The Skeleton Coast Park was proclaimed in its present form in 1973 and extends from the Kunene River in the north for some 500km to the Ugab River in the south, its total area being approximately 16,400 sq km.
The attraction of this remote area lies in the untouched landscapes of windswept dunes, rugged canyon walls and extensive mountain ranges. Its aura of mystery and mightiness is largely due to the dense coastal fog and cold sea breezes caused by the cold Benguela Ocean current from the Arctic, and bones scattered on its beaches from where the park's name derives.
The landscape in the park ranges from sweeping vistas of wind swept dunes to rugged canyons with walls of richly coloured volcanic rock and extensive mountain ranges. Its level coastline characterises the park, only occasionally broken by scattered rocky outcrops. The southern section consists of the gravel plains, but north of Terrace Bay high dunes occur in the immediate vicinity of the coast.
The remains of shipwrecks scattered along the coast bear witness to many ships, which have come to grief along these desolate shores.
The Ugab River is its southern boundary, and the park stretches north to the Kunene River. The park covers over 1.6 million hectares and divided into two zones - the southern section, between Ugab and Hoanib rivers, and the northern section - between the Hoanib and Kunene rivers. The latter has been demarcated as wilderness area and tourists can only enter the area by means of exclusive fly-in safaris conducted by a concessionaire. Of special interest are the “Clay Castles” of the Hoarusib, the salt pans near the Agate Mountain and one of the largest seal colonies in the world at Cape Fria.
The vegetation between the Ugab and Huab rivers falls within the Central Namib type, while that of north of the Huab is classified as Northern Namib. The vegetation is relatively spare, the most common species being dollar bush, brakspekbos and the occasional stands of ganna.
Most of the plant and insect species depends for their moisture on the thick for that envelopes the coast and hinterland, and in the northern edges of the wilderness, where there are rivers of sorts as well as underground water, birds and animals manage to survive and even flourish.
Mammals along the coast are mainly limited to black-backed jackal, brown hyena and the Cape fur seals. Unusual inhabitants like the coastal lion had been seen, uniquely adopted to utilize coastal resources. The lions did not inhabit the coast permanently but used the river courses that cut through the Namib to move between the coast and the interior.
Far more prolific is the bird life occurring along the coast. As a result of the nutrient-rich ocean off the Skeleton Coast Park, large numbers of sea and shore birds are attracted.
Adjoining the northern section of the Skeleton Coats Park is Kaokoland inhabited by the Himba people, who still live according to ancient customs and traditions and to the southern section of the park is Damaraland, inhabited by the Damara people, who have adopted western lifestyles.
The southern section of the park is accessible to the general public and attracts anglers to its superb fishing grounds. Because of the ecological sensitivity of the area, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism manages it. This park was opened for the through-travel in October 1998 and travellers must be in possession of the necessary permit which can be obtained from the Ministry's Reservation office in Windhoek or its Information office in Swakopmund. The park can be entered at Ugabmund and Springbokwasser checkpoints.
The Northern section of the Park is a tourism concession and restricted to fly-in safaris only - (Please see our Namibia Fly-In Safari section)
The Park can be reached either along the C34 linking Swakopmund and Terrace Bay or from Khorixas via Springbokwasser along the C39. Travelling from the south, the Ugab River Gate is about 200 km north of Swakopmund. Torra Bay is 117 km further north, while Terrace Bay is another 48 km further on.
Approaching from the west, the gate at Springbokwasser is reached 170 km west of Khorixas. From here it is a further 40 km to the junction with the C34, with Torra Bay and Terrace Bay being 10 and 58 km north respectively.
There are landing strips at Torra Bay and Terrace Bay, but no aviation fuel is available. If you fly in you should circle the camp before landing to draw the attention of camp staff that will then pick you up.
TERRACE BAY - AIR STRIP:
NOT LICENSED: 1959 S, 1302 E
Elevation: 1 00
Runway: 33/15, 1 515 m, Hard Sand
Although the early mariners passing along the desolate coastline of Namibia centuries ago feared the Skeleton Coast, the park is today a popular tourist attraction. Many anglers are lured to the Skeleton Coast by its reputation for excellent catches, while other visitors are attracted by the name which evokes a sense of mystery and intrigue. For some the appeal of the Skeleton Coast is simply the solitude.
