Expert Reviews – Skeleton Coast NP
Brian is an award winning travel writer, author of safari books and regular contributor to magazines such as BBC Wildlife and Travel Africa.
Between the Desert and the Deep
Driving westward through the burning dunes of Kaokoland, there comes this extraordinary moment when for the first time you see the green-and white rollers of the Atlantic Ocean crashing on the emptiest shores imaginable. After the heat of the desert hinterland the chill and sea fogs created by the Benguela Current come as a shock to the system. Spume whipped up by the pounding surf rolls away down the beach like tumbleweed, and wherever you look, up and down the coast, the sand is littered with bleached whalebones and ships’ timbers.
Welcome to the Skeleton Coast, the last resting place for countless old shipwrecks and one of the loneliest places on earth. The park itself is a strip of desert up to 40 km wide, running for some 500 km from the Kunene River on the Angolan border down to the Ugab River near Cape Cross. When it was established in 1971, the northern sector was declared as a wilderness area where tourism would be strictly limited, and even today it is accessible only on fly-in safaris. Apart from kelp gulls and oystercatchers, wildlife is more or less confined to Cape fur seals, jackals and brown hyenas, although occasionally a desert-dwelling elephant or a wandering Kunene lion may leave their footprints along the tidelines.
Emma is an award-winning travel writer for Rough Guides, National Geographic Traveller, Travel Africa magazine and The Independent.
The 500km-long strip of Atlantic coast between the Kunene River, on Namibia’s border with Angola, and the Ugab River, north of Swakopmund, is as forbidding as its name suggests. In centuries past, these treacherous, windblown sands were littered with shipwrecks and the bones of whales and seals. Approach the skull-and-crossbones park gates by 4WD today and it’s natural to wonder whether it’s really worth slogging on when all there seems to be here are miles of near-featureless gravel plains and dunes, flanked by the cold, foggy ocean. To me, it’s a very unwelcoming place.
However, if you’re interested in remote landscapes and desert flora and fauna, you may find the Skeleton Coast rather intriguing. A series of dry river gorges score the park, with antelopes and elephants eking out a living here, along with small populations of desert-adapted lions. The bird population is surprisingly varied and the dunes are a good place to look for insects and small reptiles. I recommend seeing the region from the air, too, if you can, for spectacular views of a highly unusual wilderness.
Lizzie is a reputed guidebook writer and author of the Footprint guides to South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
The empty bleakness of the desolate Skeleton Coast
The strong currents and swirling fogs of the Atlantic have long been a hazard to ships (and unlucky sailors) on the unusual coastal wilderness of the Skeleton Coast. However I find the dead-flat saltpans, barren stony plains and desolate beaches, featureless and uninspiring and there are better places in Namibia to experience the beauty of the Namib Desert. The only reasonably diverting place to visit is Cape Cross, where thousands of Cape fur seals unfathomably decide to sit on the same overcrowded rock. It’s a compelling sight, but I find the smell (of dead fish) somewhat challenges the senses. Turning inland the road becomes more interesting – the occasional gemsbok or kudu may be spotted in the scrubby low mountains, or an unusual desert welwitschia plant growing in a dry riverbed. After exiting the park in the east, the far more enticing Damaraland and Kaokoland awaits.
Philip is an acclaimed travel writer and author of many guidebooks, including the Bradt guides to Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.
Coast of ghost-ships
Like most of Namibia’s parks, I wouldn’t regard Skeleton Coast – which protects the empty coastline north of Swakopmund – to be a conventional safari destination, but the area is memorable for its sense of wild windswept desolation. Unlike much of the more southerly Namib, this is a rocky desert rather than a sandy one, and it seems rather bizarre to see the surf of the Atlantic battering down on this otherwise dry and barren landscape. Fishermen rate the area very highly, but its main draw for wildlife enthusiasts is Cape Cross, home to a breeding colony of around 100,000 Cape fur seals that assaults your sense on every level – initially, it is the stench of guano and noise that overwhelms, but once you are used to that, it is fascinating to sit here and watch the interaction and politics of these engaging marine carnivores, keeping an eye open for the jackals that frequently raid the colony to feed on the seal cubs. The birdlife can also be interesting, with resident seabirds such as black oystercatcher joined seasonally by all manner of migrant waders from the northern hemisphere.
Sue is an award-winning writer who specializes in African travel and conservation. She writes for national newspapers, magazines, Rough Guides and Lonely Planet.
