Shipwreck Lodge, Namibia. The first African country to include environmental conservation in its constitution

Dedicated to the conservation and preservation of the Skeleton Coast National Park, Shipwreck Lodge presents a canvas for flora, fauna, and homo-sapiens to flourish and co-exist in the same space

Shipwreck Lodge in Namibia

Located in a concession area between the Hoarusib and Hoanib rivers in the Skeleton Coast National Park, Shipwreck Lodge appears to be a series of foundered ships dotting the Namibian coastline. Plunked on the wind-sculpted dunes, the lodge’s ten shipwreck-shaped cabins share the distant views of the Atlantic Ocean. One of the only places on Earth where the desert clashes with the sea, the uniqueness of its landscape beguiles sightseers to this unforgiving location.

Offering hospitality in one of the most inhospitable deserts on Earth, this eco-retreat is opening up Skeleton Coast to the world. Shipwreck Lodge, says Musso, «is a place for intrepid travelers looking to stay off the beaten track». Tawny and isolated, the scenery, in fact, delineates a slice of the African wilderness. Owing to its geological history, the wind-swept plains roll as far as the eye can see. Punctuated only by the remnants of past lives, that include bleached whale and seal bones, and floating detritus – as a vivid reminder of the shipwrecks. 

At Shipwreck Lodge, conservation is the prime focus. Its identity is, therefore, anchored to it. «The idea was to devise a business model to raise revenue through eco-tourism by partnering with conservancies. Hence, forty-two percent of the Namibian land goes to conservation management. The government is always looking for professionals to assist the conservancies to create community-driven tourism enterprises in endangered areas», explained Musso. 

Shipwreck Lodge’s partnerships

This is the only luxury accommodation in the entire six-thousand-and.three-hundred-square-mile concession area. The five-starred establishment also goes beyond the vanilla definition of an eco-friendly retreat. It provides shelter, as well as a breeding ground for endangered species. Dedicated to the conservation and preservation of the Skeleton Coast National Park, it presents a canvas for the flora, fauna, and homo-sapiens to flourish and co-exist in the same space.

Shipwreck Lodge, explains Musso, is the fruit borne from a collaboration between Namibian companies Trip Travel, Journeys Namibia, and Natural Selection, as well as local conservancies Puros and Sesfontein that border the park. Musso, the founder of Journeys Nambia, worked as a journalist in Milan for years before she decided to migrate to Namibia.

Skeleton Coast National Park – The Conservancy

A protected desert habitat famed for its dynamic dunes, the skeleton coast has earned its name. It is, in fact, one of the roughest coastlines in the world, famous for driving many ships ashore. Skeleton Coast National Park is the least visited of all the parks in Namibia. This is the reason why the construction of the Shipwreck Lodge took place here. The aim was therefore to create job opportunities and revenue streams for the conservancies located in remote areas with little or no access to income sources. «A percentage of the lodge’s revenue goes back to the conservancies. To conserve the landscape, for anti-poaching purposes, to pay the salary of the shepherds that work as guards».

There is a prevalence of animal-human conflicts in the area. A part of the conservancy’s mission is to protect the local communities from wild animals. «The farmers live in an area with hyena, lions, and elephants roaming around, like how we have cats and dogs in Europe. This environment proves to be dangerous for their cattle (sheep, cows, goats), which is their bread and butter. The cattle becoming prey for the predators have a grave effect on their livelihood». Musso adds, «we aim at maintaining an equilibrium between humans and the wildlife. So we’ve created a fund for the community to get compensated during an accident, and at the same time leave the wildlife free to prosper».

Shipwreck Lodge’s architecture and design  

A cluster of ten honey-hued chalets resembles the shipwrecks that line Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. Their names come from actual shipwrecks. Award-winning architect Nina Maritz envisioned the solar-powered chalets with only sustainable materials. The shipwrecks were then built off-site and assembled on-site. Construction began in November 2017, and the work concluded in June 2018. Shipwreck Lodge’s angular wooden cabins feature recycled timber and chipboard. Wood, instead of metal nails, ties the structure together, to avoid rusting from the prevailing salty air. Maritz also created insulation for the cabins made of recycled water plastic – known as recycled plastic isotherm insulation. 

Strung along a dune – in the middle of nowhere – the chalets face the far-flung shores. They are affixed with supporting poles buried deep in the sand, taking into account the erratic winds. «We had to insert very long sticks into the dunes to sustain the cabins. The dunes move on a daily basis, today you have a dune here, and tomorrow it’s three kilometers away. This causes heavy maintenance work for us. The staff, in fact, has to put back sand in the poles every day».

Further, Melanie van der Merwe, the founder of Women Unleashed, orchestrated the interior design. Ship bric-a-brac juxtaposed with layers of luxury. Bleached fish bones, old books that talk about the wreckages, fishing ropes, and porthole windows, depicting a portrayal of life on the coast. Each chalet narrates the story of a specific shipwreck. It also comes equipped with a wood-burning fireplace, and deck to enjoy the otherworldly views. Rising eerily from the dunes, the cabin interiors are plush, cozy. They offer respite from the harsh surroundings.

Wildlife conservation in Namibia

A former German colony that gained independence from apartheid South Africa in 1990, Namibia is a country well-respected for its inclusive approach to conservation. It was the first African country to include environmental conservation in its constitution, and the only country to declare its entire coastline a protected national park. «Namibia is a success story all over the world. Despite the animal conflicts, the population of free-roaming cheetahs and rhinos has increased in the last twenty years owing to the efforts of the local conservancies», says Musso.

