Skeleton Coast National Park

Skeleton Coast Park          
The Skeleton Coast Park was proclaimed the first time in 1971, and in its present form in 1973, and extends from the Ugab River in the south 500 km to the Kunene River in the north. The size of the park is 16 845 km2. The attraction of this remote area lies essentially in the color, changing moods and untouched profile of its landscape. Its aura of mystery and impenetrability is due to the many shipwrecks, dense coastal fogs and cold sea breeze caused by the cold Benguela Current.
 The landscape in the park ranges from sweeping vistas of windswept dunes to rugged canyons with walls of richly colored volcanic rock and extensive mountain ranges. On their slopes grow a surprising variety of interesting xerophytic plants, whose survival is ensured by a wide spectrum of ingenious adaptations. A conspicuous example is the curious elephant's foot, Adenia pechuelii, which anchors itself in rock crevices. Over a hundred species of lichen grow on the plains and west-facing mountain slopes, which change color and become soft and leathery to the touch when the coastal fog pushes inland.
The long stretch of coast north of Swakopmund. Significant to it is the colour, changing moods and untouched profile of its landscape. The dense coastal fogs and cold sea breeze caused by the cold Benguela Currrent. Clay castles, the salt pans near the Agate Mountain and the seal colony at Cape Frio. Animals found are gemsbok, springbok, jackal, ostrich and hyena, while desert-adapted elephant, black rhino, lion and giraffe roam up and down the dry river courses.

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Skeleton Coast National Park              

Discover the Skeleton Coast Park
Covering 1.6 million hectares, the Skeleton Coast Park remains one of the world’s last great wildernesses: harsh, still not completely explored, definitely untamed and extrordinarily beautiful. Leave
your car and take a stroll into – but not too far into – the stark desert landscape. Search the dunes for a glimpse of the small creatures that scurry across the sand or the larger ones that move for vast distances in their quest for survival in the desert. Explore the geological wonders of the desert – dunes that roar and rocks that glisten with promise. Or stick to the coast and fish off the rocky beaches at Terrace Bay and Torra Bay. The nutrient-rich Benguela Current provides the potential for a good feast on prized species such as galjoen and kabeljou (cob) or a good fight from the sea’s bronze whaler sharks. Wreathed in sea fog, lashed by chill Atlantic waves, seared by the sun and scoured by high gritty winds, the Skeleton Coast is aptly named. For well over 500 years, ships have ran aground on its shores and wrecked mariners and castaways have struggled vainly to cross the killing expanse of waterless dunes, mountains and lichen plains in search of safety.

A rocky history
When Swedish explorer Charles John Andersson encountered tales of the Skeleton Coast he declared, “Death would be preferable to banishment to such a country.” But not everybody agreed. A group of people named variously as Strandlopers, Sandlopers or Dauna-Daman (meaning ‘seaside people on a desert plain’) used the beaches as foraging grounds. They survived on fish, seals, sea birds, dead whales and whatever else the Atlantic’s cold Benguela Current threw their way. Like the wildlife, they moved inland when environmental circumstances made it essential. While at the seaside, they constructed shelters using stone and tents of skin, perhaps reeds, sometimes supported by whalebones. Sharp stone circles still survive along the coast.

Wildlife wonders
Professional photographers spend years, waiting patiently to capture images of desert-dwelling elephants sliding down dunes or lions feasting on beached whales. These scenes are exceptional and exceptionally rare. But somehow just knowing they are possible is enough when surrounded by the stark beauty of the Skeleton Coast Park. Towards the north-eastern park exit where game becomes more common, you may see springbok, zebra, ostrich and even lions. For most of the coastal drive, however,
expect few large animals, although encounters with gemsbok and jackals are possible. Dolphins and whales put in occasional but spectacular appearances offshore.

Geological finds
The geology is very visible. Time and nature have sculpted a dreamscape of sand and rock. The mica schists, gneiss and granites are up to 1 000 million years old. Three hundred million years ago an ice age brought vast glaciers that gouged out valleys and deposited boulder rubble when they melted. A hundred and fifty million years ago the sand began to arrive. Some of the dunes subsequently fossilised. The remains of ancient lava flows can still be seen at Terrace Bay. Today you find roaring dunes, castles of clay and beaches that sparkle with wind-polished stones.

Let it be: MET conservation work
The park has no fences, no artificial waterholes, and no active ecological management programmes. The ‘hands-off approach’ is considered best, given that the area has looked after itself quite adequately for rather a long time! However, in the near future ancient wildlife migration routes will be restored due to
the proclamation of the Kunene People’s Park that will link the
Skeleton Coast with the Etosha National Park.

Limited facilities exist in the Skeleton Coast Park. Petrol and water are available at Terrace Bay and
camping with basic ablutions is found at Torra Bay, operated by Namibia Wildlife Resorts. Booking is essential and confirmation slips must be presented upon arrival.

