A road trip of note
Known primarily as a desert country, Namibia offers the enthusiast photographer a veritable feast of opportunities. Oceans, deserts, wildlife, and lush rivers are all well covered within Namibia’s borders and the thought of travelling to Namibia immediately brought images of desert, sand and open spaces to mind, and much use for my under-used wide-angle lenses. At first glance that may be true, but once the itinerary was finalised, it seemed that the long lenses were going to have a full outing as well. That made me much happier! The problem however, is the size of the country. Road travel takes up a lot of time and distances are very large. To cover the whole country in one trip is very difficult and nigh impossible if you would like to get any decent photography done. Indeed, you could spend many weeks at some of the locations and still not be satisfied. I was invited along with three other people on a photographic trip to Namibia in August 2007. For practical reasons and our own photographic demands our trip was broken into three parts: 14 nights in Etosha National Park (yes that is fourteen), 4 nights in Sesriem and 4 nights Luderitz. 2 days allocated for travelling to and from South Africa and voila, you have a 26-day trip just like that. In this article (Part 1) I will cover Etosha; whilst in part 2 I will discuss Sossusvlei and Luderitz.
D200, 200-400 @ 400mm, 1/1000 sec, f8, iso 320, handheld
Etosha – The Great white place
Etosha in winter is a wildlife paradise. The procession of animals coming to drink at the waterholes is literally that: a procession. Every day I took a book along with me to read whilst waiting at the waterholes. I never read a page. Every time I thought I should pick up the book, some new animal came out of the bush to drink, or another bird species appeared. It was great! That is the main advantage of Etosha in the dry season; the concentration of wildlife at the waterholes. To me though, there are a few disadvantages or I should say, “Photographic aspects to be aware of”. These are:
• The “Great white place” could well as have said “The great white Photograph” The white, calcrete rocks make for horrible backgrounds in photographs and scream “this image was taken in Etosha”
• Etosha is flat, very flat. It is difficult to get some sort of height advantage for scenic shots
• There are no clouds in the sky. Nothing to fill the sky with interest. Great light, but interesting skies for scenics is impossible. (If you do manage to find a vantage point) This is only a winter phenomenon though.
Grey skies: Grey skies low on the horizons don’t make for the best backgrounds- Lilac breasted roller.
D200, 200-400mm @ 400mm, 1/1600 sec, f7.1, iso 400, handheld
• The dust in the sky. The dust creates a grey, flat colour on the horizon, making bird photography difficult.
• The sun sets as a red ball every night. This is due to the excessive dust and the effect is nice shooting into the sun, but there are only so many shots you can take of that. What it means is that the strength of the light, when shooting with the sun diminishes rapidly in the afternoons.
However, these are very critical negatives and of course, they could be lived with…
There are ways to overcome each of these problems and they are discussed further in the text. We stayed 7 days at Namutoni camp and 7 nights at Okaukuejo. No time at Halali you ask? Well, after looking at the available waterholes near each camp, we thought that Halali did not have nearly as much to offer as the other camps. Sure, it did have Goas’s double waterhole, but overall, compared to the other sites and from a photographic perspective, Halali’s waterholes didn’t have much on Namutoni and Okaukuejo. Starting with the Namutoni area, I will highlight the best areas visited.
to get close up shots of the larger animals.
D200, 200-400@ 400mm, 1/40 sec, f4, iso 640, tripod
Namutoni rest camp
Namutoni waterhole – This waterhole does not offer much from a photographic perspective. Its one consolation is the red-billed queleas that come to roost in the evening. Flocks of hundreds of birds fly in at sunset, against the setting sun and roost in the reeds and acacia trees near the camp.
Klein Namutoni – An afternoon waterhole from a light perspective. There is a lot of general animal activity here as well as a large lion pride (10 animals) that frequents the waterhole. Elephant are also fairy common in the afternoons there too. The main problem with Klein Namutoni is the white rocks in the background. There are two areas that are devoid of these stones and the difference in images is amazing. The only problem is that you have to wait for the animals to move into those areas…
Chudop – the parking area is on the north of the waterhole, meaning that there is good light in the evening and the morning. The water is in a deep hole and animals descend right into it for their drink. There are minimal white stones here meaning the images are much nicer than at K.N. A very popular waterhole in general and we spent many afternoons there with some spectacular action and interaction between animals. About 10am every morning the red billed queleas come to drink in their flocks- quite a spectacle as they swoop in and out of the water to drink.
