the hopeful traveller searching for a coastline full of shipwrecks, driving the Skeleton Coast may be a bit of a disappointment.

Some wrecks, like the iconic Edward Bohlen is outside the Skeleton Coast south of Walvis Bay, and can only be seen on a flight or a guided 4×4 drive. Others, like The Dunedin Star, are in the far north of the park, where access requires joining tours with special permits.

Nevertheless, there are still a few left to discover on your own.

Just south of Henitesbaai we see the the Zeila, a boat sold for scrap metal that came detached from its towing line in 2008 and ran ashore. Here it remains, sitting pathetically in the sand being lashed by waves as its masts provide a popular rest stop for birds.

Just south of Ugab Gate is the wreck of the Winston. We take the long bouncy side road to get there but find almost all of it has washed away. North of the gate we pull off the main road and walk down to the small remains of the South West Seal, a 90-tonne South African fishing vessel that caught fire in 1976. Today it looks more like a large canoe.

A few other fragments lie along the coast that follows the road. But it’s difficult to find them and doing so requires a low tide and a keen eye. Times have changed, and the old images of a coast littered with wrecks need to be updated as well.

One of the best wrecks is not a ship at all but an oil rig. In the late 60’s and 70’s Ben du Preez and Jack Scott came looking for oil. Digging down to almost 1,700m, they found nothing. Disgruntled with their lack of oil wealth, they packed their bags and left this heaving hulk of metal in the middle of the desert.

STINKING CAPE CROSS SEAL COLONY

We smell the Cape Cross Seal Colony from miles away. Thousands and thousands of seals produce an enormous stench and a cacophony of sound. Boisterously they make their way to and from the sea to feed on hake, mackerel and lantern fish; then squabble amongst themselves for the prime spots of land. At any time of year it is noisy, exciting and entertaining.

But it comes to a head in the last few months of the year. In October, males mark out territory on land 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 bodyweight.

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 Nov / Dec.

The car park at the Cape Cross Seal Colony is surrounded by seals. We coax them aside to get through the entrance gate that leads to the 200m walkway which takes us deeper into the colony. It is a remarkable sight. Seals headbutt each other and bicker for position, the noise is intense and the smell extreme. Looking out, there are seals almost as far as the eye can see.


Cape Cross Seal Colony / 10:00 – 17:00; Price: N$80 per person + N$10 per car.

THE MARCHING DUNES OF THE SKELETON COAST

For many, the Skeleton Coast conjures up images of undulating orange dunes crashing into the sea. While true of the northern end of the park, it is not the view you see as you drive the southern section.

Here the scenery is stark, desolate and a little unsettling. 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, but certainly not eye-catchingly beautiful.

There are some sand dunes but not the golden dunes of the Namib desert. Here they are grey marching dunes that are blown across the gravel plains. Getting out of the car and exploring a little on foot, we find them carrying insects, lizards and rodents. Many surviving on the moisture of the sea fog. At Terrace Bay (as far north as you can go by car) the dunes do finally meet the sea, but in small grey mounds, not the eye-catching beauty of Sossusvlei.

If you came to Namibia looking for where golden orange sand dunes meet the Atlantic sea, then self-driving the southern section of the Skeleton Coast will not deliver. Instead, you’re looking for the Sandwich 4×4 tour that runs out of Walvis Bay.

SEARCHING FOR LIFE IN DRY RIVER BEDS

In spite of being right next to the sea, there is 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 if you take your time and search hard, you’ll be amazed to find that life can exist. River beds dry for most of the year form tiny natural pools as underground water seeps to the surface. These waterholes bring life.

We pull off at the Hoanib River and find a pool with Egyptian Geese, Moorhens, and other small waders. Further north we hop in and out of the car to explore the wide delta of the Uniab River, an area with a number of reed-fringed pools. Quietly exploring on foot, we see 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.

STORY-SWAPPING WITH FISHERMEN AT TERRACE BAY RESORT

Terrace Bay Resort is the end of the road for the independent traveller driving the Skeleton Coast. It’s a desolate place. Our chalet sits watch over the grey gravel; out to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s one of a handful of small huts scattered across the resort. It’s peaceful and remote. The pace is slow.

