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Skeleton Coast Self Drive in Namibia

Namibia is a perfect country for a fly-drive holiday. The roads are wide and, outside the towns and cities, virtually empty, which makes for really easy driving. You can drive for thousands of kilometres across spectacular scenery, encounter amazing wildlife and even take yourself on safari. The country’s Atlantic coastline, known as the Skeleton Coast, is wild and desolate. Here is our guide to a Skeleton Coast self drive itinerary – what you need to know and what to expect.

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We particularly wanted to explore the Skeleton Coast, where the Namib Desert meets the South Atlantic. It is a place that is truly wild and lives up to its name – where the skeletons of animals and shipwrecks are scattered across the desolate sandy beaches. The coastline is incredibly long and large parts of it totally inaccessible.

Swakopmund

Swakopmund is located on the wild Atlantic coast in the very west of Namibia. It is the major city on the Skeleton Coast and its name means ‘mouth of the Swakop’, a reference to the river that flows out to sea. Swakopmund was founded in 1892 by Captain Curt von François as a German colonial city. Originally a trade port it has since become a tourist destination. It still retains much of its colonial architecture although many of the street names have changed since Namibia’s independence in 1990.

It is very much a resort town and there are plenty of activities to enjoy. It is also the gateway to exploring the Skeleton Coast.

How to Get to Swakopmund and the Skeleton Coast

The city is located around 350km west of Namibia’s capital Windhoek. Public transport options are available if you just plan to visit Swakopmund but if you want to explore the Skeleton Coast, it is better to rent a car. A 4-wheel drive isn’t needed as Namibia’s roads are well-made, easy to navigate and are usually clear of traffic. Some of the roads are constructed from gravel but they are broad and well maintained. And the scenery along the route is guaranteed to be wonderful.

Activities in Swakopmund

We recommend spending a couple of days in Swakopmund. The city has some museums and an art gallery and there are a plethora of activities, from nature tours to adrenaline-fueled adventures, such as hot-air ballooning or even skydiving. Swakopmund has a long and extensive beach but, while it is theoretically possible to go swimming in the sea, it’s not really a place for a traditional beach holiday. The Atlantic is cold and the currents can be strong and potentially dangerous and you should never swim unless there is a lifeguard on the beach.

Swakopmund coastline

We had driven to Swakopmund from Windhoek via the amazing red sand dunes of Sossusvlei and spent a couple of days in town, taking part in all sorts of adventuresome activities.

There are loads of tour operators in town that offer activities and you can make bookings with them directly. Some activities, such as the hot-air ballooning need some notice, for others you may be able to book on the day. If there is an activity you particularly want to try we recommend booking in advance.

Kayaking on Walvis Bay

One of the best things to do is to visit nearby Walvis Bay and see the seal colony. Walvis Bay is a natural harbour located a short 45 minute drive straight down the coastline to the south of Swakopmund. It’s also possible to rent a kayak and paddle amongst the friendly seals.

The sea is calmer in the morning, so it’s worth making an early start. You drive to a pickup point and are then driven to Pelican point in a 4WD.

It was a touch foggy when we visited – this often happens when the warm air from the desert clashes with the cool temperatures of the coast – but it gave the bay an ethereal feel.

Bring swimwear, water, sunscreen and a hat – you might get lucky with the sunshine! It’s also worth bringing a towel and change of clothes in case you get wet.

Up to 50,000 Cape fur seals, also known as African fur seals, live in the area. They can be incredibly curious and it is lovely to be able to kayak amongst them. They are happy to swim alongside the kayak.

Kayaking Walvis Bay

If you don’t wish to go kayaking there are boat trips to Walvis Bay from Swakopmund.

Exciting Activities In and Around Swakopmund

There are a plethora of companies that offer a range of exciting activities. We indulged in a few. Most operators offer a pickup from your accommodation

We couldn’t miss the chance to go hot-air ballooning over the Namib desert. An early start at the crack of dawn, we were picked up and taken to a quiet location a few kilometers out of town. Our host assembled and inflated the balloon.

