Skeleton Coast National Park in Namibia

The Skeleton Coast is one of the finest and most unusual coastal wildernesses in the world. It stretches between Swakopmund in the south to the mouth of the Kunene River, marking the border with Angola. The strong currents and swirling fogs of this Atlantic coastline had long been a hazard to shipping and when the term Skeleton Coast was first applied to it in 1933 by newspaperman, Sam Davis, the name stuck. Davis had been reporting on the search for a Swiss airman, Carl Nauer, whose plane had disappeared along the coast while trying to break the Cape Town to London solo air record. No trace was ever found. Today it is the elements previously responsible for so much loss of life - the desert, wide-open space, isolation and solitude - that attract the majority of visitors.

Ins and outs

The park can be entered in the south, from the West Coast Recreational Area, or in the east from Damaraland. Wherever you enter, you must make sure there are sufficient hours of daylight to either travel through the park or reach your camp. Visitors must enter before 1500 and depart no later than 1700. Two hours is the minimum time it takes to cross the park between the two gates.

Day visitors are not permitted to visit
or
Torra Bay
, and if you are staying overnight in these places you will need to show proof of your reservation at the gate. The southern gate, by the Ugab River, is known as
Ugabmund
and is 207 km from Swakopmund; it is a further 162 km to the camp at Terrace Bay. This gate closes at 1500 each day for traffic going as far as Terrace Bay or Springbokwasser. The eastern gate,
Springbokwasser
, is 178 km from Khorixas. The quality of the road heading inland from the gate is not as good as the coast road. Torra Bay is 50 km from the gate, Terrace Bay is 98 km.

Driving through the park is one-way. You cannot leave and depart through the same gate unless you are staying overnight. The reason for this was explained to us as sheer laziness on the part of the staff at each of the gates. They fill in a register of vehicles entering the park and at the end of the day simply fax this list to the other gate so staff can check that all vehicles have left the park. If vehicles were allowed to go in and out of the same gate, a lot more work would be involved! No motorcycles are allowed into the park.

There are only three places to stay within the national park: Terrace Bay, Torra Bay and the upmarket camp run by
Wilderness Safaris
in the far north that can only be reached by plane . Accommodation at Terrace Bay is all-inclusive; Torra Bay is a basic campsite only open December to January - you will need to bring everything with you, even the water for the showers has to be trucked in. During the Christmas period accommodation gets booked up quickly, mostly by local fishermen.
In order to get the most out of the park it is worth making the arduous journey as far north as Terrace Bay.

As in Swakopmund it never gets too hot thanks to the cooling influence of the ocean, but during the winter months it can get cold at night. Petrol is available at Terrace Bay year round and Torra Bay in December-January.

Background

For many people the Skeleton Coast is synonymous with shipwrecks - just about every photograph promoting the wild coastline will include a rusting, beached hull. The Portuguese used to call the area the 'Sands of Hell' and before the days of modern communications and transport this 1600-km coastline represented a real threat to shipping. Sailors knew that if they did survive a wrecked ship then their problems had only just begun. The land behind them was a dry desert, and there were very few known natural sources of drinking water. The few places that did occasionally have drinking water (the riverbeds) were home to wild animals such as lion, leopard and elephant, which in turn represented another threat to the sailors' lives. A third factor that added to the dangers for survivors was the remoteness. Before 1893, when the first people were landed at Swakopmund, there was no settlement of note along more than 1000 km of coastline. Which way would you head off if you had survived? Unfortunately the most spectacular wrecks are all found in the areas which are closed to the public in the far north. A little background to some of the wrecks has been included in the route description below.

Wildlife and vegetation

Between Ugabmund and Terrace Bay the coastal road crosses four westward flowing rivers: the Ugab, Huab, Koichab and Uniab. These rivers only flow when sufficient rain has fallen in the interior, and even then they only flow for a short period. For the rest of the year they represent long narrow oases that are home to migratory birds, animals and the few plants that can flourish in drought condition.

The animals that may be seen in the park have all adapted in different ways to overcome some of the problems the desert creates. The smaller species such as genet, caracal, baboon, springbok, jackal and brown hyena live in the desert all year round; the larger animals, such as black rhino, elephant and lion, tend to migrate along the channels in search of food and water. The lion may well no longer occur along the coast, but when they were roaming the beaches they were known to have fed upon Cape cormorants, seals and the odd stranded whale. Gemsbok, kudu and zebra are occasionally seen inland in the mountainous regions, while at the coast the Uniab Delta is a good location for viewing gemsbok. During low tide, black-backed jackals can be seen on the beach scavenging on dead birds, fish and seals. There is stiff competition for scraps among the hyena, ghost crabs, crows and gulls.

Like much of the wildlife, most of the plants growing in the park occur in the four major riverbeds that dissect the park. Two of the most common shrubs are the dollar bush,
Zygophyllum stapfii
, and brakspekbos,
Zygophyllum simplex
, both of which can be found in the riverbeds. The former is a semi-deciduous shrub with small leaves shaped like a 'dollar' coin. It will only grow where there is some groundwater as it has not adapted to make use of the sea mist. Brakspekbos, a food source for the black rhino, can be recognized by looking for an off-green carpet in a shallow depression where rainwater would drain.

