Here's what it's like to stay in Namibia's Shipwreck Lodge where the rooms resemble marooned boats

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Views from the flight to Shipwreck Lodge are dramatic. (Photo: Andrew Thompson)
Views from the flight to Shipwreck Lodge are dramatic. (Photo: Andrew Thompson)
  • Namibia's Shipwreck Lodge is one of the world's most unique hotels.
  • It's impossibly remote and perched on sand dunes hours from the nearest town.
  • From the outside, rooms resemble tiny shipwrecks - but unlike the real thing, these are luxurious and easily habitable.
  • There's also no shortage of things to see and do in the surrounding Skeleton Coast National Park, including dune quad biking, beach lunches, seal colony and wreck visits, and a chance to spot rare desert-adapted animals.

Flying to Namibia's Shipwreck Lodge - which, given its total isolation, is the most convenient way to arrive - is a bewildering but spectacular experience.  

Depending on your starting point, you'll likely have coasted above Namibian landscapes for over an hour - gawking at scenes that shift effortlessly from city to savannah to rutted canyons to stark soaring sand dunes. 

At best, in terms of civilisation, your aerial perspective may have given you a sighting of a small, likely nomadic, village. Or perhaps a solitary lodge set at the foot of a towering mountain. Or a lone road cutting through a sandy desert floor that disappears into a shimmer on the horizon. And more than once, you may have wondered how luxury tourism, the kind Shipwreck Lodge is famous for, can exist so far from anywhere.

Touchdown at Mowe Bay airstrip
Touchdown at Mowe Bay airstrip. (Photo: Andrew Thompson)

About 90 minutes into the flight, the small Cessna's altitude dropped. I peered over the pilot's shoulder, trying - and failing - to pick out the runway from the stark gravel surface below. Instead, I gazed out my own window and watched the once-distant scenery pull sharply into focus. 

With most travel in Namibia, the journey is touted to be as much a part of the experience as the destination. Usually, it's a neat trick that self-driving overlanders play on themslves to justify the vast distances on corrugated roads. And to be fair, the scenery en route is often as impressive as the desolate campsite at the other end. 

The scenic commute from the airstrip to Shipwreck
The scenic commute from the airstrip to Shipwreck Lodge requires 90 minutes of Skeleton Coast driving. (Photo: Andrew Thompson)

But this isn't the case with the painfully photogenic Shipwreck Lodge. It rises like a mythical oasis at the foot of the country's most dramatic dunes and, in many ways, is a destination within itself.

The luxury lodge is the only of its kind in the 500km long Skeleton Coast National Park, better known for more rustic alternatives. And its unique design and seemingly bizarre placement made it an instant icon when it opened five years ago. 

Shipwreck Lodge Rooms are designed to resemble min
Shipwreck Lodge Rooms are designed to resemble mini marooned boats. (Photo: Andrew Thompson)

Nina Maritz Architects designed the lodge to resemble the less habitable wrecks that litter the hostile Skeleton Coast. It's built from sustainable wood and can, in theory, be removed entirely without leaving a trace on the landscape despite its apparent permanence.

There are just ten rooms, which fan out parallel to the coastline on an elevated dune. Each resembles a small wreck of its own and is named after one of the roughly 500 actual ships foundered on the coastline. 

Inside the rooms
Inside the rooms. (Photo: Andrew Thompson)

Inside are king-size beds with lavish throws and more pillows than you'll need - including one perfectly positioned to prop up your head so you can fully appreciate the views.  

A daybed adjacent to the angled windows also catches afternoon sunlight. And, close by, a wood-burning stove will keep you warm or just set the mood, if necessary. 

Shipwreck Lodge, Namibia
Views from the daybed. (Photo: Andrew Thompson)

The lodge is solar-powered and hundreds of kilometres off the grid, so there's no fridge or kettle in the rooms - but a flask of boiling water in your ship's galley, really an interlude between the bedroom and the bathroom, allows you to make a perfectly good cup of tea or coffee.

And after the galley is an en-suite bathroom, where your attention will first move towards eye-level portholes with ocean views - but it'll quickly shift to the large, luxurious rain shower. 

Shipwreck Lodge, Namibia
Portholes in the bathroom offer views of the dunes and ocean.(Photo: Andrew Thompson)

Given the tiny home nature of the rooms, it's tempting to kick back with a book and a crackling fire and remain relatively docile. Which is totally acceptable. But then the views from the flight or drive in will surface in your mind, and you'll find yourself emptying sand from your shoes, lacing them up, and casually strolling the boardwalk back to the common area, where all the action starts. 

