Namibia is a land of contrasts. A vast and largely uninhabited country situated in the southwest corner of Africa, it takes its name from the only true desert in southern Africa, the Namib. In the native Nama language, this word means “open space”, so Namibia is the “land of open spaces”. The name couldn’t be more appropriate. Largely covered by desert, rugged mountains and arid plains, it is the most sparsely populated country in the continent. And while it is also one of the driest countries in Africa, it has a 1500 km long Atlantic coastline, a foggy, barren wasteland strewn with shipwrecks, the entire length of which has been designated a national park. The country borders with Angola and Zambia to the north, Botswana to the east, South Africa to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the west.
Until a few days before booking the Namibia trip, I knew relatively little about the country. I remembered seeing haunting pictures of dead trees in the Namib desert and of shipwrecks along the Skeleton coast and had seen some astonishing footage in the BBC documentary “The Living Planet”. But after a quick search of the internet I discovered that with its teeming wildlife, stunning landscapes and ease of self-organised travel, Namibia is in fact a photographer’s dream. So finding ourselves with a couple of weeks free in May 2009, the temptation of a surprisingly cheap flight with Lufthansa (Bologna-Munich-Johannesburg-Windhoek) proved too hard to resist. We realised it would be the perfect destination for a first foray into Africa, booked our flights there and then and began organising the trip.
As luck would have it, May is a very pleasant time of year to visit. As Namibia is in the southern hemisphere, the hot and relatively humid summer lasts from October through to April. May is therefore the beginning of winter and is dry, cool and relatively green, without the dust that can often occur between June and August. And although the best time of year to view wildlife is slightly later on during the dryer months of the year when water in the north of the country dries up and animals are forced to migrate southwards towards the waterholes around Etosha, there are still plenty of opportunities for viewing wildlife.
We soon realised that two weeks is really the bare minimum for a trip to Namibia. So to make the most of the time available, we decided to focus on three specific destinations that I considered unmissable: the Etosha National Park; the Skeleton Coast National Park; and the Namib-Naukluft Park. I was especially keen to visit the area of the Namib desert around Sesriem and Sossusvlei in search of the haunting dead trees and giant dunes I had seen photos of, but we also managed to stay a couple of nights in the Naukluft mountains on the way. With three weeks or a month available, other must-do destinations would include: a) the north of the country with the Caprivi strip and an incursion into Zambia and/or Zimbabwe to view the Victoria falls, and b) the south, with the Kalahari desert, Fish Canyon and the ghost town of Kolmanskop, an abandoned mining village famous for its brightly-painted houses slowly sinking into the sand.
As Namibia’s tourist industry is extremely well-organised and the country is generally safe to travel around on your own, we opted for the independence of a self-drive tour, booking a 4WD Nissan Double Cab from the capital Windhoek. These specially converted vehicles are ubiquitous in Africa and are fitted out with everything you could possibly need for camping: two fold-out roof-top tents (ideal for keeping well away from snakes and insects) as well as comprehensive camping and cooking gear, including sleeping bags, tables and chairs, saucepans and a gas cooker. We were able to book almost all of our accommodation (including campsites) in advance over the internet via Namibia Wildlife Resorts which manages the national parks (www.nwr.na.com). In some locations, such as the Skeleton Coast, accommodation is very limited, so it’s worth booking as early as you can.
After staying a night in the capital Windhoek to recover from our overnight flight, pick up our 4WD Nissan and buy food, we set off northwards for the six-hour drive on the B1 highway towards the Etosha national park.
Etosha National Park
Etosha, which means “Great White Place” is a largely dry salt pan desert about 120 km in length. Part of the Kalahari basin, the salt pan covers about 25% of the park. At the time of our visit it largely consisted of dry salt and mud, but with a shallow layer of water shimmering mirage-like in the distance.
Road to nowhere? The shallow water of Etosha pan reflects the sky in a dazzling mirage, the horizon lost in the blinding midday haze
There are four restcamps in Etosha, all run by NWR: Onkoshi, Okaukuejo, Namutoni and Halali. We stayed 3 nights, each night at a different restcamp. Each of the restcamps has its own waterhole, where animals converge to drink at all times of day. They are also floodlit at night, allowing excellent opportunities for watching wildlife (but not so great for photography due to the strong yellow cast of the floodlights).
