Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is about as far off the beaten track as it’s possible to get. Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, the region extends southwards from the Angolan border to just north of the coastal town of Swakopmund — a distance of some 300 miles/500 kilometers.
The Land God Made in Anger
Christened by the San Bushmen as “The Land God Made in Anger”, the Skeleton Coast is a formidable landscape of soaring, dun-colored dunes. At its western edge the dune sea plunges into the Atlantic, which casts itself violently upon the abandoned shore. The Benguela Current keeps the ocean icy and the sudden meeting of cold water and hot desert often causes the coastline to disappear beneath a pall of dense fog. These treacherous conditions have claimed many passing ships and as such the Skeleton Coast is littered with the wrecks of more than 1,000 different vessels. It is from the bleached bones of long dead southern right whales that it gets its name, however.
A Remote Tourist Destination
The Skeleton Coast is both bleak and inaccessible and yet it continues to fascinate foreign visitors. As one of Africa’s great untouched wildernesses, it offers travelers the chance to experience nature in all its unspoiled grandeur. The coastline is divided into two sections — the southerly National West Coast Tourist Recreation Area and the northerly Skeleton Coast National Park. The former is accessed with relative ease, although a permit is required. The wildest areas are in the northern section, however, and it's kept pristine by a restriction that allows only 800 visitors a year. Access is by fly-in safari only, and consequently visits to the Skeleton Coast National Park are both exclusive and expensive.
For the true adventurer, however, the wilderness that awaits is well worth the effort of getting there.
Located an hour’s drive north of Swakopmund, Henties Bay is the only real town on the Skeleton Coast. It is a natural stop for travelers heading north and is especially popular with anglers. There are several tried and tested fishing spots located nearby, all of which are listed as GPS co-ordinates on a map provided by the Henties Bay Tourist Information Office. To reach these spots you can drive along the beach - although you’ll need a 4x4 and sufficient experience with driving on sand.
Target species include silver kabeljou (kob), west coast steenbras (mussel-cracker) and galjoen. Shark fishing is popular in Henties Bay, but it is important to note that Namibian law requires all shark species to be returned to the water alive and unharmed. All types of angling require a permit and strict catch and size limits apply. For non-fishing family members, there are walking trails, horse-riding tours and miles of wild beachfront to explore.
Cape Cross Seal Colony
40 miles/60 kilometers north of Henties Bay lies the Cape Cross Seal Reserve, a protected headland that provides a home for the largest breeding colony of Cape fur seals in the world. During peak breeding season (November to December) the sand is completely hidden from view by a writhing mass of fur seals numbering over 200,000 in total. At this time, newborn pups are a highlight. Visitors can observe the seals from a 650 feet/200 meter walkway.
Cape fur seals survive predominantly on fish and their dietary preference is evident in the stench arising from the colony. Visitors to Cape Cross will need a strong stomach! The colony is also incredibly noisy, as males war over territory and pups call repetitively for their mothers. However, despite the noise and the smell, the colony is a fascinating sight. There are two subspecies of Cape fur seal and the one seen at Cape Cross is only found in South Africa and Namibia.
Despite the Skeleton Coast’s seemingly inhospitable environment, wildlife manages to thrive here. Lodges like the Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp offer 4x4 game drives through the dunes and to nearby oases, to which animals are drawn by the irresistible scent of water. Keep an eye out for classic desert species including Hartmann’s mountain zebra, gemsbok, springbok and steenbok. In terms of predators, black-backed jackals and brown hyenas are the most commonly spotted, although cheetah amazingly survive here as well.
Some species like the desert elephant, the desert rhino and the desert lion are especially adapted to life in the waterless environs of the Skeleton Coast. Unlike most other African destinations, animals in this area of Namibia are free-roaming and unrestricted by game park fences. Birders will also find plenty of interest on the Skeleton Coast, ranging from desert endemics like the Rüppell's korhaan and the Benguela long-billed lark to the pelagic birds of the coast.
The Skeleton Coast is patterned with the bones of ships that have fallen foul of its submerged reefs and misleading fog. Of these, the most famous wrecks are probably those of the Dunedin Star and the Eduard Bohlen. The Dunedin Star ran aground in 1942 whilst transporting Allied supplies from England to Egypt during the Second World War. Several vessels and an airplane were sent to rescue her crew, who were left stranded on the ailing ship some 1,800 feet/550 meters from shore. The airplane and a tug boat were lost, along with two of the tug’s crew. The crew of the Dunedin Star were eventually evacuated.
The Eduard Bohlen is a German cargo ship that ran aground in 1909. Although her crew were rescued, the ship itself could not be salvaged. Now, almost 100 years later, the desert has encroached upon the sea to such an extent that the wreck (which once lay upon the shore) is now stranded 1,650 feet/500 meters inland.
Several Skeleton Coast tours offer the opportunity to visit one of the remote villages inhabited by the Himba, the indigenous tribe of the Kunene region. The Kunene extends from the Angola border to the Ugab River, which marks the southern boundary of the Skeleton Coast National Park. The Himba are a pastoralist people, depending upon their cattle, sheep and goats for survival. They move according with the seasons in order to find grazing, and are the last semi-nomadic people in Namibia.
Visits to their villages allow tourists a rare insight into their fascinating way of life. Due to their remoteness, Himba culture has remained largely unchanged. Villages consist of a circle of huts built around an ancestral sacred fire. Himba women are bare-chested, using a butterfat and ocher paste to protect their skin from the sun, and to cleanse themselves without having to waste water. Ornate hairstyles and symbolic jewelry are also an important part of their culture.