At the Ugab River the larger-than-life skull and crossbones on the gates herald your entry to the Skeleton Coast National Park, evoking images of whalebones strewn along the shoreline, giant rusting hulls of shipwrecked vessels half-buried in the sand, and the twisted skeletons of the hapless crew members who struggled, and failed, to make it out of the desert alive. While some of these images hold true, most shipwrecks have been consumed by either the sand or the sea, and those that remain are to be found in the most northerly section of the park, only accessible on a fly-in safari, and not the southern section open to self-drive visitors.
As a result, it’s easy to be underwhelmed by the Skeleton Coast, especially when driving across never-ending, and seemingly empty, gravel plains in thick coastal fog, flanked by a beach scene that is reminiscent of the North Atlantic in November. There are few actual sights – a couple of small and unimpressive wrecked fishing boats and some abandoned mining equipment. However, if you adjust your expectations, appreciate the stark beauty of the landscape, and take time to stop along the way and seek out some of the smaller pleasures of the desert – the insect life and multi-coloured carpets of lichen fields, which are only apparent when soaking up the morning moisture from the fog – then the park will still mesmerise you.
If you persist as far as the last 58km between Torra and Terrace Bay, the dunes reach the road; a 7km “dune drive” affords you a closer exploration. Some 166km after the Ugab Gate, the fairly bleak collection of exposed cement cabins that comprises Terrace Bay marks the end of the road; part of a former mining operation, this isolated outpost is now favoured by fishermen.