The classic red sun orb of Etosha winters:
D200, 200-400mm & c1.4 converter @ 560mm, 1/200 sec, f5.6, iso 320, tripod
Andoni – A long 60 km drive north of Namutoni camp, Andoni is situated in open grassy plains and is best in the morning light. These plains hold good herds of zebra, springbok and wildebeest and thus these are the main animals at this waterhole. Due to the grassy plains, photography is easy and there are no obstructions. This is one of the best places to get the classic zebra stallions fighting. Wildebeest interaction at the waterhole is also very good, creating opportunities for great shots in the dust.
Tsumcor – The parking is on the southwest side of this waterhole- not very good for photography, although lions and elephant frequent it quite often.
Dik Dik Drive – The best place to see this diminutive antelope as well as get images of it. It is quite confiding, but if you spend time with them, they do offer some nice opportunities.
The triangle of roads formed between Namutoni and the Halali road and Chudop offer nice open scenes and are also a good place to see leopard. This triangle area is great for the late afternoon shots of animals silhouetted against the sun.
Twee palms – not the best waterhole, but the whole Twee palms loop is an excellent drive. The drive circumnavigates the edge of the pan, allowing great views into the open. Due to having bush on the one side of the road and pan on the other, many raptors are seen in the trees, ready to ambush any rodent or snake that may venture out onto the open areas of the pan. There always seems to be some animals on the edge of the pans and the palm trees break the landscape nicely, making for some different images.
The other waterholes in the area don’t offer much in terms of photography.
Sandgrouse pair: Double banded sandgrouse at Okaukuejo waterhole.
D200, 200-400mm, 1.4x converter @ 560mm, 1/1500 sec, f7.1, iso 400, tripod
Okaukuejo rest camp
Undoubtedly the best rest camp in the park. The gardens and lawns attract a large array of birds and the waterhole is one of the most active in the whole park
Pale chanting goshawk feeding on snake.
D200, 200-400mm & c1.4 converter @ 560mm, 1/640 sec, f8, iso 200, beanbag
Okaukuejo waterhole – Very, very busy with all types of animals drinking throughout the day. It is close enough for the cameras, but there are a lot of white rocks making a busy background. In the winter, springbuck and gemsbuck wade deep into the water offering different shots. Elephant start arriving from about 10am and can be there anytime after that. This is the place to get close up shots of elephants. Black rhino normally only visit at night. Lions are always in the area- seeing them drink in the day is luck of the draw.
Double banded sandgrouse, sparrows and buntings also drink in their hundreds here from 08h30 onwards. In two mornings I sighted Lanner falcon, red necked falcon and gabar goshawk hunting the smaller birds there. I would recommend a morning’s photography and even perhaps an afternoon at the waterhole.
Morning drink: Hundreds of small birds flock into drink at Okaukuejo waterhole in the mornings.
D70, 12-24 @ 24mm, 1/500 sec, f 8, iso, 200, handheld.
Gemsbok vlakte – A waterhole situated in the middle of an open, rocky plain. If you want to get the classic Etosha photo of an elephant herd crossing a dusty plain, then this is the place for it. When there is water, (you will hear the pump pumping) there is action. Springbuck and zebra frequent the waterhole as well as elephant herds. The open space offers nice clean shots of all these animals as they hurriedly come out of the bush in the far distance and start their dominance displays.
Zebra fight: fighting amongst stallions is common in Winter- gemsbokvlakte area.
D200, 200-400mm & c1.4 converter @ 560mm, 1/1500 sec, f8, iso 250, beanbag
Nebrownii – En excellent afternoon waterhole regarding light. The morning light here is from the side, so it does tend to get harsh earlier. It is a popular waterhole for gemsbok, zebra and springbuck in the mornings and bull elephants, giraffe and Black rhino in the afternoons. Due to it being raised on a slight incline, the background is thrown wonderfully out of focus in the afternoons. Lion also are common here.
Popular for bull elephants and Black rhino in the afternoons.
D200, 200-400mm & c1.4 converter @ 560mm, 1/250 sec,
f7.1, iso 250, beanbag
Okondeka (and Wolfsnes)– Definitely an afternoon waterhole- the parking is due west of the water. The water is very far from the parking lot, but many of the animals come from the dunes in the west, past the parked cars. Well known for good lion sightings. There is some potential for photos of animals walking out from the dunes in the east.