While the landscapes in Etosha are interesting in their own way, the real reason for visiting is the animals. Zebras, springboks, giraffes, kudu and elephants abound, but we also saw rhinos at the waterholes and lions on a night safari. I regretted not having a lens longer than my 70-200, although many of the animals come so close that the 70-200 was fine, at least for shooting wildlife within a natural habitat.
Springbok drink at a waterhole near Etosha pan. Along with the solitary mopane tree, the wild animals are an integral part of the landscape
Pure landscape photography in Etosha is a little more challenging. The terrain consists of flat, dry savannah and during the middle of the day the light tends to be very harsh. Another difficulty is that while visitors are free to drive around the park to view animals and the landscape, getting out of vehicles is dangerous and strictly forbidden except in designated fenced-off areas. This tends to limit compositional scope for landscapes, much of which has to be done by manoeuvring the car to get a good angle and leaning from the window. The main features of note are the classic mopane trees and herds of animals grazing on the softly swaying, pale yellow grassland.
A solitary mopane tree growing near the Etosha pan
Zebra and wildebeest graze in the burning afternoon sun. A panoramic format is ideal for herds of animals under a featureless sky
The salt pan itself is fascinating and offers scope for interesting abstract compositions. When we were there around midday, the water and sky merged together in a shimmering expanse of azure, white and mineral yellow, the horizon lost in the vibrant, blinding haze.
Etosha pan offers fascinating opportunities for abstract compositions
Skeleton Coast National Park
Leaving Etosha and its wildlife behind us, we set off westwards towards the coast through the solitary region of Damaraland. This is a semi-desert region in which rugged granite mountains gradually give way to coastal sand dunes. The road west from Outjo via Kohirxas is rough, rugged and almost totally deserted: we encountered almost no human or animal presence apart from a few baboons calling out from the granite outcrops on the distant mountains.
The Skeleton Coast park stretches from the Kunene River in the north for approximately 500 km to the Ugab River in the south, and protects about one-third of Namibia’s coastline. It is a remote, desolate, windswept area known by the Bushmen as “The land God made in anger”. The coast takes its name from the bleached whale and seal bones left on the beaches by the whaling industry in the nineteenth century, but the only skeletons left now are those of more than a thousand shipwrecks littering the coast.
It takes the best part of a day to drive to the Skeleton Coast from Etosha. Unless you fly in, access is via one of the two entrances to the Skeleton Coast National Park (the Ugab River in the south and Springbokwasser in the east). We entered the park via the eastern gate shortly before it was due to close at 3.30 pm, and eventually reached the ocean near the settlement of Torra Bay. By this time it was almost completely dark. We drove the last 20 km through the pitch-black desert to the fishing resort of Terrace Bay in a state of mild apprehension, awed by the sheer scale of the wilderness and the sensation of shadowy, sharp-fanged presences crouching in the darkness.
Inrushing sea, Skeleton coast
We stayed three nights in Terrace Bay in a camp run by NWR, sleeping in rather elderly prefab bungalows. It is a fascinating area with an end-of-the-world feel. Although the bungalows themselves are a little run-down, the hospitality and restaurant more than made up for it.
The multicoloured black and ochre sandy landscape is dotted with small pink and white salt pans, while the dull roar of the Atlantic is a constant presence. The weather and lighting conditions are constantly changing as fog rolls in off the ocean.
Salt pan in moonlight, Skeleton Coast
The mornings we were there were invariably foggy due to the cold offshore Benguela Current in the Atlantic meeting the extreme heat of the Namib Desert. Namibia’s coastal regions can experience over 180 days of thick fog a year, an invaluable source of moisture for the flora and fauna. The combination of dunes, the ocean and salt pans offers some unique photographic opportunities, especially at dusk when the sand gleams like tiny jewels in the low angled light.
Salt pan at sunset, Skeleton Coast
Leaving Terrace Bay, we drove southwards along the Skeleton coast, passing through a stark, forbidding landscape of gravel and gypsum plains punctuated by the occasional bleak rest station and road signs to points where shipwrecks can be observed.
