The Skeleton Coast, or "The Land God Made in Anger" as the Bushmen called it, remains one of the world’s last great wildernesses: harsh, still not completely explored, definitely untamed and extraordinarily beautiful.
The sky casts a ghostly shadow over the land, creating the illusion of a sunken desert, photo by Paul van Schalkwyk
There is no denying the Skeleton Coast is an unforgiving and eerie landscape. The cold Beguela current produces a thick, heavy fog that clouds the coast for most of the year. The icy surf of the Atlantic Ocean pummels the shore. The desert winds from the east bring less than 10 millimeters of annual rainfall.
The Skeleton Coast got its name from the bones that once littered the shore, remnants of the whaling industry. Today, the skeletons that remain are those of the ships that fell victim to the hidden rocky outcrops and blinding fog. You can still see these strewn vessels along the coast - the Eduard Bohlen, the Otavi, the Dunedin Star and Tong Taw to name a few. Not surprising then, that the Portuguese sailors once referred to the coast as "The Gates of Hell".
The skeletons of old shipwrecks that line the Namibian coast, Photo by Vicki Brown
Whale bones that wash up onto the shore, Photo by Tala Images
The national park, which protects about one third of Namibia’s coastline, boasts dramatic landscapes of wind swept dunes, rugged canyons of richly colored volcanic rock and vast mountain ranges. See roaring and fossilised dunes, ancient lava flows, the Hoarusib castles of clay and the saltpans near the Agate Mountain.
Proclaimed in its present form in 1971, the park extends from the Ugab River in the south for 500 km (311 miles) to the Kunene River in the north, covering an area of 16,390 km2 (6,328 square miles).
There are plans to extend the park to include the entire Namibian coastline, which will make Namibia the only continental country in the world that has its entire coastline protected as a national park. The new park, provisionally called Namib-Skeleton Coast National Park (NSCNP), will be the eighth-largest protected area in the world, the sixth-largest terrestrial protected area globally and the largest park in Africa, covering an area of 107,540 km2 (roughly 41,521 square miles).
The wandering dunes that are shifted along the landscape by the winds, Photo by Paul van Schalkwyk
Despite being inhospitable, the Skeleton Coast is home to many animals. Gemsbok (oryx), springbok, jackal, ostrich and brown hyena roam the park while desert-adapted elephant and even black rhino, lion and giraffe travel up and down the dry river courses.
The Skeleton Coast Park is important for ancient wildlife migration routes east to the Etosha National Park. Many wildlife species rely upon the numerous west flowing rivers (known as ‘linear oases’) that thread through the park for survival. While rivers rarely flow, underground water and springs in the river beds nourish vegetation, riparian forest, and provide water, food, breeding grounds and shelter.
An Ostrich egg lies abandoned by its mother in the sand, Photo by Tala Images
Lonely jackal scours the coast, Photo by Paul van Schalkwyk
People also once lived in this harsh land. Remnants of the “Strandlopers” (beach walkers) can be found by the collection of old white mussels shells found along parts of the coast.
There are over 100 lichen species with more still to be discovered and their role is essential to the park ecology. The lichen grows on the plains and west-facing mountain slopes, changing color and becoming soft and leathery to the touch when the coastal fog pushes inland.
Above: Lichen colours the land; Below: just some of the hundreds of different types of lichen seen along the Skeleton Coast, Photos by Tala Images
The Skeleton Coast is a heavily protected conservation area. Certain areas (north of Mowe Bay) are off limits to any visitors, while the southern parts, entrances between the Ugab and Hoanib rivers, require permits.
Accommodation in the park is provided in a rest camp at Terrace Bay, previously a diamond-mining settlement, and at the Torra Bay camping site, open only from 1 December to 31 January. Overnight visitors must be in possession of a valid reservation for Terrace Bay or Torra Bay and arrive at the checkpoints at the Ugab Mouth and Springbokwasser gates not later than 15h00 and leave from these points not later than 17h00.
A day permit to drive directly through the southern region of the park is obtainable from the Ministry of Environment & Tourism Office in Swakopmund, as well as at the Ugab and Springbokwasser gates. Day visitors need to enter before 15h00 and leave by 17h00 and may not visit Terrace Bay or Torra Bay.
Entrance to the Skeleton Coast National Park, photo by Mikael Castro
Because of the highly sensitive environment and serious conservation efforts, not all of the Skeleton Coast is accessible to people. Take a flying safari over the national park to witness the vast display of shipwrecks and untouched landscapes from the sky!
Soar above the wild coastline of Namibia to get the best views, Photo by Vicki Brown
Take on the pounding surf off the Skeleton Coast to experience some of the longest tube rides the planet has to offer.
Brazilian-born surfer Kiron Jabour takes on the Skeleton Coast - a Surfing video by surfeurope