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Why you should visit Namibia's Skeleton Coast

By Martha Hales

There’s remote, and then there’s the Skeleton Coast in northwest Namibia... 500 kilometres of empty dunes pummelled by Atlantic waves. This patch of coast gets its name from the many shipwrecks whose rusting husks are scattered along the seaboard, but it could just as easily be a reference to the vast emptiness of the area. The whole strip of Namib desert running behind the coast is protected as a national park, and though the majority of the territory is eerily empty, it is possessed of a haunting beauty among its dry dunes and crashing waves. Here we take a look at some of the reasons this destination captures the imagination and weaves a spell on everyone who ventures there.

Shipwreck on skeleton coast

The pristine environment

The Namib is widely believed to be the oldest desert in the world, and has been a dry and barren environment for many millions of years. It stretches around 2,000 kilometres along the Atlantic shore in a strip around 200 kilometres wide, from southern Angola down the entire length of Namibia and on into South Africa. The section known as the Skeleton Coast is the stretch of Namibian coast that runs south from the border with Angola, and it is characterised by high dunes and gravel plains. There is little evidence of human influence beyond the shipwrecks.   

Skeleton Coast in Namibia

The shipwrecks

There are thought to be around 1,000 shipwrecks punctuating the empty Skeleton Coast. Thick coastal fog is a characteristic of this coastline, arising where the chill from the cold Benguela Current meets the desert winds, and it is this fog along with the Atlantic swell which caused so many shipwrecks.

Fog bank on Namibia's Skeleton Coast

Some of the most famous ships which were lost along the Skeleton Coast include the Eduard Bohlen, the Benguela Eagle, and the Dunedin Star.

Edward Bohlen wreck on the Skeleton Coast

Impressive desert adaptations

Those same banks of fog which resulted in so many shipwrecks are also the means of survival for much of the life present in the desert habitats of the Skeleton Coast. Many endemic species have adapted over time to harvest moisture from fog, such as darkling beetles that line themselves up along the crests of dunes during foggy days and angle their bodies so that drops of water roll down their bodies to their mouths. Geckos lick moisture from plants and stones, whilst desert plants have evolved into shapes which maximise the water collection possibilities.

Namib sand gecko on Skeleton Coast

Coastal wildlife

Huge populations of cape fur seals are fascinating to watch at both Cape Cross and Cape Fria, particularly from December to April when they are rearing their pups.

Cape fur seals in Skeleton Coast area

They can survive in such numbers because the cold Benguela Current is rich in nutrients which in turn brings massive shoals of fish and plankton; perfect food for seals as well as several varieties of sea birds. Out in the waves, Heaviside’s dolphins and green turtles are frequent visitors, whilst on shore jackals and hyenas scavenge for meat among the seal colonies.

Black backed jackal hunting on Skeleton Coast

Spectacular stargazing

One definite advantage of spending time exploring such an isolated region as the Skeleton Coast is the lack of light pollution. In fact Namibia has been certified as having one of the darkest skies anywhere on our planet. The lack of cloud cover and light from urban areas means it’s perfect for clear nights of stargazing. If you have even a passing curiosity in astronomy, or you are tempted by the romance of stargazing in the African desert, Namibia should be at the top of your wish list.

Starry sky in Namibia

Desert activities

There are more and more people making the journey to the Skeleton Coast with the sole aim of surfing the huge Atlantic swell in the middle of the wilderness, or kitesurfing across the flawless shoreline. There are numerous breaks and barrels to try for surfers, though the most famous are further south towards Lüderitz.

Kite surfer on Walvis Bay, Namibia

If watersports are not your thing, how about dune bashing in a 4x4, an aerial view of the drama of the coast from a light aircraft or a hot air balloon, or a wilderness safari learning about the pockets of life that survive in this hostile environment. To the north near the Angolan border there are villages of the Himba tribe, some of which can be visited.

Aerial view of seal colony skeleton coast

Make it happen

Such beguiling wilderness regions are rare, and the Skeleton Coast is special for its spellbinding, stark beauty and emptiness. Make it one of the stops on your Namibian itinerary, which our local experts will tailor to your specific requirements. Fill in a brief enquiry form to get started. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.