Guests eat most meals in the main dining area, which on one side also has a fully-stocked bar, coffee station, and lounge with Wifi connectivity. You may be a day's dirt road drive from the nearest city, but that doesn't stop you from eating meals prepared with the freshest ingredients - or your phone pinging in your pocket with an update from home. 

Shipwreck Lodge, Namibia
The common area is a comfortable extension of the private rooms. (Photo: Andrew Thompson)

If the weather turns, as it has the potential in this wild and sometimes windswept destination, it's easy to envisage a day spent hunkering down in the central section and playing board games on the plush window-side sofas.

But, polite as he was, Shipwreck Lodge guide Imanuel Mbuale, who introduced himself as Imms, was eager to showcase what he loves about his Skeleton Coast office. 

"This is just such a beautiful part of Namibia and the world," Imms said of the Skeleton Coast. "There's something about the oceans and the dunes, and how much sometimes invisible life can sustain itself between them, that makes it incredibly special." 

Shipwreck Lodge, Namibia
Jackal prints in the mud seen during a beach-side sundowner stop. (Photo: Andrew Thompson)

On a walk across the dunes, Imms showcased this life - in small beetles scampering over the sand, succulent plant leaves fed on by thirsty antelope, and footprints of brown hyenas, jackals, springboks, and even elephants. 

"It's equally a place of death," he said, pointing to the weathered bones of an oryx. "Hence the park's name." 

Slow scenic walks are an everyday activity at the lodge, but to gain a true appreciation for the scale of the Skeleton Coast there's only one way to explore - astride a growling quad bike. 

Shipwreck Lodge, Namibia
Quad biking on the dunes of the Skeleton Coast. (Photo: Andrew Thompson)

Within seconds of departing for the dunes that rise up behind the lodge, your thumb alone gets you to a place where they fully envelop and disorientate you thanks to their vast wind-induced swirls - and where you can whoop with joy or terror and have no one hear you. 

After 30 minutes of long, fast flats, skirting the edge of dune lips, and dipping down into their shadows, Imms slowed before a dune peak so steep nothing but blue sky was visible on the other side. He motioned for us to switch off and walk cautiously to its edge. 

"We'll take it slowly with the engines off, sitting backwards on both brakes," he said, peering down the precipice. "Listen to the rumble of the sand beneath you as you make your way down. It's incredible." 

It wasn't a joke. Imms casually rolled his four-wheeler off the top of the dune and rapidly miniaturised some 50 metres below before motioning for the next person to follow. 

Shipwreck Lodge, Namibia
Descending the steep dune was an exhilarating experience. (Photo: Andrew Thompson)

As static and undisturbed as life along the Skeleton Coast may seem - there are wrecks decades old that bear little written history and whale bones that lie equally undisturbed - no two days there are alike.  

Winds pick up and subside, coastal fog drifts in and out from the horizon, and shifting sands that can reveal bones and relics also conceal the morning's footprints and tire tracks. 

As a result, the best Skeleton Coast itineraries are also equally changeable. 

"My plan this evening was to take you to my favourite viewpoint," he said. "But one of our desert-adapted elephants has finally returned to the lodge. So if you don't mind, I think we should go and find him." 

These elephants, Imms explained, walk dozens of kilometres through dry inland river beds in their deceased mother's footsteps to reach the Shipwreck Lodge. Quite why, they're not entirely sure - but Imms believes it's partly for nostalgic purposes. 

"He remembers where his mother left the supplies," Imms said with a rye grin. "So he's really here to pick up the milk and cornflakes before returning inland for a few weeks."

Shipwreck Lodge, Namibia
Lone elephants walk dozens of kilometres to feed on the fresh greens by the river mouth. (Photo: Andrew Thompson)

So with the original evening plans happily scuppered, we hopped aboard the Land Cruiser and went in search of the lone bull. And although he may have inexplicably walked across hostile lands in his mother's footsteps for days, he also inadvertently offered the perfect send-off from what must be one of the world's most remote and remarkable lodges. 

Travelling to the Shipwreck Lodge 

There are 10 double or twin rooms at Shipwreck Lodge, two of which expand to family units that sleep three. 

It's possible to self-drive to the lodge pickup point in Möwe Bay, but the most convenient commute is via light aircraft from Windhoek or Swakopmund, which can be arranged directly with Natural Selection via Desert Air

Natural Selection offers discounted rates to African residents through their Explorer's Club

Andrew Thompson was a guest of Natural Selection.

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