The tourism industry is a major contributor to Namibia’s GDP. The country, in fact, thrives on ‘eco-tourism’, defined by The Ecotourism Society (TIES, 1990) as ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people’. Shipwreck Lodge is yet another name on the list of Namibia’s progressive conservation initiatives. This, explains Musso, is executed through a deliberate model. «You involve the conservancies and create a revenue stream for them. With the money raised through tourism enterprises you provide job opportunities for the local communities, and, at the same time create places to safeguard the endangered wildlife».

Desert-adaptive wildlife taking over the presence of humans

Desert-adaptive wildlife takes over the presence of humans at the eco-retreat. Elephants with slightly longer trunks to help dig underground for water, «they’ve also got bigger feet. It allows for easy navigation on the desert sand». Black rhinos are nocturnal to avoid the heat of the daytime. Desert lions, seabirds, and Cape fur seals appear on the shoreline. Other wildlife sightings may include Angonian giraffes, oryx, springbok, long-legged beetles, cheetahs, jackals, and neon pink flamingos. «Proximity to the wildlife as such is rare to find», reiterates Musso. 

These animals freely roam around the lodge area. Hence, guests have to keep their distanceTrained professional guides are also present to take around the patrons for excursions. «We share a close relationship with the dessert lion foundation situated forty-five kilometers away from us. They have done a lot of groundwork on desert adaptive lions. These lions have collars. Each time they are close to the lodge we know what to do. The guides are trained on how to behave when they encounter a lion». Two female lions are currently present at the property. 

Shipwreck Lodge, interior view, photography Shawn van Eeden

Lampoon review: Culinary offering at Shipwreck Lodge

Shipwreck Lodge’s culinary offering promotes the concept of finding the balance between local culture and high-end standards. At the center of the site is the lounge and restaurant with a wraparound deck offering an uninterrupted panorama. Local Namibian artists create the artwork dotted around the area exclusively for the lodge. Helmed by three chefs – Denzel Mouton, Festus Arona, and David Ishinki – the restaurant cuisine consists of Namibian game meat, seafood, and vegan options. 

Their signature dishes include tiger prawns on a bed of papaya and pineapple salsa, tuna steak with a soy chaiwatana sauce, kabeljou in creamy pineapple sauce, cauliflowers cake, and marinated beetroot carpaccio. «On good weather days, we also take guests to the beach and prepare an African barbecue from them. Unfortunately, we can’t fish from in front of our lodge as that’s a great breeding area for fish. It is, instead, sourced from a sustainable fishery situated near the lodge». The wine menu showcases a handpicked selection of South African wines. 

Weather reports and excursions at the hotel

Further, adventure activities and wildlife excursions are at the core of the Shipwreck Lodge experience, says Musso. «We offer 4×4 excursions to the Clay Castles, visits to the mysterious Suiderkus and Karimona shipwreck remnants, the Hoanib River Delta, and the Mowe Bay seal colony. Guests can also indulge in experiences such as climbing dunes to watch the sunrise, enjoying al-fresco lunch in the shadow of Clay Castles, and spending an afternoon fishing for dinner». 

Visitors discover the diversity of desert-adapted plants and insects that flourish in the sand, surviving from the moisture of the cold fog that drifts inland from the ocean. The neighborhood, in fact, is synonymous with a foggy coastline. Adventure activities and excursions here are directly dependent on it. The hotel website lists the weather report for guest perusal before booking their stay. 

The hotel’s commitment to the environment 

The lodge has received the 5-Flower top award from Eco Awards Namibia. The Green Eco Flower Award launched in 2017 to reward Namibian establishments showing outstanding results in the field of environmental consciousness. Shipwreck Lodge won 5 flowers. But also an above ninety percent average in the four pure Environmental Criteria Sections. These include conservation, water, energy and waste management.

For Mussa, there is no planet B. «It is key for us to offer a sustainable get away with a low footprint to our visitors». Renewable energy for the running of the entire property comes from solar panels. Sewage at the end is treated with organic bacteria. The greywater derived from it then feeds the flora of the area. Weekly vans take away rubbish. So nothing is left on-site, and is eventually recycled. «We are sensitive in the way we utilize water. Every shower has a bucket that filters the wastewater after shower. The same water is later used to clean the floors of the bathroom». 

One of the founding partners, eco-conscious safari group Natural Selection, also donates a percentage of their profit to wildlife conservation efforts. «For drinking water consumption, we give our guests refillable metal bottles. Hence, there is no place for plastic at our property», she adds. 

Shipwreck Lodge is a partnership with two conservancies that are part of the national park. «Therefore it is imperative to leave the environment as it is after the concession period is over». Easily disassembled, they can, in fact, remove the lodge and pack it without a trace, leaving no footprint behind. «The lodge was built with almost no environmental impact. As per an agreement with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, we will remove the cabins after a twenty-five-year concession», explains Mussa. 

Shipwreck Lodge

Skeleton Coast Park Mowe Bay, Namibia

Shipwreck Lodge, situated amongst dunes with views of the Atlantic Ocean, promises to be an exclusive destination. It is located in the famous Skeleton Coast Park between the Huarusib and Hoanib rivers, only forty-five kilometers north of Möwe Bay. The tariff includes the accommodation, all meals, daily scheduled activities as well as the laundry service. 

Chetna Chopra

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.