Skeleton Coast Park Skeleton Coast Park

Skeleton coast park

Fortune-hunters and adventurous travellers are drawn to remote reaches – to the legends of wrecks and hidden treasures, to perilous escapades and satiating pursuits. The Skeleton Coast Park offers all of these: a good day’s surf fishing; an exhilarating four-by-four trek to the Kunene mouth; visits to the remnants of forsaken ships, airplanes and mines; extraordinary encounters with rare desert wildlife; long walks along lonely beaches … all cloaked in misty desert–ocean paradox.

The Skeleton Coast is a barren place. There are no trees on the coast, and very few places where fresh water might be found. The ocean is cold and treacherous, the land a desert. The beaches are littered with the bones of seals and whales, and dotted with mining remnants and the skeletons of ships. Among them lie the bones of unfortunate men. For those forced to survive here without outside help, the name Skeleton Coast has ample justification. An endless stretch of inhospitable coastline, especially for the uninitiated.

While the waters of the Atlantic are rich in life, an erratic climate presents fluctuating onshore fortunes. Years of dryness are punctuated by the rare and often violent floods of ephemeral rivers, which may breach the desert and reach the ocean only once or twice a decade. Still, their subterranean flow feeds estuaries and creates vital springs, sustaining life. The desert is a home, both temporary and permanent, for countless uniquely adapted life forms. This is the realm of wind, sand and rock, of lichens, crouching plants and small creatures, criss-crossed by vagabond large wildlife.

The park protects a unique tract between the Ugab and Kunene rivers. The narrow strip adjoins other coastal parks all the way to the Orange River, but relies heavily on conservation collaboration with the people controlling the communal land and its resources to the east.


Four permit types available: Transit; Terrace Bay visitor; Torra Bay visitor; concession visitor (guided only)
Gate hours for transit entry are from 07:30 & 15:00; transit visitors must exit the park before 17:00

•    Transit permits to travel between Ugabmond and Springbockwasser are available all year
•    Terrace Bay (chalet accommodation only) is open all year for overnight stays (no day visits)
•    Torra Bay (campsite only) is open during December and January for overnight stays (no day visits)
•    Concession visits by special arrangement as offered by operators

•    Surf angling is currently the most popular activity along the Skeleton Coast
•    Go on one of the demarcated dune drives & explore the sands on foot
•    Visit one of the many shipwrecks dotted along the coast
•    Enquire about lion activity before going on one of the demarcated walks

•    No off-road driving ! Stick to demarcated angling areas and visitor routes !
•    You only have access to those areas specified on your particular permit !
•    Lions occasionally roam the coast & are monitored; enquire about lion movements & always take care
•    Terrace Bay has fuel all year; fuel available at Torra Bay only during December & January

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To modern visitors in their comfortable four-wheel-drives, the Skeleton Coast shows its romantic face. Yet the harshness of the environment is omnipresent and the stories of the people forced to survive here are ones of mixed fortunes, hardships and terrible losses. Still, through the millennia, people actually chose to live intermittently along the Skeleton Coast, leaving a variety of inconspicuous and obtrusive marks. This coast is not some pristine wilderness. It is a landscape imbued with the often dubious exploits of man.

Stone circles, shell middens, pottery and other archaeological records sprinkled along Namibia’s northern coast speak of human activity here for millennia. Accurately dated finds go back around 2,000 years, yet the intermittent presence of people – always tied to fresh water – is likely to reach back much further into prehistory. The Namib is significantly older than Homo sapiens, but even in more recent times there were shifts in climate and periods of exceptional rain, when ephemeral rivers could sustain life for longer intervals.

Fascinating stone circles in the Uniab Delta are accessible to visitors on a short unguided walk. Such circles were made by hunter-gatherers as the bases for domed driftwood or whalebone huts, and as hunting blinds. The coastal dwellers are widely referred to as Strandlopers, a term from South Africa that literally means beach walker. They are believed to have been part of the Khoe language group.