The sun was glowing gently in the sky by the time we clambered into the basket and took off. The view of the vast and lonely desert from above was sublime. We climbed high then glided low, skimming the desert just a few feet above the sands before soaring skyward again. There was nothing to hear but silence, occasionally interrupted by the whoosh of the gas burner.

hot air ballooning at Swakopmund

We also enjoyed some other exciting activities including parasailing and quad biking.

Parasailing in Swakopmund
Swakopmund quad biking
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Swakopmund For Foodies

Being right on the coastline, Swakopmund is a fantastic place to enjoy seafood. One of the best restaurants is The Tug,  where we enjoyed our most decadent meal. The Tug restaurant is located on a jetty right on the coastline and, as its name suggests, was constructed around a Danie Hugo tug-boat. Naturally the restaurant specialises in seafood. And you can look out to the wild Atlantic as you dine.

The Tug, Swakopmund

We ordered a sharing dish – the seafood extravaganza, an indulgent seafood feast. It comprised rock lobsters, kabeljou and kingklip fillets, juicy prawns cooked in their shells and the softest melt-in-the-mouth calamari we had ever eaten. All washed down with a crisp white wine.

Exploring The Skeleton Coast

Having dosed up on adrenaline we then packed up our car and headed north along the remote Skeleton Coast.

This is one region that we particularly wanted to explore. It is a place that is truly wild. It was going to be a full day’s journey along an isolated road through the Skeleton Coast National Park.

Skeleton coast self drive road

Our plan was to drive up the C34 and D2302 (basically the same road) from Swakopmund, exploring the coast along the way, and arrive 350km later at Terrace Bay for an overnight stay. We would then leave the park the following morning at the Springbokwasser gate on the D3245 to drive inland and explore Damaraland and eventually Etosha.

Preparation For The Skeleton Coast Self Drive

You need to buy an entry permit. If you are simply driving through the park you can get the permit at the gate. But if you wish to stay you must get an overnight permit beforehand. If you are planning to lodge at Terrace Bay you must pre-book and get your confirmation permit which you will need to show at the office when you enter the park at the main gates. You can get one at the office in Swakopmund (located near the Woermann & Brock Arcade). Permits are also available in Windhoek.

You need to arrive at the gate before 3pm, otherwise you will not be allowed into the park.

You don’t need a 4WD to drive the C34 but you should stay on the road if you’re not driving one – or if you are driving one but don’t know how to engage the four-wheel drive.

We also recommend hiring a car with at least one spare tyre. Punctures on gravel roads can happen quite frequently and this area is very remote, so you may need to change a tyre yourself should you get a flat tyre.

Accommodation Options

There aren’t many options for accommodation in this area. The Namibia Wildlife Resorts website has details of some of the resorts available.

Torra Bay – about 100km from the gates, which offers camping facilities. It is only open at certain times of the year, so you will need to check availability.

Terrace Bay – continue for a further 60km on the D2302 to this resort on the coast which offers basic accommodation in chalets.

Shipwreck Lodge – you can drive beyond Terrace Bay for a further 82km to Mowe Bay and arrange a pickup (strict times apply) to Shipwreck Lodge. This private lodge offers more luxurious accommodation and a number of activities.

The Drive From Swakopmund to Terrace Bay

We decided to spend a night at Terrace Bay. It is a four and a half to six hour drive from Swakopmund, so we recommend leaving early.

If you are renting a 2WD, stay on the road. If you’re renting a 4WD you may be able to drive along some of the side tracks.

We passed by the smelly Cape Cross seal colony and onto the park.

The gates are excitingly ominous. You need to register on arrival.

Skeleton Coast park gates

Once we had entered the park we saw just one other car during the entire day.

