Sleep in a Fancy Shipwreck at the End of the Earth

Namibia’s luxurious Shipwreck Lodge immerses you in the wilds of the Skeleton Coast.

Everyone gets a boat. | Photo courtesy of Shipwreck Lodge
Everyone gets a boat. | Photo courtesy of Shipwreck Lodge

The Skeleton Coast has earned its name: Ominous mounds of bleached whale bones and ship detritus protrude from the vast Namibian sands. One of the only locations on Earth where the desert clashes with the sea, the wind-rippled dunes reach 300 feet, creating tawny plains that stretch far and wide. Thick fog, powerful winds, rough seas, and the formidable Benguela Current have resulted in thousands of thrashed vessels and casualties over the years. Portuguese sailors nicknamed it “The Gates of Hell.” The indigenous San people went with “The Land God Made in Anger.”  

Perched on a dune surveying it all are the ten chalets of Shipwreck Lodge. Inspired by capsized boats, each cabin sports portholes to help sell the fantasy—and the views from their decks are otherworldly. In Skeleton Coast National Park, one of the most treacherous places in the world, this is the only luxury camp: You’ll spend your days gazing out at the unforgiving desert landscape, but if you want tiny marshmallows in your hot chocolate, sure, they could probably do that.

Sand. So much sand. | Photo courtesy of Shipwreck Lodge

An eco-retreat in one of the most inhospitable deserts on Earth

If Namibia is the second least-populated nation on Earth with less than 2.5 million people, then Skeleton Coast National Park—the least visited of all of Namibia’s parks—is virtually uninhabited. Which is exactly why the Shipwreck Lodge was constructed here in 2018: isolated and ethereal, this is where you go to reach the end of the earth. Guests are picked up in game vehicles from the Möwe Bay airstrip, accessible by small plane from Windhoek airport or by driving along a gravel road in Skeleton Coast National Park. The transfer from the airstrip to Shipwreck Lodge is a little under two hours. 

The lodge was designed by Nina Maritz Architects in collaboration with the eco-conscious safari group Natural Selection, who donate a percentage of profit to wildlife conservation efforts. The ten cabins are affixed with supporting poles buried deep in the sand, taking into account the harsh winds. Plush blue and burgundy interiors by designers Women Unleashed mimic the changing moods of the sea. The rooms are solar-powered (save for the fireplace on chilly nights), and the chalets utilize sustainable timber, recycled plastic isotherm insulation, and wooden nails—a new innovation, as brass and steel nails wouldn’t stand a chance against the salty air. Easily disassembled, it could all be removed quickly without a trace, leaving virtually no footprint.

Brush up on your chess skills before visiting. | Photo courtesy of Shipwreck Lodge

It’s an innovative approach in line with the country’s own progressive conservation initiatives. Namibia was the first African country to include protection of the environment in its constitution, and is the only continental country to declare its entire coastline a protected national park. 

A former German colony that gained independence from apartheid South Africa in 1990, Namibia had a lot of catching up to do—but in some respects, it’s already surpassed more established countries. Since independence, the rate of poverty has halved, large portions of their budget have been allocated to education, and they are headed toward a universal healthcare system.

The remains of Suiderkus. | Photo courtesy of Shipwreck Lodge

See shipwrecks, sand-filled ghost towns, and next-level wildlife

Visitors may not see other humans, but the wildlife here is unlike anything else on the planet. At least 55 million years old, the Namib is the world’s oldest desert, as well as one of the driest places on Earth—and the fauna has adapted accordingly. Elephants have slightly longer trunks to help dig underground for water. (They’ve also got bigger feet, but they’re cool with it: It allows for easier navigation on soft desert sand.) Black rhinos are nocturnal to avoid the heat of the daytime, and the desert lions that stalk seabirds and slow, fatty Cape fur seals on the craggy shorelines make a jarring sight. Other wildlife sightings may include giraffes, oryx, springbok, cheetahs, jackals, and neon pink flamingos. 

Excursions from the lodge take you down to experience the blustering seaside, and past the remarkable Clay Castles geological formations on a drive to the Hoarusib River, with the chance to spot brown hyenas, lions, and those elephants with the large feet. And if you’re the adventurous sort, traverse the dunes by quad bike, in a special area designated by the government.

Checking out the Clay Castles. | Photo courtesy of Shipwreck Lodge

Extend your trip and head down the coast to the southern end of the desert, closer to the South African border. Here you’ll find the mysterious Kolmanskop ghost town, a former diamond mining settlement which in the early half of the 1900s produced 11.7 percent of the world’s diamond production and spawned wealthy eccentric characters, like the family that kept a pet ostrich that pulled a sleigh through town at Christmas. The town was fully abandoned by 1956 and is now a tourist attraction, sand spilling eerily out of its former buildings.

But first, you can’t leave the lodge without seeing one of its namesake shipwrecks—and there’s an excursion for that too. Shipwreck Lodge’s tour to the Möwe Bay seal colony includes stops to the hull remains of Suiderkus, a South African fishing trawler that ran aground on her maiden voyage in 1977, as well as the small South African fishing boat Karimona, which met its demise in 1971. It also swings by the leftovers of a B-34 Ventura bomber that ran into difficulty during the failed rescue of UK cargo liner Dunedin Star in 1942.  It seems that ships aren’t the only things that get wrecked around here.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She's more emotional wreck than shipwreck.