Skeleton Coast, Namibia

The Skeleton Coast in western Namibia is the largest ship graveyard in the world. But the inhospitable environment between dangerous surf and endless desert is also home to magnificent natural beauty and fascinating creatures.

The Skeleton Coast is that part of the Namib Desert in Namibia that borders the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The coastal strip is one of the most hostile areas on earth and yet it is one of our top 10 sights of Namibia. With an age of 1.5 billion years, it is also one of the oldest rock formations on our planet.


The Skeleton Coast gets its name from hundreds of shipwrecks and whale bones that have been rotting in the hot sand for centuries. Dense fog caused by the cold Benguela Current, heavy surf and treacherous currents have been the undoing of sailors and pilots as well as passing whales.

Shipwrecked people who managed to escape to shore were not really saved - there was no chance of survival in the hundreds of kilometers of sandy desert behind the coast.

PICTURES: Skeleton Coast

Photo gallery: Skeleton Coast

Living on the Skeleton Coast?

Two sea lions on the inhospitable Skeleton Coast in Namibia - © Jiri Haureljuk / Shutterstock
© Jiri Haureljuk / Shutterstock

It may be hard to believe, but there is life on the Skeleton Coast, too. The fish-rich sea has attracted huge colonies of eared seals, which spread across Namibia's Atlantic coast in groups of up to 100,000. Most are found in the inaccessible Diamond Barrier Area in the south, but seal colonies can be seen at Cape Cross about 70km north of Henties Bay.

Cape cormorants, which have chosen an old oil drilling station north of the Huab River as their breeding ground, also feed on fish.

In addition to seals and birds, desert lions, black-backed jackals, black-backed hyenas, giraffes, rhinos, gemsboks, zebras and kudus also live on the Skeleton Coast. Species found only here include the sand shield lizard and the clouded trinket beetle. The curiosity among the plants are the so-called "living stones", spherical plants several centimeters tall, which seem to have no leaves and can disappear completely into the ground.

Skeleton Coast Desert Elephants

Another curiosity are the legendary desert elephants. Sighted by locals again and again, scientists did not believe in their existence for a long time, because elephants need much more water and food than available on the Skeleton Coast.


In the meantime, however, animal filmmakers, above all Des and Jen Bartlett, have provided evidence to the contrary. There are indeed elephants living on the Skeleton Coast, but it is not certain whether they are a subspecies of the African elephants.

The pachyderms of the Namib have adapted perfectly to the harsh life in the desert. They are smaller and have wider feet, which allows them to cover 70 kilometers in search of food, about seven times the distance of their African counterparts. What's more, they can go four days without water, while "normal" elephants have to drink up to 160 liters a day.

Creation of the Skeleton Coast National Park

As beautiful as the Skeleton Coast in Namibia may be, its hinterland used to be deadly - © Pichugin Dmitry / Shutterstock
© Pichugin Dmitry / Shutterstock

The Skeleton Coast itself extends from Swakopmund to the Kunene River, the border river with Angola, and some 30 to 40 kilometers inland. A public recreation area has been established in the south, where its rich fish resources have given rise to several fishing camps. Hentiesbucht has developed into a regular town in the process. The northern part of the Skeleton Coast is protected as the Skeleton Coast National Park.

Skeleton Coast National Park was established in 1971 and stretches from the Ugab River to the Kunene River on the border with Angola. In 2009 it was incorporated into the Namib Skeleton Coast National Park and with an area of 16,000 square kilometers is now the third largest national park in the country, after the Namib Naukluft and Etosha National Parks.

Visit Namib Skeleton Coast National Park

The Skeleton Coast in Namibia is followed for hundreds of kilometers by the dunes of the Namib Desert - © Watchtheworld / Shutterstock
© Watchtheworld / Shutterstock

Skeleton Coast National Park can be divided into two zones. The southern one is freely accessible with a permit, the northern one can be visited only in the course of guided tours. The best time to visit is April to June. During these months there is neither heavy rainfall nor sight-obscuring fog.

The entrance gate to the park is located in front of the Ugab River a few kilometers north of mile 108 and is unmistakably marked with two skulls. Individual travelers need a permit to visit the national park and must either have left the park by 5 p.m. or have stopped at an accommodation. No vehicles will be allowed into the park after 3 p.m.

Tip: The tracks in the Namib Skeleton Coast National Park are well passable, but a four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended as you will encounter sandy terrain again and again.

The best place to spend the night is Terrace Bay, where there is a small store and a gas station in addition to places to sleep. On the way there you pass Torra Bay, a paradise for passionate fishermen, where it is pleasantly quiet outside the fishing season in December. However, you can only sleep here in December and January. A few kilometers north of Torra Bay lies the bleached wreck of the "Atlantic Pride" in the hot desert sand.

The Skeleton Coast from the air

View of the Skeleton Coast in Namibia with the impressive sand dunes of the Namib Desert - © MarcinSylwiaCiesielski/Shutterstock
© MarcinSylwiaCiesielski/Shutterstock

As cruel and dangerous as the Skeleton Coast is, its exuberant beauty is breathtaking. The inhospitable vastness of the Skeleton Coast can best be experienced from the air. In the course of the so-called "fly-in safaris" one moves at a safe height over the spectacular and yet so deadly landscape.


By plane, it is also possible to visit the otherwise inaccessible north, where most of the shipwrecks are located. The largest private provider for such excursions is the Schoeman family with their Skeleton Coast Safaris, which brings visitors (for not a little money) closer to the beauty of the Skeleton Coast both by plane and by off-road vehicle.

Other attractions on the Skeleton Coast

Sand dunes panorama at the Skeleton Coast in Namibia - © Watchtheworld / Shutterstock
© Watchtheworld / Shutterstock

Besides the breathtaking impressions of the coastal region, there are other attractions to discover in the Namib Skeleton Coast National Park. Among the most fantastic is probably a waterfall in the middle of the desert, which can be found in a colorful sandstone canyon.

Near the Hoarusib River in the northern part of the Namib Skeleton Coast National Park are the so-called "Roaring Dunes of Terracebucht". Here, depending on the direction and strength of the wind, "sand avalanches" produce a thundering sound that rivals a squadron of aircraft and can be heard for many kilometers.

Passionate hikers can venture on the Ugab River Hiking Route, which runs along the river for about 50km over three days. As with hikes in the Fish River Canyon, a medical certificate is required here, as a certain level of fitness is required for the hike. Provisions and equipment must be brought and carried by yourself.

For those who find this too strenuous, there is the less demanding Uniab Delta Walk, a day trip that is great for wildlife viewing.

Other destinations in the vicinity are the "Burnt Mountain", a pitch-black rock made of organ-pipe-like basalt pillars, or the millennia-old rock paintings of Twyfelfontein.

Related links:


Official website of Skeleton Coast Safaris