Along the Skeleton coast north of Swakopmund, the alternation of gravel plains, salt pans and gypsum deposits create an abstract play of layers in a subtle palette of pink and ochre shades. 200 mm is ideal for compressing the landscape
We made an obligatory stop at Cape Cross, home to one of the largest colonies of cape fur seals in the world, which – if you can put up with the stench – offers the opportunity to view and photograph these fascinating animals up close.
Residents of the Cape Cross fur seal colony, the largest in the world
The coastal towns of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay are well worth a visit. Former German colonial towns, they feature rather incongruous Teutonic architecture with palm-lined sandy streets, alongside black townships that are not even marked on the tourist maps.
Namibia’s main harbour, Walvis Bay offers some great photo opportunities, including the birdlife (pelicans, flamingos and smaller waders) and some very distinctive wooden structures. The mornings with the fog banks and pinkish dawn light are particularly atmospheric.
Early morning jetty in Walvis Bay lagoon
One of the most popular holiday locations for Namibians, the area around Swakopmund and Sandwich Bay is also a Mecca for tourists, drawn largely by the so-called West Coast Recreational Area, an area of coastal dunes offering a variety of recreational pursuits including sandboarding, quad bike tours, dolphin cruises and hot air balloon trips. We didn’t quite have time to organise a balloon trip and this – apart from not being able to stay at least a month – was my biggest single regret of the entire Namibia trip. The balloons launch just before dawn and soar across the Namib desert, offering stunning opportunities for photographing the landscape from above.
Our final destination, the Namib-Naukluft Park, is the largest conservation area in Africa and fourth largest in the world and was the real highlight of our trip. To be sure of having the opportunity to visit the famous vleis (Sossusvlei, Dead Vlei and Hidden Vlei) at dawn, dusk or preferably both, we booked to stay three nights at the Sesriem restcamp.
Travelling inland from Walvis Bay towards Sesriem, we stopped off for a couple of nights at the Tsauchab River Guest Farm, a unique destination on the banks of the Tsauchab river surrounded by the Naukluft and Tsaris mountains. The sense of sheer isolation of camping alone in the depths of the African night, surrounded by the sounds of nocturnal animals and gazing at the stars of a southern sky was an unforgettable experience. The area offers a wide range of hiking trails and some excellent points for viewing and photographing quiver trees (Aloe dichotoma) at sundown. Although the famous Quiver Tree Forest, a national monument of Namibia, is located in the south of the country, there are plenty of Quiver trees located in the Naukluft mountain area. These arboreal aloes are astonishingly photogenic, and at sunrise and sunset their flaky, deep red bark, succulent green leaves and bright yellow flowers stand out vividly against the intense blue mountain sky.
Quiver trees and euphorbia in the Naukluft mountains at sundown
During the trip I found myself taking lots of pictures of solitary or small groups of trees, whether quiver tree groves in the Naukluft, lone mopane trees in Etosha or long-dead camel thorn trees in Dead Vlei. Partly this is because there are lots of lone trees in Namibia, and partly because a solitary tree set against a huge sky is the archetypal image of the African landscape, encapsulating a sense of vastness and solitude. Small groups of trees on the other hand seem to express a longing for companionship shared by the wild animals and humans, a kind of small tribal community grouped together for solidarity in the face of a harsh, unforgiving natural environment.
The archetypal African landscape, a lone tree at sunset
We arrived at Sesriem in the mid-afternoon, checked in at the restcamp and headed off straight for Sossusvlei and Dead Vlei.
Although the name Sossusvlei (meaning “dead end marsh”), strictly refers to a specific salt and clay pan located at the far end of the ephemeral Tshauchab river, it is also used for the whole of the surrounding area. It is known in particular for two things: the giant sand dunes and the dry mud pans with dead camel thorn trees known as vleis – the most famous and photogenic being Dead Vlei.
From the park entrance gate at Sesriem it’s about 66 km to Sossusvlei. The road along the dry valley bottom of the ephemeral Tsauchab river is stunning, winding amongst towering dunes and grazing springbok and oryx. Coloured deep orange-red from iron oxide in the sand, the unique star-shape dunes are reputed to be amongst the highest in the world, rising to a height of 300-400 metres.
Oryx graze at the foot of a giant sand dune along the tar road from Sesriem to Sossusvlei. A 70-200 telephoto is ideal for capturing wildlife in its natural habitat (here 200 mm).