The only other vegetation you are likely to come across is the amazing variety of lichen. The bright orange lichens, which cling to rock outcrops facing the ocean, add a welcome splash of colour to the grey landscape. More than 100 different species have been recorded in the Skeleton Coast National Park, all dependent upon the coastal fog for moisture; in the moist air the plants become soft and many change colour.

Durissa Bay North

As you approach the southern entrance to the Skeleton Coast National Park there is a signpost for the wrecked fishing boat,
Winston
. Do not drive on the salt pans; despite their dry appearance, it is easy to get stuck here. The boundary between the National West Coast Recreation Area and the Skeleton Coast National Park is marked by the Ugab River, which flows into Durissa Bay. The Ugab is one of Namibia's major rivers, rising over 500 km inland, east of Outjo; after good rains it is an important source of water in Damaraland. A skull and crossbones adorns the gate by the Ugabmund park office and this is a good spot to have your photo taken.

As you cross the wide river notice the variety of trees and shrubs growing in the sandy bed. Some of the well-established plants are stunted since they have had to survive in windswept conditions with long periods of moisture stress. Whenever you approach these riverbeds try to be as quiet as possible since there is always a chance of seeing a small herd of springbok resting in the shade or a shy family of kudu browsing the acacia trees.

Once across the river the salt road stays close to shore. One of the first shipwrecks you see is the
South West Sea
, wrecked in 1976. Just after you have crossed the
Huab River
there is a signpost indicating an old
oil rig
. While you will see the remains of various mining ventures along the coast, this is the only
case of oil exploration. In the 1960s Ben du Preez went ahead and erected the rig despite numerous warnings that the scheme was unlikely to succeed. Today the rusty rig lies on its side providing the perfect nesting area for a breeding colony of Cape cormorants. Between September and March visitors are asked to stay in the car park so as not to disturb the birds during the breeding season. On the beach you can visit the wreck of the fishing schooner,
Atlantic Pride
.

About 50 km from the park entrance you reach the point marked
Toscanini
on most maps. This is the site of a derelict
diamond mine
- only a few small diamonds were ever found. Today the legacy of the operations are a few cement slabs which acted as foundations for the buildings and the ruins of the sorting plant. There are a couple more wrecks in the ocean here, but there is little to see.

Soon after crossing the Koichab River, which has more sand than vegetation, there is a junction in the road. This is the only other access road for the Skeleton Coast Park, the C39. A here leads to
Springbokwasser Gate
, 40 km inland. There are some fine sand dunes along this stretch of road as well as some welwitschia plants growing in the dry riverbeds.

Torra Bay

Continuing north on the salt road you reach the seasonal fishing resort, Torra Bay. In the 16th century, Portuguese sailors named it 'Dark Hill' after the dark-capped hills that they could see while they were looking for fresh water. Anyone staying here must be totally self- sufficient, though during the holiday season petrol and basic groceries are available. Aside
from the solitude, the great attraction of this site is the excellent fishing. Despite restrictions,
there has been extensive damage caused by vehicles on the beaches.
During the few months the camp is open it is necessary to book in advance .

Uniab River Delta

Between the temporary camp at Torra Bay and the permanent camp at Terrace Bay is one of the most interesting attractions in the southern part of the Skeleton Coast National Park, the Uniab River Delta. The river has split into five main channels plus a number of reed-
ringed pools that are formed by seepage from the riverbed. After good rains this is the perfect
spot for birders. There are a number of walks in the delta, including a trail to a waterfall and a small canyon, which lie between the road and the beach. Check with the parks authorities on the current situation as the amount of rainfall and the size of the flood can change the lie of the land between seasons. If you hear that there is water here, then it is well worth the drive. Within the delta are several hides and parking spaces, each with a different view of the system. Look out for the shipwreck,
Atlantic
, at the rivermouth.

Terrace Bay

Having enjoyed the delta it is a short drive to the final destination, Terrace Bay. The camp and all the outbuildings were once part of the mining operation owned by Ben du Preez. When the company was declared bankrupt, the state inherited all the facilities at the camp. There is a grocery shop with basic supplies and petrol is also available. The camp is built next to an old mine dump. There is an airfield to the north of the complex. Visitors to the park are allowed to drive a further 14 km along the coast to
Seal Beach
, this being the absolute northern limit for private visitors. At this point you are more than 380 km from Swakopmund, in the heart of the Skeleton Coast National Park.

Skeleton Coast wilderness

When reading about Namibia's desert from Oranjemund to the Angolan border, a recurrent theme is fragility of the desert environment and the need to control people's access to the most sensitive areas. When the Skeleton Coast National Park was proclaimed in 1967 the park was divided into two zones, each covering about 800,000 ha. The southern zone is the 210-km-long coastal strip between the Ugab River in the south and the Hoanib River in the north. The boundary of the park extends no more than 40 km inland. Access to the northern zone is tightly controlled and, for the tourist, limited to those who join the exclusive fly-in safaris organized by the sole concessionaire in Windhoek.

The northern section of the park extends from the Hoanib River to the Kunene River, which forms the border with Angola - a distance of 290 km. This section of the national park is managed as a wilderness area and is sometimes referred to as the Skeleton Coast Wilderness. While the government has chosen to allow one private operator,
Wilderness Safaris
access to this area, there are still tight controls in place on how the operation must be run in order to guarantee minimal environmental impact. Access to the northern section is limited to the area between the Hoarusib and Nadas rivers, a strip of coastline measuring about 90 km long by 30 km wide.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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