Skeleton Coast National Park is one of the largest nature reserves in Namibia, but receives a small number of visits annually. This is likely because it is remote, fairly barren and can have quite tough conditions. It is remote and desolate and one of the coolest places to see in Namibia. Because of its conditions and entry requirements, it’s important to plan ahead for a visit to Skeleton Coast.
What is Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and is it as scary as it sounds?
Skeleton Coast National Park is a massive national park running the west coast of Namibia, from its border with Angola to about the midpoint of the country. It is 16,000 square kilometers (6200 square miles) and was established in 1937. Only about half of the park is accessible to visitors; the rest is off-limits and restricted to staff only, designated as a wilderness area.The Bushmen called the area the “Land God Made in Anger” and Portuguese sailors familiar with the coast called it “The Gates to Hell” because of how severely inhospitable both the land and shore are.Click To Tweet
Why is it called Skeleton Coast?
The name is pretty looming and might leave you wary to enter. We hypothesized whether it got its name from battles of diamond trading, or animal skeletons or even how the sticks and stones washed up on the shores look like bones. The Bushmen called the area the “Land God Made in Anger” and Portuguese sailors familiar with the coast called it “The Gates to Hell” because of how severely inhospitable both the land and shore are.
But it actually got its name from an author who wrote a book about the area after a shipwrecked (although everyone on board was rescued). Skeleton Coast is a book by John Henry Marsh in 1944 about the shipwreck (and subsequent rescue). After it was published, it slowly became the nickname and now the official name of the park. Since, another book, Letters from the Skeleton Coast has been published about the wreck of the Dunedin Star along the coast.
The name has also been attributed to the whale and seal bones that could be found on the shore from the whaling industry and also from human remains of the shipwrecks up and down the coast.
Skeleton Coast National Park permitting
There are three types of permits available to visitors of Skeleton Coast, only two of which are available at the gates. The first, which is free (as of July 2018), is a transit permit. This permit will allow you to drive between the two gates, but no further North. The second permit option is for visitors going to Terrace Bay. You must have a confirmed booking at Terrace Bay and provide documentation for your booking to get this permit and you will pay for the car plus a per-person fee based on nationality.
Any additional permits, to drive the length of the park or go any further North than Terrace Bay need to be obtained in advance of your visit from the national parks office in Windhoek.
Skeleton Coast entry gates and hours
Like most national parks in Namibia, you are required to check in and out at official gates in Skeleton Coast. This is also where you get your entry permit. There are two gates to the park – Ugabmund (south) and Springbokwasser (central, east).
The gate times are (as of July 2018):
Ugabmund: entry 7:30-15:00; exit 7:30-19:00
Springbokwasser: entry 7:30-17:00; exit 7:30-19:00
Skeleton Coast driving conditions and petrol
Do you need a four-wheel drive for Skeleton Coast? Not really, but it’s nice to have. Regardless of your permit, you are not allowed to drive off-road in the park. The majority of the roads seemed well-maintained and don’t require a four-wheel drive. There are some side roads that pick up a lot of the blowing sand and get dodgy.
The gate attendants can also advise you if there have been any recent weather events affecting road conditions. The roads down to the coast itself have a lot of sand and it would be good to have 4WD or AWD, especially if you are trying to reach the fishing spots.
You can find petrol in Skeleton Coast (at Terrace Bay), and fill up at Palmwag to the east or Mile 108 or Hentiesbaai to the south.
Skeleton Coast wildlife
With the park being so barren and with such adverse conditions, it’s a wonder that animals live there. Fishing is probably the main attraction of the park, so if you take fish out of the equation, what animals are there to see? Interestingly enough, lions and rhino! Though the rhino are hard to spot, it is not uncommon to see lions in the park.
The lions in Skeleton Coast have adapted to desert conditions and grown in population given the protection levels of the park. There is a large black rhino population in the park, but they don’t tend to be out anywhere near the roads, so do plan on seeing them.With the park being so barren and with such adverse conditions, it’s a wonder that animals live there.Click To Tweet
In addition to desert lions and rhino, springbok and various birds live in the park, but can also be hard to spot when conditions are tough. Elephant, baboons and giraffe live further inland. In our visit to the park, the only living creatures we saw were two small ducks in a little oasis and a few flocks of birds on the coast.
Things to see in Skeleton Coast
If it isn’t clear yet, there is not much to “see” or “do” in Skeleton Coast, given its remote nature and conditions – that is, in the traditional sense. If you’re happy to ditch expectations of typical park activities, there is plenty to do and see in the park.
Drive through Skeleton Coast
Just driving through the park, even in a sandstorm is a really beautiful experience (keep your windows shut and your make sure your air con isn’t pulling in air from the outside or you will be covered in sand!).
