destinationsSkeleton Coast: Exploring Namibia’s Desert Beaches

Namibia Dunes

On Namibia’s northern coastline the stark beauty of one of the world’s oldest deserts meets an Atlantic current rich with sea life. The result is a temperate desert coastline unlike anything else on earth.

The dominant feature of the region is the Namib Desert, an arid environment of towering sand dunes, dry riverbeds and empty canyons. Namib means “vast place” and this desert’s long stretches of empty beach and dune are often described as lonely or bleak. However, a closer look shows that the desert is alive with unique reptiles, insects and plant life.

Shifting Dunes

Dense ocean fogs obscure the dunes and beaches for more than 180 days each year, making a visit to this desert an experience often shrouded in cool mist. The ocean winds that bring the fog also create an immense line of shifting sand dunes—an environment often described as a “dune sea.” The Namib’s dunes are so vast and influential that they actually change the direction of prevailing winds from south to southwest. The tallest of these dunes stand over 900 feet high, making them the second highest sand dunes in the world. 

Wind-shaped dunes
Wind-shaped dunes

Cool Climate

The climate of the Skeleton Coast is shaped by the Atlantic’s Benguela Current, a nutrient-rich ocean current originating off the Western Cape of Africa. These cold Atlantic waters produce cool sea breezes that keep shore temperatures mild, despite the intense sunlight and arid desert climate. The current also attracts plankton and large schools of fish and whales, resulting in an environment teeming with sea life.  

Seal Namib coast
Seal Namib Coast

Skeleton Coast

The Skeleton Coast is littered with more than a thousand shipwrecks. Many of the vessels lost their way in the thick fog, ran aground and were destroyed in the heavy surf. Interestingly, the wrecks are not the source of the name “Skeleton Coast.” This moniker came from the region’s history of whaling and sealing. These industries, which lasted into the early 1900s, left bleach-white skeletons stretched along the entire coastline. Massive whale skeletons are still encountered on the beach today, but the rusting bones of old ships have come to symbolize the region.

Skeleton Coast shipwreck
Skeleton Coast shipwreck

Flightseeing and Dune Drives

The majority of the Skeleton Coast is unpopulated and inaccessible. Travelers visit the area by driving over the beaches and dunes in four-wheel-drive vehicles or flightseeing in light aircraft. While ground travel is the best option for experiencing the desert and its wildlife in person, flightseeing is an exciting way to see the immensity of the coastline. Beach landings at key shipwrecks and sand dunes allow you to experience the very best of the Skeleton Coast’s big attractions.

Dune drive, Namibia
Dune Drive, Namibia

A Welcoming People

In contrast to its harsh environment, Namibia is home to a welcoming population, many of whom have a pioneering spirit and an adventurous outlook on life. The nation is home to a variety of peoples and cultures that have found a way to thrive in this unique environment. 

Himba tribe, Namibia
Himba Tribe, Namibia