European seafarers first sailed along this coast over 500 years ago, beginning the tales of adventure and misfortune that continue to the present day. One of the oldest shipwrecks from Namibian waters was discovered near Oranjemund in 2008 and is thought to have been lost around 1533. Documented shipwrecks along what is today the Skeleton Coast Park date back to Portuguese sailing ships that came to grief here over 300 years ago. In all, around 330 shipwrecks are known from the Namibian coast, of which around 60 per cent are found north of Walvis Bay. Another 160 ships are estimated to have been lost without definitive records in Namibian seas. Victims continue to be added: The Japanese fishing vessel Fukuseki Maru became a casualty in 2018, when it ran onto rocks just south of the Ugab River mouth.

Depending on their location, most wrecks are reclaimed by nature in a century or less, leaving little other than a few pieces of rusted metal or worn wood. In rare cases (like the find from the southern coast) wrecks may be well-preserved in sand for centuries. There are a number of accessible shipwrecks in the Skeleton Coast Park, including the Monterose, stranded in 1973.

In 1896, a party of explorers lead by the geologist Georg Hartmann was the first to systematically explore and map most of the northwestern coastal reaches between Cape Cross and the Kunene. Two decades earlier, in 1878, a group of Dorsland Trekkers led by Gert Alberts had undertaken a reconnaissance ride from Namutoni all the way to the coast and back, reaching the area of Rocky Point. They did not extend their journey along the coast, and decided it was too inhospitable to warrant further investigation.

Besides shipwrecks, the skeletons of numerous other human exploits litter this landscape. Diamond tales, an intrinsic part of Namibian lore, reach across the land from the Orange to the Kunene. They’ve been mined along the northern coast since the 1950s, spurred by legends of pea-sized gems. Only small diamonds in even smaller quantities were ever found, but the search continues today. The remnants of prospecting, mining and other exploits litter the park.

As is often the case with remote, legendary reaches, the Skeleton Coast has a rich tradition of adventurous tales. Some are exaggerated, others invented. The true story of the rescue operation for the Dunedin Star is famous like no other, and epitomises the nature of this coast. In 1942, the 530-foot British vessel was on its way from Liverpool to Cape Town with a cargo of war supplies and 106 people on board when it ran aground north of Cape Fria. All 21 passengers and half the crew could be brought safely ashore by motor launch, but the small boat then capsized in rough water, leaving the two groups isolated. After three days, rescue ships arrived and managed to retrieve the remaining crew from the stricken vessel. Rough seas ruled out attempts to reach the people on the shore. One of the rescue vessels, the Charles Elliot, ran aground itself just north of Rocky Point, with the loss of two lives.

A Ventura bomber aircraft landed safely near the original castaways, but got bogged in soft sand. Provisions were later air-dropped and floated to shore by other planes and ships. An overland rescue party finally reached the castaways after 13 days and managed to evacuate all. An attempt to retrieve the Ventura bomber a month and a half later provided more drama. While the plane could be freed and took off, it crashed-landed in the surf due to engine failure less than an hour later. All three men survived and managed to walk 50 kilometres to Sarusas Spring, where they caught up with the ground team.

The ‘Skeleton Coast’ was apparently first coined as a name in 1933 by the late Namibian journalist Sam Davis. Reporting on the disappearance of the Swiss pilot and explorer Carl Nauer, Davis wrote that Nauer’s bones might one day be found on the Skeleton Coast. The pilot had vanished on a trip from Cape Town to London, having last been seen refuelling at Walvis Bay before flying north along the coast. Much of the Namib coastline is littered with whale and seal bones, as well as shipwrecks, making Skeleton Coast a fitting name.


For Joshua Kazeurua, idealistic preservation lies in the past. In his quietly assertive way, he emphasises the need to actively use natural resources to warrant their conservation. If returns from tourism and alternative uses can’t justify setting aside large tracts of land, then mining, agriculture and other activities difficult to balance with biodiversity conservation will prevail. Land use today must be based on sustainable development, on producing benefits for local people. Joshua was first posted to the Skeleton coast over 10 years ago and fell in love with the place. He was born at Aminuis in the Kalahari.

