Kilometers and kilometers of a waving sea made of sand, dotted here and there with decayed shipwrecks, crumbled animal skeletons, and sometimes even human bones covered by the sand, Namibia’s outlying and wild Skeleton Coast feels like a place out of this world. If you want to truly explore this coastal desert’s wonders and meet its wildlife, there’s only one perfect way: from high and above. Jump aboard a small plane and get ready for an exceptional flying safari over the both dead and alive Skeleton Coast.
Going north towards Angola and the Kunene River, and south towards the Ugab River, this 30 km wide and 500 km long coastal desert holds the sand dunes of the Namib Desert, the Himba tribe wrapped in their characteristic ochre robes, flamingos, ostriches, elephants and colonies of hundreds of sea lions, all sharing the same huge wilderness, completely unbothered.
The deadly water currents combined with the all-covering fog and the shallow sandbanks have been for years the disastrous end to many vessels and living creatures, thrown to the sandy coast and left there to fight an unforgiving death. While you will mostly encounter the rusty remains of hulls, all kinds and sizes, every now and then you will also come across eroded and bleached bones, both whale and human. But this lonely coastline is much more than just death and destruction.
With around 1000 shipwrecks lying around, the Skeleton Coast has gained many names through time: the Bushmen of Namibia called this coastal area “The land God made in anger”, while Portuguese sailors called it “The Gates of Hell”. A flight goes straight from Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, across the Khomas Highland, taking you to the coast and to the first shipwreck site: the Eduard Bohlen, a steamer that crashed against Conception Bay’s shore. The sand almost completely buries the rusted and broken down remains, standing certainly separated from where the coast is nowadays.
Life among death
Your journey then continues over Cape Cross, and here is where life stands out over the disaster that makes Skeleton Coast famous, with an enormous colony of sea lions lying around close to the shore, over one million of these peculiar animals swim, eat and take over the whole area.
As nature calls and hunger hits you, you will experience the unsettling but unique feeling of landing on a makeshift landing strip, so you can pick your spot on the sand and have lunch at the beach. A flying-safari-style meal, along with shipwrecks and remains of scattered old diamond mines.
Once you get back on board your plane, the route heads further inland and then you spot the meeting point of the Congo and Kalahari plates, the collision forming an almost lunar-shaped string of black ridges: the Ugab formations, the dark color of the rock contrasting against the bright white of the sand surrounding it. Your tour then continues into the wilds and with reaching Kuidas, you find the first camp snuggled in the Huab Valley. Take that well-deserved shower, a three-course meal and have some rest in a cozy bed, surrounded by the Skeleton Coast’s wilderness, and a delightful view of the deserted but graceful landscape.
The San Bushmen people once trailed the area, and you can find evidence in the surrounding hills and caves, ancient rock carved with drawings almost untouched by time. As you take a short four-wheel journey on this spot and head to the heart of this wide valley, you’ll stumble upon the Huab River formations, extraordinary and outstanding red lava and yellow sandstone, nature sketching a sublime picture on the ground.
However, remember to never drive off the road or get too far from your car; this is not only prohibited but can be dangerous.
The ‘roaring’ dunes
Again inside your plane, the flying safari goes north, further away from the coast, reaching a narrow band where grains of sand have a specific size and create a unique phenomenon: the roaring dunes. The slightest contact between the grains and they produce vibrations, making a roaring sound that seems to shut down even the sound of the breeze. Slide down this dunes and you’ll be amazed by the loud echoing roar of the sand, unbelievable until you see it yourself.
The Hoarusib Valley and the Himba tribe
You will find the second campsite when you continue further north, at Purros, sheltered by tall palm trees in a verdant oasis. Here, at the Hoarusib Valley, you have the highest chances of seeing the desert elephant, adapted to the harsh environment of the sandy desert. Last but not least, you will have the once-in-a-lifetime experience of meeting the only tribe in Namibia who still live traditionally, the Himba people. Take the chance and see the lifestyle of these men, women and children gathered in huts, their traditions and dances, and maybe you can look at their crafts, pots and jewelry, and even take some pieces home.
From Purros, the fly heads over the Thousand Dunes Valley, to the Angolan border. The third and last campsite is on the Kunene River banks, overlooking the slowly flowing waters. After days of flying, walking and driving through endless sand, you will be so glad to finally see some water, that you won’t even care about the families of crocodiles infesting the river.
What you should know
As measures to preserve the natural habitat are quite strict, day-trip entry permits for casual visitors are only available for the southern area of the Skeleton Coast Park (between Ugabmund and Terrace Bay). The northern area (between Hoanib and Kunene River), almost 70% of the park, is prohibited to independent travelers. Permits are available at the two entry gates, the Ugab River in the south and Springbokwasser in the east. Skeleton Coast Safaris offers information and insight on its flying safaris. On the other hand, Wilderness Safaris offers much luxurious and comfortable accommodation. Several airlines fly to Namibia, like Air Namibia, who offer flights via Frankfurt, Germany.
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