We were driving a two-wheel drive car so kept to the road but our plan was to break up the drive by stopping off at various points along the way to explore the wild, windswept beaches, observing shipwrecks and other skeletons. The area is quite often misty but it enhances the enigmatic nature of the stark landscape.

shipwreck on the skeleton coast
Skeleton coast skeleton

Desolate skeleton coastline

Our final destination was the Terrace Bay resort, near the Uniab River Delta. It’s very remote and popular with anglers and there aren’t a huge number of things to do when you get there.

skeleton coast fisherman

Travelling along the Skeleton Coast is more about the journey than the destination. But if you like wild, wide and desolate regions there is plenty of walking along the beach and across the dunes. It’s possible to encounter a variety of local seabirds in the area.

birds on the Skeleton Coast

Facilities At Terrace Bay

The accommodation in chalets was pretty basic but perfectly adequate.

Skeleton coast self drive car

The car was filthy. We didn’t have a choice with car colour when we rented it, but white really wasn’t the best colour to travel along the coast with. (The terms of our rental stated that we needed to refuel and ensure the car was clean. It was very easy to find a local garage on our way back to Windhoek where we could get the car cleaned – but we did this the day we returned the car!)

Food at Terrace Bay was taken in a communal dining hall. Because the area is so remote, we weren’t expecting a brilliant meal. It may have been a far cry from The Tug’s seafood extravaganza that we’d enjoyed the night before, but our dinner was good old fish and chips and they were absolutely great.

There aren’t many facilities at Terrace Bay but, importantly, there is a petrol station. We recommend keeping your fuel topped up while on your trip. Throughout our trip we made of point of stopping at every petrol station we came across, to make sure we always had enough in the tank.

There is also a small shop that will sell essentials for your journey.

It is possible to explore further along the coast up to Mowe Bay and from there you could be picked up and transferred to Shipwreck Lodge (although this would have to be pre-arranged). Any further north and you would have to fly. We decided not to do this leg of the trip, so headed south and then inland towards Damaraland, stopping to admire the famous Welwitschia plant, some of which can live to be over a thousand years old, and eventually on to the Etosha National Park.

The Skeleton Coast is remote and evocative. As a destination, it isn’t for everyone, but if you like wide, open spaces and landscapes that are strangely beautiful – in a wild and desolate kind of way – a Skeleton Coast self drive trip is a worthy addition to a Namibia itinerary.

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11 Comments

  1. I’ve heard a lot about the Skeleton Coast and it seems to attract a fair amount of attention.
    I’ve similarly heard that a4wd or SUV is needed to undertake this road trip for the very reasons that you quote.
    The desolation of the route certainly lends its reputation well to its name.
    This route has long been on my travel list and I’m sure I’ll get there one day!

    • Thank you. We absolutely loved the remoteness of the Skeleton Coast. We were able to make the journey in a 2WD but had to stay on the road. If we had had a 4WD we could have explored some of the smaller tracks. Hope you get to visit one day!

    • Thank you! You’re so right, a hot air balloon ride is such a magical thing – it was a true highlight for us as well. We hope you get to visit the Skeleton Coast one day, the beaches are wild and desolate but strangely beautiful.

  2. IN my head Namibia was all animals haha well I was definitely wrong. I would love to go kayaking with seals or take a hot air balloon! Thanks for introducing me to a new part of the world. Stunning!

    • I guess Namibia is most famous for its safaris but there are so many other amazing places to see. We loved kayaking with the seals, it was so good to be able to get so close to them. And the hot air balloon was just magical!

  3. Skeleton Coast seems aptly named, but what a great area to explore. While I don’t think I’d be going anywhere near water that cold or with waves like that, it is pretty. Kayaking and seeing some of the local wildlife in the water would be interesting. And a hot air balloon ride and time in the desert seems almost impossible to say no to. That’s mostly what I think of when someone says Namibia. It seems like a road trip might be the way to go for exploring

    • We loved visiting the Skeleton Coast, especially the remoteness and stark beauty of the area. We absolutely didn’t swim – we love bathing in the sea and don’t mind the cold, but it was way too rough! You’re right – Namibia is a perfect destination for a road trip.

  4. Namibia is destination that can make a traveler appreciate wide open spaces. I imagine looking at the vast landscape unfolding from the car window or gazing at its glory from a hot-air balloon. I don’t think my travels will lead me there soon but reading about your post on Namibia and your experiences excite the imagination #flyingbaguette

    Jan – https://flyingbaguette.com/

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