(Terrace Bay is open throughout the year)
Visitors are accommodated on an all-inclusive basis in bungalows containing two-bedded bedrooms, showers, wash basins and toilets. Bedding is provided, but as the tariff includes three meals a day, appliances such as kettles, stoves and fridges are not supplied, nor are there any outside fireplaces.
Amenities at Terrace Bay include a filling station and a shop which stocks a limited range of groceries, liquor, souvenirs and bait. Ample freezing facilities are available for anglers.
No pets allowed
Overnight visitors must be in possession of reservation advices issued by the reservations office in Windhoek
No-one will be allowed to cross the Ugab River after 15h00 or to pass the checkpoint at Springbokwasser after 17h00 en route to Terrace Bay.
No camping allowed
No visitors allowed north or south of the demarcated angling area
(Torra Bay is only open from 1 December to 31 January)
Facilities are limited to camp and caravan sites served by communal ablutions. A small fee is charged for the use of the showers as the water has to be transported in.
At Torra Bay fuel, firewood and water are sold during the Namibian December/January school holidays only, while a kiosk is also open during this period.
Overnight visitors must be in possession of reservation advices issued by the booking office in Windhoek
No-one will be allowed to cross the Ugab River after 15h00 or to pass the checkpoint at Springbokwasser after 17h00 a route to Torra Bay
No visits to Terrace Bay without booking advices
Fuel, fire-wood and water sold during the December school holidays
No pets allowed
“Visitors Travel Journal to the Skeleton Coast Park”
The Skeleton Coast Park, a seemingly hostile, barren environment will allow you to experience the mystery and subtlety of nature hidden in its fragile mistiness if you take the time and utilise all your powers of observation. It is a fascinating area, with its history of rumours of "diamond rich" deposits, which lured the hopeful and proved to be illusions. Here nothing is obvious, nothing predictable, as you travel through the apparent emptiness of the desert from the southern boundary of the park - the skull and crossbone gates at the Ugab River.
On the way, you will have traversed the lichen-strewn gravel plains of the National West Coast Recreational Area from the quaint German colonial town of Swakopmund, passing the small holiday villages of Wlotzka's Baken and Henties Bay, stopping to see the impressive breeding colony of Cape Fur Seals at Cape Cross. Here, Portuguese navigator Diego Cao planted a cross in 1486, a replica of which stands on a rocky rise near the noisily active seals.
The road to the ship wreck of the Winston, one of the many fishing vessels to prove that the name Skeleton Coast is truly apt, is well signposted a few kilometres south of the gate to the park. Please note that the salt pan next to the track is treacherous; under no circumstances should you try to drive on it even in a four- wheel drive vehicle. It is well worth a visit, however, as not only the wreck but the flotsam on the beach illustrates the violence of this section of the Atlantic coastline. It has also provided a suitable nesting site for Cape Cormorants who build high seaweed structures on the masts and bows of the now skeletal vessel.
The gate adorned with a skull and crossbone at the permit check point just south of the Ugab River is your first glimpse of the park. Your first stop after checking in should be the Ugab riverbed itself. Here you will be introduced to the diversity of flora and fauna present in all the riverbeds. The normally dry Ugab River, stretching almost 500 kilometres from its head waters in the interior, is one of the major Namib Rivers, all of which form life-giving arteries for the larger species of animals and vegetation to be found in the desert. You will see stunted, wind-blown Acacia trees and perhaps be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of springbok, gemsbok or even brown hyena and lion which are known to occur there periodically. The dense stands of alien wild tobacco plants, Nicotiana glauca, which are carried down with the periodic flood waters, have been removed in patches, in an experiment to determine the effect of the plants on indigenous vegetation.
Three-day Hiking Trails in the Ugab can be arranged through the Ministry of Environment & Tourism.