The Skeleton Coast is a long strip of a park, nowhere much wider than 40 kilometres. In high-rainfall areas that could be a reasonable width of habitat. In a hyper-arid environment, it is not sufficient for large mammals, which need to oscillate between eastern and western grazing areas – dictated by rainfall – and often move up and down the east–west drainages of the ephemeral rivers. These migrations create immediate conservation challenges for the unfenced park, because the animals have a different status beyond its borders.

Human–wildlife conflict in the communal areas outside the park is a major conservation challenge for some species. The impact on the lion population is particularly problematic, as people regularly kill lions that threaten livestock. Other predators, which generally produce more conflicts, are not persecuted as much. Elephants also cause conflicts with people, especially around water installations.

Nomadic wildlife may also be affected by consumptive use outside the park, as it can be difficult to monitor highly mobile populations over vast areas, even when off-take is managed through annual quotas. Poaching of black rhinos is an increasing threat to dwindling populations in all of their ranges worldwide, and poses a big threat for this park’s transient population. Although collaboration between conservancies and the park is generally good, many issues need attention, as all wildlife management outside the park has an influence on the game in the park.

Inside the park, some areas and species are particularly sensitive and need special management. The park’s wetlands, for example, are very susceptible to disturbance, because they are generally isolated and in very open country, where large mammals and birds are easily disturbed.

Mining impacts have always been a challenge along the Skeleton Coast and remain so today. While most mineral deposits here are currently considered too insignificant to justify mining expenses, prospectors continue to hope for new discoveries. Some diamond mining concessions are still active in the park, and a uranium deposit in the Engo Valley might draw attention in the future.

Discussions regarding a harbour at Cape Fria or Möwe Bay are revived every few years, motivated by calls for a more direct coastal access for northern Namibia that would facilitate the import and export of goods to and from the densely populated central north, and diversify fishery options at the coast.

Despite its legendary status as one of Namibia’s prime destinations, much of the Skeleton Coast Park remains a bastion for surf anglers. Namibian waters have been badly overfished for half a century and catches everywhere have dwindled. Nonetheless, fishermen continue to flock to the Skeleton Coast. The brief annual influx to Torra Bay creates some challenges, including littering and off-road driving. Anglers are mostly to blame, as discarded fishing gear, including hooks and countless metres of nylon line, create major problems. Regular clean-ups are organised by the MET and tourism operators.

Indiscriminate driving to angling spots from the main road is particularly destructive, but visitors also ignore park regulations to drive to dune fields and other places of potential interest where no access routes exist. The park is divided into clear usage zones for which different permits apply. The entrance gates have fixed closing times for various permit holders to ensure that visitors are able to reach their destinations in daylight. Unfortunately, some visitors ignore these clearly stipulated regulations and get themselves into trouble.

Exclusive concessions in different parts of the park enable unique visitor experiences, including visits to sensitive areas such as the Kunene River mouth. These need to be carefully controlled to minimise impacts on such fragile environments.

There are only three MET stations in the park, at Ugabmond, Springbockwasser and Möwe Bay. The park is currently understaffed and lacks resources such as vehicles and communications equipment. The Skeleton Coast is a hard environment to work in, with desert temperatures varying by up to 30 degrees Celcius in a day. The coastal climate is extremely hard on equipment, with the result that maintenance needs – and costs – are high.

Philip Stander is legendary. His research results are singularly impressive. Resolve, passion and personal deprivation have allowed him to track the lives of numerous desert-adapted lions from birth to death. Through his work, the lions of northwestern Namibia are amongst the best researched large cats on Earth. They’re also amongst the most famous. With endearing names and a luminous social media prominence created by their fans, they’ve been elevated to the status of untouchables. Yet they mostly roam on communal farmland beyond the park, making their conservation increasingly challenging.

Documentation of lions along the Skeleton Coast goes back to 1934, when G.C. Shortridge published a first account of mammal distribution in his The Mammals of South West Africa. Yet, until the early 1970s, when wildlife monitoring was introduced in the park, coastal lions mostly remained myth and legend. An average of just over 20 lion sightings per year were recorded for the next two decades, indicating the general scarcity of the predators here.