The beauty of the Skeleton Coast lies in its bleakness and its solitude. We drove for hours without seeing another vehicle and were then confronted by this vast wall of fog, created when the cold air from the Atlantic’s Benguela Current meets the warm air of the desert. It’s an eerie place where the only living things - aside from fishermen and gulls - seem to be weird and wonderful types of colourful lichen and unbelievably ancient welwitschia plants. All we could see was desert and mirages of indiscernible black shapes wobbling on the horizon that simply melt away. A lot of the shipwrecks have been swallowed by the sands now and unfortunately the best area to see them is the north of the Park, only open to residents of the Skeleton Coast Camp. Alternatively, stay at Terrace Bay listening to the wild waves of the Atlantic crashing to the shore throughout the night.
Further south, the Cape Cross Seal Colony is an extraordinary sight of up to 200,000 Cape seals huddled together jostling for space. It’s an extraordinary smell too, like rotting fish and guano, the kind of smell that sticks to you and needs washing off in the shower immediately after you’ve left the area.
Lucy is travel writer for a range of publications, including Lonely Planet's guides to Africa, Southern Africa and South Africa.
Less is more
For those in search of a taste of the wilderness, those looking to escape the crowds, the Skeleton Coast is perfect. Elephants are an unlikely inhabitant of this barren, desert-like corner of Namibia, and lion, rhino, cheetah and hyena are also present, though on my visit I saw little other than sand, sea and of course seals at the Cape Cross Seal Colony. This didn't make for a disappointing trip though. For me, the Skeleton Coast's appeal lies in its bleak beauty, sounds of the lapping Atlantic ocean and nighttime panoramas, when at full moon so you see almost as far as in the daylight hours. Truly spectacular.
Stuart is a travel writer and author of numerous Lonely Planet guidebooks, including Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania.
The Desert of Bones
My experiences of the Skeleton Coast have probably been rather different to that of many of the other reviewers here. The reason being that my visits to this bleak, cold and scary coastline have been less for the wildlife and more to go surfing. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t appreciated the uniqueness of the environment and its small collection of unusual creatures. And truly, everything about the Skeleton Coast is unusual. There are dead plants that live a thousand years and beetles who drink by climbing to the top of a sand dune and sticking their bums (if beetles have such things) in the air to ‘catch’ the moisture that comes in with the thick morning mists. Yeah you guessed it this isn’t classic Big Five safari country, but it will appeal to those who appreciate the smaller things in life – and can get excited about viewing lichen (which is far more interesting than you probably ever realised!).
There are some larger mammals here including rarely seen desert adapted lions and elephants and though you’d be lucky to see those you won’t fail to see jackals pacing the high tide line and quite probably the Hound of the Baskervilles-like brown hyenas.
And then there’s the sea life. The cold waters that crash into the Skeleton Coast are some of the richest in the world. There are some huge colonies of Cape Fur Seals here and watching them play in the surf off Cape Cross is a highlight for everyone. Everyone bar surfers that is. The cold waters and large number of seals attract another large creature of the oceans and this one has big sharp teeth and likes nothing better than a seal for dinner. Unfortunately it’s favourite type of seal is a weak, slow swimming, injured one and to a shark that’s exactly what most surfers look like. So while most visitors love getting up close to the seals for me and my surfing companions the arrival of seals on our chosen beach was generally greeted with nothing but fear of what might be following them!
Anthony is a photographer and writer for travel magazines and Lonely Planet, including the guides to Kenya and Botswana & Namibia.
Skeleton Coast: Sand Dunes Meet the Sea
My pick for Africa’s most spectacular coastline, the Skeleton Coast combines the drama of perfectly sculpted sand dunes, crashing Atlantic breakers and wild seas, and unusual wildlife. The shipwrecks that line this coastline speak to nature’s raw power, which is always my most enduring memory of a visit here. It is impossible to be unmoved by the view that greets you from the summit of a sand dune as an icy fog sweeps in off the Atlantic. And a chance glimpse of one of the last remaining desert lions, made famous in the National Geographic documentary Vanishing Kingdoms, is truly one of the most thrilling sights in nature. The slender-horned gemsbok or oryx, too, is an icon of these parts. But perhaps more than anything else, it’s the sense out here of a wild and beautiful land remote from the world and its clamour that will live longest in the memory.
Ariadne is a renowned African wildlife photographer whose work is featured in many well-known guidebooks and magazines.
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Cape fur seal colony’s on the skeleton coast
This very remote wilderness area stretches out over 500km of coastline. Because of the nature of this harsh, barren desert environment, big game is scarce, but desert-adapted wildlife like gemsbok and springbok can be spotted. If you’re lucky, you might come across a jackal or brown hyena scavenging on a dead seal. Cape-fur seals are abundant along this stretch of coast. They live in colonies and the most accessible one is at Cape Cross, south of the park’s border. I can watch these funny creatures for hours. There is never a dull moment with mothers suckling their babies, males fighting for territory and youngsters playing together. Don’t let the stench put you off, you get used to it after a while.