Getting there
The C34 road runs parallel to the coast and then a rough track continues up past Torra Bay to the MET station. Driving the C34 is straightforward, although fog can make the surface slick. The road is mostly gravel, so keep your speed below 80 kph. If you are passing through, you can buy an entry permit at either the Ugab or Springbokwasser Gate. There are several short detours to points of interest, but off-road driving is strictly prohibited. It leaves scars that can last for centuries. The map shows the southern half of the park that is accessible to tourists.

Life in the dunes, rocks and searing landscape.

Despite its arid and deadly appearance, the Skeleton Coast has a greater variety of species than many other parks in Southern Africa. Large mammals include desert-adapted elephant and black rhinoceros, leopard, cheetah, giraffe, gemsbok, zebra, springbok and spotted and brown hyaena, while the coast supports Cape fur seal colonies. There are cetaceans off-shore including endemic Benguela dolphins, killer whales and humpback whales. Occasionally beachcombing lions scour the area in search of marine carrion. In one instance lions were seen feasting on a beached whale at Torra Bay. Reptiles thrive in this desert environment and the park has many curiosities. A case in point is the near endemic
Gerrhosaurus skoogi, an armour-plated lizard that prowls the sand-dune sea in search of vegetation detritus and !nara melon bushes. This large, striking reptile can measure up to 30 centimetres long and weigh 120 grams. The mouth of the Kunene River marks the southern most breeding territory of the one-metre-long green turtle and is also home to the only Southern African population of Nile soft-shelled turtles, which are large, long necked and aggressive!
As many as 247 species of birds have been recorded, including the near endemic Damara tern, which nests and breeds on the gravel plains adjacent to the coast.

Geological features of note

Gemstone beaches
Polished and smoothed by wave action, the beaches particularly around Möwe Bay gleam with a multi-coloured carpet of semi-precious stones including red and maroon garnets, agate, quartzes, amethysts, magnetite (a form of gleaming black iron ore that is magnetic), ilmenite (which contains titanium) and carnelians. They are sometimes scattered about the shattered remains of whale skeletons and shipwrecks up to five centuries old. Taking anything out of the park is prohibited.

Salt/brine pans
The most easily visited are the salt mines just south of the park at Cape Cross where subterranean rock salt can reach depths of 25 metres. The salt forms large, attractive and complex crystal blocks. Pans occur further north, too, notably at Cape Frio, where they extend to roughly 90 km in length. At Angra Fria some brine pans are over 100 metres deep.

The massive dunes begin in earnest just north of Torra Bay (there are virtually no large dunes in the southern portion of the park). Paler in colour than those in the Namib-Naukluft Park, they are nonetheless extremely dramatic, particularly the crescent-shaped barchan dunes. Dunes constantly reinvent themselves as wind and sand-slides alter their shape and location. Where the wind direction remains constant, the barchans are slowly shunted along in almost military formation. The clay castles of the Hoarusib Canyon Complete with towering walls, turrets and battlements up to 70 metres high, these formations are also known as the clay palaces or temples and are composed of solidified silt deposits from long extinct rivers. Lofty makalani palms grow at their base, giving them a surreal Arabian Nights appearance.

Lichen plains
Lichen is technically not a plant, but rather a symbiotic combination of algae and fungi. The fungi act as the ‘bricks and mortar’, providing a stable structure, and the algae serve up the food via photosynthesis. The Skeleton Coast lichen plains might at first glance look desolate but look closely and you will see a myriad of tiny organisms; red, orange, black, green and many hues between. The lichen plains are ecologically essential to the survival of many park species. They secure the geological surface
and are very fragile.

Basalt outcrops
The eroded survivors of the lava plateau, these rocky outcrops jut out of the flatlands like dark building blocks scattered on the plains by giant children.

Messum Crater
In the West Coast Recreation Area, the crater is the corroded root of a collapsed volcano. A very un-collapsed volcano is frequently visible from the park. The Brandberg, Namibia’s highest mountain (2 574 m) is a stubborn plug of granite that has endured the erosion that destroyed the rest of the ancient lava plateau.

Linear oases/sand rivers
A number of rivers occasionally fight their way towards the sea after heavy inland rains. These have gouged out riverbeds and canyons that yield springs, shelter forests and scrub, and act as sanctuary and highways for wildlife species ranging from desert-adapted elephant and black rhino to lion and leopard. Surprisingly lush, the major ones are the Hoarusib, Hoanib, Huab, Koichab, Ugab and the Uniab rivers. When the waters break through the sands and succeed in reaching the Atlantic Ocean, there is national excitement. Watching a river surge suddenly through the desert is an extraordinary experience.

The Kunene River mouth
The Kunene River, which rises in the remote Angolan highlands, is one of Namibia’s few perennial rivers and forms one of the country’s only two permanent estuaries. Historically it supported large numbers of game species, but these have largely been hunted out. The crocodile population was described by early explorers as large and extremely aggressive. It remains so! The strong flow of the Kunene resists tidal incursion and fresh water pushes several kilometres out to sea, as do the crocodiles.