We stopped off at the famous Dune 45 (so-named as it is located 45 km along the road from Sesriem), the only dune that visitors are permitted to climb. Rising to a height of 150 metres, it offers stunning views of the surrounding desert, the dunes stretching out as far as the eye can see in all directions.
Viewed from the top of Dune 45, the sea of dunes stretches in all directions as far as the eye can see
After 60 km of tar road (usable by normal 2WD sedan cars), you have to negotiate a further 5 km track through deep sand to the 4WD carpark at Sossusvlei, so a serious 4WD vehicle is essential. After parking at Sossusvlei, we dashed off on foot in the direction of Dead Vlei, completing the 1.1 km just as the shadows were falling over the pan. Dead Vlei itself is an astonishing, haunting place, where long-dead, dried out camel thorn trees stand like contorted presences in a surrealist painting by Dali or De Chirico. Dead Vlei, which in a mixture of English and Afrikaans means “dead marsh” is a white clay pan that originally formed over a thousand years ago due to flooding of the Tsauchab river after rainfall. Pools of water accumulated and camel thorn trees grew in the rich sandy soil. But the surrounding dunes gradually encroached on the pan and around 900 years ago diverted the course of the river, cutting off the water supply and causing the trees to die. Over the centuries, they were baked and blackened by the sun, leaving the charred skeletons that can be seen today. This tree graveyard is a photographer’s paradise, offering endless opportunities to explore and juxtapose the stark forms of nature: the geometric tessellations of the clay pan floor, the tortured black shapes of the trees, the deep orangey reds of the surrounding dunes and the intense blue of the sky – occasionally with fluffy white clouds or even fog to lend further mystery to this already surreal location.
I located some promising looking trees, set up my tripod and took some shots as the low sunlight illuminated the intense orange dunes behind the vlei. It was an astonishing experience, but within 10 minutes the light was gone. Dawn and dusk at the tropics are very brief affairs!
900-year-old camel thorn tree skeletons stand like sentinels in the Dead Vlei clay pan
This brings me to a bit of a logistic problem. Although the light at Dead Vlei is unquestionably best for photography at sunrise and sunset, it’s actually quite a challenge to be there at those times. There are two gates at Sesriem, an external gate and an internal gate. The external gate opens at dawn and closes at dusk and allows access to the visitor centre and campground. The internal gate allows access from the campground to the park itself and is open from 5.15 in the morning until 6.30 in the evening. The trouble is that dawn is sometime between 6.00 and 6.30 a.m. and sunset between 5.00 and 5.30 p.m., leaving about an hour to negotiate 60 km of tar road (with a 60 km/h speed limit!) followed by the 5 km sand track to Sossusvlei and the extra 1.1 km on foot to Dead Vlei. That makes it quite a rush either to get there in time for dawn or to get back before the gate closes if you choose to wait until sunset. To tell the truth, it’s probably impossible if you observe the 60 km/h speed limit, which few people do but you have to watch out very carefully for animals (making it a bit of an ethical dilemma!). We actually got back a bit after 6.30 on two occasions but fortunately the gate was still open and the attendant not too bothered.
Late afternoon light makes the Sossusvlei dunes glow, bringing out the deep red colours of iron oxide in the sand
One final comment about gear. Namibia was the first opportunity for me to make serious use of my brand new Canon 5d mk ii. I took a 15 mm fisheye, a 17-40 mm wide-angle, a 70-200 mm telephoto and the 100 mm macro. In the end I made almost exclusive use of the 17-40 and 70-200. The wide-angle was great for capturing the wide open spaces of the African landscape and sky.
A wide-angle lens serves to convey the sheer scale of the African landscape and sky (here 17 mm)
The 70-200 on the other hand proved vital for capturing images of animals within their natural habitat. However, for serious wildlife shooting, one would need at least a 400 or 500 mm lens, or possibly the 70-200 with a 2x converter.
Classic Sossusvlei dunes in late afternoon
All in all, Namibia is a fascinating location that offers a wealth of opportunities for the landscape photographer. And due to its modern infrastructures, ease of travel and relative safety, it is also the ideal destination (as in our case) for an unforgettable first visit to Africa.