Fishermen from up and down the Namibian coast, and some from South Africa, use Terrace Bay as their storage point for their catch and somewhere to sleep on their long trips away from home. They pull in, pile out of their 4×4 and unload their fish into massive freezers. Cheesy pop music blares from their car radio.

In the restaurant for dinner, it’s us, another two tables of German tourists and the fishermen. Greetings from previous guests make up the interior decorating. Their messages – graffitied on the wall – cover it from floor to ceiling. It gives the restaurant an occupied feel. Haunted almost.

We’re pleased to see a very short menu, nothing too fancy and everything very achievable. Despite being on a fishing coast, eating fish isn’t a great option because it’s usually frozen as soon as it’s caught – the cost of living in a large dry country.

After dinner the fishermen make the rounds, going table by table to say hello to all the guests, in at least 3 different languages. Talk moves to football (England are losing to Spain on the TV) and our new friends give the Terrace Bay Resort a very friendly, comfortable feel.

It’s not a glamorous resort. At all. But the friendly atmosphere, wide open spaces and expansive views across the ocean make it well worth the trip.


Info / Terrace Bay Lodge is a government-run camp, bookings can be made here.

FROM GREY PLAINS TO TOWERING MESAS IN DAMARALAND

The endless desolation of rock, sand and gravel is the hallmark of driving the Skeleton Coast, but as we drive inland on C39 towards Damaraland, the landscape slowly changes. The flat plains start to rise, allowing more clouds to accumulate.

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 enter the Torra Conservancy and the spirit-level flat gravel horizons finally give way to hard red basalt rock. The rock creates definition in the landscape as towering mesas are cut by deep valleys.

It’s a truly glorious scene. A scene we share over lunch with a giraffe chewing on the leaves of a tree as a family of baboons sauntered by. It was one of our top moments in Namibia.

DRIVING THE SKELETON COAST

If you drive the Skeleton Coast to see shipwrecks in rocky coves, or for glorious orange sand dunes falling into the sea, then don’t. The wrecks are few and far between and difficult to get to, and the dunes are nowhere near as impressive as those at Sandwich Harbour.

But you should come here anyway.

Come to the Skeleton Coast 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 discuss the woes of English football. Come to see nothing, hear nothing and do nothing.

That will really be something.


THE DETAILS / DRIVING THE SKELETON COAST

Entrance to the Skeleton Coast National Park is either through Ugab Gate to the south or Springbokwasser to the east.

Ugabmund / entry 7:30-15:00; exit 7:30-19:00
Springbokwasser / entry 7:30-17:00; exit 7:30-19:00

 

There are three possible permits to visit the Skeleton Coast National Park:

  1. The transit permit between the two gates is free and can be obtained at either entrance gate. But this permit is just for transit. You cannot drive on the road from Torra Bay to Terrace Bay, so you cannot visit the Uniab River delta.
  2. The overnight permit for those staying at Terrace Bay Resort can be obtained at either entrance gate. You will need to provide evidence of your booking and the permit costs: N$80 per person, N$10 per car on top of your accommodation. You can drive up to Terrace Bay, but not any further north.
  3. To visit any other part of the park then you will need to obtain a permit in advance from the National Parks office in Windhoek.

Terrace Bay Resort has a set menu restaurant, bar and small shop. Accommodation is in chalets overlooking the sea and includes breakfast and dinner.

The drive from Swakopmund to Ugab Gate is 2 hours and 20 minutes, from Ugab Gate to Terrace Bay 2 hours and 10 minutes, and from Terrace Bay to Springbokwasser 1 hour and 20 minutes.

Petrol is available at Palmwag to the east, Mile 108 to the south and Terrace Bay (for guests). The drive can be made in any type of car, although a high clearance vehicle or 4×4 is helpful if you want to explore some of the side tracks.

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Driving the skeleton coast in Namibia to Terrace Bay and through Northern Damaraland / Skeleton Coast drive / #namibia #skeletoncoast

Driving the skeleton coast in Namibia to Terrace Bay and through Northern Damaraland / Skeleton Coast drive / #namibia #skeletoncoast

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