The wreckage of human history.
The Skeleton Coast has an abundance of unusual phenomena and a dramatic, sometimes harsh human history. When Swedish explorer and naturalist Charles John Andersson encountered tales of the Skeleton Coast he declared, “Death would be preferable to banishment to such a country.” But not everybody shared his opinion. A group of people named variously as Strandlopers, Sandlopers or Dauna-Daman (meaning ‘seaside people on a desert plain’) used the beaches as foraging grounds. They survived on fish, seals, sea birds, dead whales and whatever else the Atlantic’s cold Benguela Current threw their way. Like the wildlife, they moved inland when environmental circumstances made it necessary. While at the seaside they constructed shelters using stone and tents of skin, perhaps reeds, sometimes supported by whalebones. Sharp-pointed stone circles still survive along the coast. European exploration of the coast, according to Herodotus, the Ancient Greek historian, may have begun as early as 2 000 years ago when a Phoenician fleet accidentally circumnavigated Africa. The first recorded victim was Portuguese explorer Diego Cão who disappeared mysteriously after erecting his cross at Cape Cross. The 19th century saw an increase in explorers, surveyors, miners and military expeditions, but overall most people and navigators gave the Skeleton Coast a wide berth. This is still the case, making the park the perfect destination for anybody who really wants to get away from it all!

Human wreckage
Although it came by its name due to the bones that line its beaches from whaling operations and seal hunts, more than a few of the skeletons are human. The Bushmen called it The Land God Made in Anger but the Portuguese knew it as The Gates of Hell and ever since European navigators first discovered it, ships have wrecked on its off-shore rocks or run aground in the blinding fog. While small boats could land, the strong surf made launching impossible and shipwreck survivors were confronted
with a waterless 100-km hike through murderous terrain. The coast has scores of shipwrecks, some barely recognisable as such, some still in remarkably good condition. During the early 20th century diamond rush one hulk even served temporarily as what must have been the world’s most remote brothel. The wrecks provide excellent environments for Cape fur seal and seabird colonies, offering unequalled maritime photo opportunities. Some wrecks of note are the Dunedin Star (a crouching skeleton was found buried nearby), Islander, Suiderkus, Sir Charles Elliot and Kaio Maru. The Seal and Luanda can be seen near Toscanini and the Atlantic Pride lies near Torra Bay. Although the MET has conducted clean-up operations in areas like the amethyst mine at Sarusas, the remains of diamond mines and equipment have not been removed because of their historical interest, and can be seen at several places in the park.

Wanderers, soil farmers and painted plains
There are over 100 lichen species with more still to be discovered. Their role is essential to the park ecology. Slow growing (at most 1 mm a year) they break down rock to create soil, stabilise the ground preventing erosion and in some areas create a carpet of changing colours on what would otherwise be sterile plains of stone. More adventurous lichens utilise the wind and ‘wander’ the coast. Other plants of note are Welwitschia mirabilis, a dwarf tree with only two leaves that can live for several thousand years, dune parsley (actually a vine) and the vividly coloured succulents of Agate Mountain.

Singing sand
When Marco Polo travelled in the Gobi Desert he reported hearing musical instruments and ‘the sound of drums and the clash of arms’. He attributed these noises to desert spirits, but the culprit was not supernatural – it was, in fact, the sand. Sand sings in the Skeleton Coast, too. When the dunes form a bowl with the right acoustic properties, even a small flow of disturbed sand causes a terrific noise that resembles rolling thunder (or even a low-flying aeroplane). The phenomenon is known locally as ‘the lion’s roar’.

Four wildlife survival tips
The secret to the survival of many wildlife species lies in the numerous west-flowing rivers (known as linear oases) that thread through the park. While rivers rarely flow, and if they actually reach the sea it is headline news, underground water and springs in the riverbeds nourish vegetation, riparian forest, and provide water, food, breeding grounds and shelter.
Another lifesaver is the curious line of vegetated dune hummocks that runs up the coast. While not much to look at, the hummocks nonetheless act as an important migratory corridor and food source for creatures both great and small. The hummocks are formed by Salsola shrubs that become engulfed in sand, creating small, stable, nutritious mounds.
Lichens are the first to colonise the most unfriendly places, from Arctic tundra to bare Namibian rock. The park has extensive lichen fields on the hills running parallel to the coast and these, too, provide a meal.
The sea fog (called ‘cassimbo’ by the Angolans) also helps. Advancing in great banks at dusk and retreating at dawn it can drift inland for up to 100 kilometres, bringing humidity to an otherwise water-scarce environment. Plants expand and contract in response to the rhythms of the fog as they absorb and then lose moisture. Tenebrionid beetles have perfected the trick of standing on their heads and drinking from water that condenses on their carapaces. Fog fact one: It would take seven billion fog particles to fill a teaspoon. Fog fact two: Less than one gallon of water is needed to generate one cubic mile of fog.