Go four-wheeling in Skeleton Coast’s dunes
Though driving off-road is not permitted in the park, the residents of Terrance Bay said that there are dunes up the road to go explore. Do not overestimate your skill or vehicle’s ability – this should only be done by experienced drivers in the right vehicles. The dunes are super isolated and if you get yourself stuck, you will be there a long time before anyone passes by to help.
Look for bones on the coast
The most popular pictures of Skeleton Coast National Park are bones of massive animals, picked clean and dry, laying out on an isolated beach or starkly in the desert. Don’t expect to see bones everywhere you look, but if you do go down to the water (on marked roads only and with the right vehicle), don’t be surprised if you find some.
Go fishing along the coast
There are strict rules as to where fishing is allowed, and you need a four-wheel drive to access some of the fishing spots, but we saw a handful of anglers out there testing the waters. Dorob National Park adjacent to Skeleton Coast on its southern border has a fishing spot about every 10 kilometers (most only accessible with a 4×4). So, if you’re serious about fishing, the coast of Namibia has a lot of options.
Check out abandoned mines
There is a now-defunct diamond mining industry in the Skeleton Coast (which may explain what drew people to the desolate land in the first place). Most of the business of the mines has been abandoned, but the sites still exist. They are marked and conditions-permitting, you can check them out. Do not go into areas with restricted access! I can’t imagine those in charge of protecting diamond areas are friendly to rule-breakers.
Look for Skeleton Coast’s famous shipwrecks
Because of the constant, large waves crashing into the shore, there is no shortage of shipwrecks all along the coast. It is estimated that there over 1000 shipwrecks on the coast, but there are a few to visit in Skeleton Coast that are well marked from the road. The most notable wrecks are the Dunedin Star, Otavi, Beguela Eagle, Tong Taw and the Eduard Bohlen.
The most recent wreck on record was in March of 2018; all 24 crew were rescued. Note: it is illegal to disturb shipwrecks in the park.
Play on an abandoned oil rig
You may be sensing a theme of abandonment in the Skeleton Coast. Along the Southern portion of the drive (just South of Toscanino), there is an abandoned oil rig. It is rusty and has fallen over, so I wouldn’t recommend using it as a playground, but it is definitely cool to check out and walk around.
Funny story: when we got out of the car to check out the rig, the wind made a tunnel through the car and a water bottle went flying out. I chased after it and the changing winds had me running in circles and zigzags while I laughed at how dumb I must look. So, in order to keep yourself from accidentally littering in the park, be very careful of the winds when opening and closing doors.
See Skeleton Coast by air
There are several airstrips within the park, though with the wind conditions we saw, I would be terrified to fly too low there. But you can see the park from above as well by taking a scenic flight. Learn more about Skeleton Coast scenic flights here or another scenic flight option here (note: I haven’t taken either).
Skeleton Coast Park Map
Here are the main points mentioned in this article on my Skeleton Coast map:
Skeleton Coast camping and accommodation in the park
Unless you have special permission, you cannot stay overnight in Skeleton Coast National Park outside of the lodging that is available. There are lodges in Torra Bay and Terrace Bay. You can find more information about the lodging via NWR here (they run all parks in Namibia), and you need to have a booking in advance in order to get the permit.
What to see near Skeleton Coast
South of Skeleton Coast is Dorob National Park, which is a lot of similar driving to Skeleton Coast, but with less wind and sand. This is where you will find fishing, Cape Cross Seal Reserve, Hentiesbaai and down to Swakopmund.
East of Skeleton Coast, you can spend a few days driving around dirt roads, seeing world heritage sites, rock paintings and carvings and enjoying the topography. Check out Palmwag (which has a lodge and camping to overnight in the region), Twyfelfontein (UNESCO World Heritage Site), Organ Pipes, Burnt Mountain and the Petrified Forest.
North of Skeleton Coast is Angola and West is the ocean, so stick with south or east.
Accommodation near Skeleton Coast
The only two options to stay inside Skeleton Coast National park are Terrace Bay (north) and Tora Bay (central). If you are looking to stay nearby the Springbokwasser gate, you should look to stay in Palmwag (check out Palmwag Lodge and Campsite).
If you are looking to stay south of the park, you can look in Hentiesbaai or Cape Cross. Hentiesbaai is a small fishing village, but has petrol, ATMs and grocery stores. Cape Cross has a lodge and campsite, but is pricier and the town has no services (but you are minutes from the Seal Reserve). Mile 108 is a **tiny** “town” near the Ugabmund gate with petrol, but it was pitch dark already at dusk, so we didn’t look into any lodges there.
Skeleton Coast photo gallery
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