Driving northward from the wide river bed, you will travel parallel to the sea, between lichen-covered gravel plains. In this section you will need all your powers of observation as life forms on the gravel plains are small and seemingly insignificant. The best is to stop on the side of the road and to walk onto the plains. Look down carefully and you will notice that what looked like green pebbles from the car, are, in reality, stones covered by the strange, plant-like lichens, a combination of algae and fungae, which grow in the coastal areas. In this symbiotic relationship, the algae provides nutrition through photosynthesis, while the fungae can utilise moisture.
On a foggy, cool morning their colours are far more obvious, as their leaves open to make the most of the moisture available. On dry, sunny, windy afternoons, their leaves fold, presenting less of their surface area to the sun and thus preserving moisture, but also becoming less obvious. In some areas you will be able to see up to five different lichen species growing on one rock, with colours ranging from deep orange, through various shades of green to dull black.
These plains are also the nesting area of the pretty black and white Damara Tern, whose eggs and chicks are so well camouflaged that you have to be very careful not to step on them. These rare and endangered birds are strictly protected but are threatened by human disturbance.
The gravel plains, with their related fauna and flora are extremely fragile and the damage done to areas by vehicles driving over them indiscriminately is at once unsightly and reprehensible. Many smaller species of fauna shelter below the pebbles and are destroyed by vehicles, as are the eggs and chicks of the Damara Tern. The surface of the plains is brittle and easily compacted by wheels, with resultant tracks that last for decades. These tracks, in turn, destroy the lichens which are very slow to re-establish. Some experts believe that it could take up to a century for the substrate to recover sufficiently to allow lichens to be able to start growing again. If you do pick up a rock to study the lichens more closely, please be sure to replace it in its original position, as a changed angle could deprive the lichen of moisture and thus cause a die-off of the growth.
Here you will have the chance of glimpsing the little black or white tenebrionid beetles of the Namib as they scurry between the small mounds of sand that have collected around dwarf shrubs. These little beetles and the fish moths found throughout the Namib, shelter under and feed on the wind-blown detritus that collects on these mounds, which are characteristic and can be seen around all low vegetation along the windy Skeleton Coast. The next river you cross, the Huab, an ancient glacial river, though not as long as the Ugab, is as important for the food and shelter it provides for a variety of wildlife, including the uncommon Osprey which sometimes feeds near the river mouth.
Outside the boundaries of the park, both Ugab and Huab Rivers support the southern populations of large mammals such as elephant and black rhino which have adapted to life in this unbelievably arid environment. On the northern bank of the Huab you will see barchan dunes, small, whale-shaped, "marching" dunes that are moved across the gravel plains by the wind that is an almost permanent feature of the Skeleton Coast. These dunes support the same fauna found on large dunes, but, by moving, aid the distribution of the various species of insects, lizards and rodents.
Between the Huab River and the apparently insignificant Koichab River you will be able to visit another shipwreck, that of the fishing schooner Atlantic Pride. A little further on you come across a strange, rusted structure to the right of the main road. This derelict oil drilling rig was erected by hopeful entrepreneurs before the park was proclaimed and now provides a perfect nesting area for a breeding colony of Cape Cormorants. The rusty skeleton contrasts with the noisy, active birds, continuously flying in and out with fish or seaweed. The colony attracts jackals, often seen scavenging below the rig and the fearsome looking, but mild-natured brown hyena, which, as it is nocturnal and not often seen during the day, can be identified by its spoor of a large forepaw and smaller hindpaw.
The Koichab River, which you may not even notice unless you are expecting it, is no less important than the other rivers for its shrubby vegetation and related fauna of rodents and insects, gemsbok, ostrich and springbok.
The only other access road to and from the park is one which leads east to Khorixas, out of the Springbokwasser gate. This stretch of road takes you past a series of barchan dunes to the nearby escarpment hills, whose grey coloured caps are caused by incredibly rich lichen growth. Further east on this road you will come across the famed Welwitschia Mirabilis growing in dry river courses. This two-leafed member of the conifer family only occurs in the Namib Desert. Gradually more diverse plant species become noticeable including the tall Euphorbia damarana whose thin, stiff leaves seem to reach up to the desert sky.