- Shipwreck Lodge and the Skeleton Coast
Exploring the Skeleton Coast January 2021
Skeleton Coast is usually associated with shipwrecks and stories of sailors
stranded on the beach, walking inland in search of water and food, only to
succumb to the elements. The name however originates not from the bones of long-lost
sailors but of the bones of long dead whales and seals that lie strewn along
the desolate beaches.
Skeleton Coast is a vast stretch of land, 500 km long and about 40 km wide, desolate
and barren. It is notorious for the treacherous fog, strong currents and moving
sandbanks. The barren landscape and rocky reefs mean disaster for any human or
vessel stranded there.
unaware of the linear oasis that dissect the area, dry riverbeds that are
mostly dry, but in full flood during the rainy season, that provide valuable underground
water and grass for a variety of wild animals. Oryx, springbok and zebra roam
these riverbeds and the famous desert lions and desert-adapted elephants
sometimes venture down as far the coast.
On a recent
visit to Shipwreck Lodge, we had the opportunity to travel into this mysterious
area and experience the splendor of this untouched nature paradise. The area
north of Mowe Bay is a “sperregebiet”, it is an area that can only be visited
if you are a guest at the only lodge in the park, Shipwreck Lodge, or if you
have a special permit. This has been the case into the distant past, meaning
that the area is almost untouched by humans, much that one sees here is as it
has been since anyone can remember, be it the shipwrecks, whale bones and trees
and other debris that have washed ashore over the decades.
does one get there? It is a long and interesting drive from Swakopmund, extremely
scenic in a desolate kind of way. The road travels north past Henties Bay and
Cape Cross to the Ugab River and the official “Skeleton Coast park” entrance. The
rugged mountains of Damaraland are visible to the east and to the west the endless
coastline with wave upon crashing on the beaches. Signboards indicate the
wrecks that lie on the beaches, often only small remnants remain, confirming
the insignificance of humans against the forces of nature. There is almost no
traffic meaning that one is constantly aware of the loneliness and desolation
that must have faced shipwrecked sailors that washed up on these shores.
one linear oasis after the other, the dry rivers are evenly spaced and each
river mouth has some water, a little grass and inevitably some interesting bird
and animal species. These are the Ugab, Huab, Uniab and Hoanib rivers, all
famous in their own right, receiving rainwater in their unique catchment areas
deep inland and bringing valuable water through the desert to the coast.
at Mowe Bay, we were received by our guide who proceeded to drive us 30 km along
the sea and through the dunes to the lodge overlooking the Hoarusib River mouth
and the Atlantic Ocean. The view from the lodge is a panorama that includes the
ocean, the river mouth and the river weaving its way eastwards between the
dunes to the east. The dunes are white and impressively large, mountains of
sand one after the other reaching up into the Kaokoland sky. The many natural
springs in the area attract the antelope and other animals found here, inevitably
there is some movement somewhere and you can while a way the hours searching
and following the movements of these fascinating desert adapted animals in
their quest for survival. Often there are predators on their heels,
black-backed jackal and brown hyaena are active here, their tracks criss-crossing
the desert sands wherever you look.
coincided with a rare highlight, that of the arrival of 2 desert lionesses, the
first lions to appear in this area in almost 10 years. This led to an unexpected
adventure of tracking lions and assisting the famous lion researcher, Flip
Stander, to try and stop these lions hunting the Himba cattle that were grazing
deep inside the Skeleton Coast Park.
drought in north-west Namibia has led to the unusual situation of the nomadic
Himba people to graze their cattle inside a national park, usually strictly
prohibited but in these challenging times, tolerated. The sad reality however
is that it compromises the activity of the animals that naturally occur here
and contributes to an increase in the much talked about human-wildlife conflict.
And this is the dilemma that lionesses Alpha and Bravo found themselves in. Plans
were made for a bush dinner in the Hoarusib River, the strategy being to make
as much noise and human activity as possible, to keep the lions to the west and
stop them walking down river to find the cattle to the east. The Desert Lion team proceeded to
fire off an impressive display of fireworks to the singing and chanting of the
lodge staff and guests. After an exciting dinner adventure, we returned to our comfortable chalets at
midnight, in the hope that we would finally see these two lions in the flesh the following
In the morning we set out on our Hoarusib river adventure, starting off with
a drive down an extremely steep singing dune, to continue west between the steep
cliffs rising on each side of the river, deep into the desert. Driving through the
fresh-water wetlands, we experienced small herds of oryx and springbok antelope.
The steep cliffs gave way to steep dune sands, cascading over the rocks onto
the river banks. On these dunes the !Nara bushes could be seen with their
valuable !Nara melons, ripening in the sun, soon to provide valuable and nutritious
food to the many large and small animals found here. Once on foot, we
could see the activity of various lizards and other reptiles on these dunes
with the cry of birds of prey high above.
drove us out of the river and into the steep mountains to a lookout point from where
we could appreciate the vast landscape from above. On our drive back to the
river we came across the Desert lion research vehicle at the foot of a large
rock outcrop and on closer inspection we saw that Flip Stander was observing
the two lionesses resting amongst the rocks, scouting the area for possibly
prey. What a site, lionesses in the desert, our first contact with the females
Alpha and Bravo. Flip proceeded to tell us about the two lionesses that had
crossed 65 km over the dunes from the Hoanib river to reach this area, a need
to explore driving them out of their home territory. We learned that lionesses
Alpha and Bravo were one of the main themes of Flip Standers second Vanishing
Kings movie, an intriguing story of survival that is worth watching to understand
the challenges faced by these endangered predators, some of the last of their
kind in Africa.
following days were a whirlwind of luxury treats at the incredible Shipwreck
Lodge and exploring the surrounding nature area in our 4 x 4 open top Toyota
Landcruiser. The standard of the meals easily exceeded those of hotels and
restaurants in Swakopmund and the service was extremely friendly and professional.
Most of the staff are from the local communities in north-western and northern
Namibia, many of these would not be out of place in a 4+ star hotel in Europe, meaning
that Namibia is really progressing in terms of offering world class hospitality,
able to satisfy the most discerning traveler.
One of the
highlights was the beach lunch served on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, a
view out to sea, sunny skies and a cool breeze coming in over the ocean. The
chef prepared a variety of grilled meats from an open fire, fresh vegetables
and salads which we washed down with the finest wines from the Cape winelands.
entertained us, running in and out of the sea to the motion of the waves. The
sea temperature was a pleasant 22 degrees and yes, we went for a swim, the
children riding the white waters to the beach, the white sea sands providing
the perfect playground for all.
On our next
river drive, we were taken to explore the “clay castles”, sandy sediments of the
Hoarusib river from the distant past, a time when a slower flowing river brought
the silty sands from upriver, depositing them in layer upon layer over
thousands of years.
are welcome at the lodge and may take part in most of the activities. The two
family rooms provide for 4 person families, the remaining 8 chalets offering
twin accommodation. The lodge design is based on “shipwrecks”, the bungalows appear
as if they found themselves beached on these shores, rustically built but extremely
stylish and comfortable inside, large windows providing views into the distance
with all the amenities that one would associate with a luxury lodge.
dunes provided the playground for a quad bike excursion and a final sundowner
drive that took us to the highest point in the dune sea. From there we were
able to dune board, sliding down the steep dune faces in a burst of exhilarating
speed. The view of the sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean with a backdrop of vast
sandy silence, confirmed that we were in one of the most desolate and untouched
nature areas in the world, a rare experience, away from world of too many
people and the Covid-19 epidemic. A refreshing experience, “away from it all”,
silence and peace in this fascinating wonderland, sadly it was time to return