From 1984, Des and Jen Bartlett documented desert-adapted wildlife, including lions, in the park for over a decade, and photographed a male lion feeding on a beached whale near Terrace Bay. When they arrived, at least a dozen lions lived along the coast. When their work was published in National Geographic in 1992, they wrote, ‘Now all are gone.’

The first coastal lions were collared in 1986 and provided valuable data until they were shot outside the park in 1987. Besides one random sighting in 1993 of a lion marked a decade earlier in Etosha, no lions were seen at the coast for over 10 years. Yet perhaps two dozen remained in inaccessible reaches east of the park in the mid-1990s. It is on these lions that Philip Stander began his focused research in 1998, research that continues today and documents the population resurgence to well over a hundred animals, and their cautious return to the coast, starting in 2002. By 2018, the lions had once again incorporated seals and seabirds as an important part of their diet, and several prides now spend considerable time along the coast.

While the desert-adapted lions are undoubtedly the most celebrated research subjects here, a lot of other scientific work has been done in and around the Skeleton Coast Park. Other carnivore studies include work on the coast’s perennial residents, brown hyaena and black-backed jackal. This has shown that coastal jackals rely heavily on marine food sources, eating up to 15 per cent fish and close to 70 per cent marine birds. Other biological research has ranged from insects to lichens.

Geological enquiries include fascinating work on dune formation and movement. Crescent-shaped barchan dunes, for example, may shift 40 metres per year, pushed along by prevailing winds from the south. A variety of work has been done on the archaeology and palaeontology of the area, and a book documenting all known shipwrecks along the Namibian coast is due to be published in the foreseeable future.

The eastern border of the Skeleton Coast Park is signposted along the few tracks that lead into the park. There is no fence or other indication of the park boundary, a rather arbitrary straight line on maps, 40 kilometres inland from the low-tide mark at specific points. I’ve walked those 40 kilometres down the Khumib in less than a day. For large, desert-adapted wildlife, such distances mean nothing. The animals move freely and need to do so for their survival. The land to the east is more important for the conservation of most large mammals of the area than the park itself.

While the Skeleton Coast Park is a relatively thin band – for a desert environment – it joins other conservation areas on all sides, making the park an important segment in a vast conservation landscape that stretches from the Orange in the south to beyond the Kunene in the north, and from the eastern border of Etosha to the Atlantic.

The Erongo–Kunene Community Conservation Area (including the Palmwag Tourism Concession) makes up the entire, unfenced eastern border of the Skeleton Coast Park, and stretches to western Etosha. This enables vital wildlife movement between the coast and the community conservation area. The linkage with Etosha is interrupted by the MET policy to fortify all of Etosha’s border fences – in an attempt to reduce human–wildlife conflict in the communal areas.

To the south of the Skeleton Coast Park lies Dorob National Park, and beyond that the adjoining Namib–Naukluft and Tsau //Khaeb National parks. Together, the four parks protect almost the entire Namibian coastline and most of the Namib Desert.

To the north, the 5,850-square-kilometre Iona National Park extends the protected landscape far into Angola. Iona is the oldest state park in Angola, proclaimed as a reserve in 1937 and upgraded to a national park in 1964. While Angola and Namibia have agreed to promote transfrontier conservation, the Iona–Skeleton Coast Transfrontier Conservation Area, discussed for many years, has not been formalised.

The communal conservancies to the east of the Skeleton Coast form the most important conservation linkage for the park, especially for large, nomadic wildlife. The return of lions to the area, and the increase in other wildlife populations, can be largely attributed to successful community conservation. Lions now range far and wide, regularly reaching the coast, and wander along its wind-swept, misty beaches. Inland, they often prey on livestock and come into conflict with people. The park is thus a crucial retreat – but is unfortunately too narrow to be a permanent home.

Tourism concessions in the park generate significant revenue for neighbouring communities through the parks-and-neighbours policy of the MET. This strengthens cooperation between the conservancies and the park, and promotes positive community attitudes to wildlife.


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