Salvadora waterhole: A great view over the plains and many animals drinking in the day.
D200, 70-200 @ 200mm, 1/8 sec, f22, iso 100, polariser, beanbag
Salvadora and Sueda – Nearer to Halali, and 35km from Okaukuejo, these two waterholes are part of a loop off the main road. Both are morning waterholes and both have good lion sightings linked to them. The parking is raised so that you look down into the water. It provides a nice vantage point and one that commands a respectable view over the pan. Lots of zebra, wildebeest and springbuck frequent these water sites and thus the many lion in the area. The area is quite open and makes photography that much easier.
Ozonjuitji M’bari – known commonly as M’bari it is about a 70 km drive from Okhakeuo. This waterhole is great in the mornings where hundreds of animals congregate to drink. And that is perhaps its one downfall; the scenes can become too congested with animals. For mornings though, there are no real waterholes near Okhakeau that have a parking lot in the east.
Those are the waterholes I found that worked for me whilst there. The others either didn’t offer much in terms of photography or were dry at the time.
Jackal fight: At Chudop waterhole, two jackal pairs have a brief, but intense dominance fight.
The lack of white rocks makes this a much more pleasing image.
D200, 200-400, 1.4x converter @ 560mm, 1/500 sec, f5.6, iso 400, beanbag
In conclusion, Etosha is an excellent place to visit if you want action and interaction. In all probability, it holds the best wildlife viewing in southern Africa during the dry season. (I am sticking my head out here!) Springbuck are fighting, wildebeest are fighting and zebras are fighting at waterholes. These alone can keep you busy without the addition of jackal fighting, elephant drinking and dusting them selves, lions roaring, Raptors feeding on snakes and black rhino drinking in late afternoon light. A great relief from the photographing in the South African bush was the vast openness. This allows easy positioning of the vehicle and no stray branches or leaves protruding into the your frame.
The bird life in general is very good, especially the raptors. Total bird species seen was around 70 species. Not too bad considering no migrants. What impressed me most was the quality of light in the evenings and mornings. It was really soft and golden; and for a sustained period. This was before or after the sun was in the ‘red zone’; when the sun became the red orb and gave no workable front lighting. What was frustrating was the lack of what I call ‘sky’. We didnt see a cloud for 14 days. This doesn’t aid in scenic, animals in environment or landscape type images. It is very difficult to create a story of the place you are visiting without landscape type images. The setting of the sun as a huge red orb into the west provided beautiful opportunities to photograph silhouettes in the evenings and the results are quite spectacular, albeit a bit clichéd.
D200, 200-400mm & c1.4 converter @ 560mm, 1/400 sec, f5.6, iso 320, car mount
Lenses and equipment used
I used two camera bodies:
One body was attached to a 200-400mm f4 lens. I also had a 1.4 converter for extra reach. The other body had a 70-200mm lens on. This body was also changed with the wide angled lens, a 12-24 f4. I found this the best lens combination for my use. Fast, constant aperture, zoom lenses are invaluable for constantly changing compositions in nature photography. Although a third body for the wide angle would have made sure no dust got onto the sensors… I alternated between a car mount with a panning head attached as well as a heavy beanbag for in car photography. A tripod was used when at the rest camp waterholes.
All images were downloaded onto a laptop after each session and then backed up onto a portable hard drive. Our party had three laptops and various portable drives if any one of our drives or laptops died. This was our insurance in case anything crashed.
Shem Compion is a photographer working throughout Southern Africa. His work can be seen at www.shemimages.com. He also runs C4 Images and Safaris , a company that holds photo courses, workshops and photo safaris.
Part 2 – Sesriem and Luderitz
D200, 12-24 @ 14mm, f 8 – 1/100 sec, iso 200, handheld.
The sand of Sesriem, Sossusvlei and Luderitz
Sand, solitude and wind. These are the three elements that make up Sossusvlei for me.
If you think you can go to Namibia and miss these dunes, think again. Every one knows these dunes- they have been photographed a million times; but get in amongst them and feel their presence and the creativity just turns on. They are like meercats, you just can’t get enough! A hint- Get away from the crowds. Everyone heads for dune 45 first thing in the morning. There are about 30 other dunes to go and see where you won’t encounter another person the whole morning. That is what makes Sossus for me: the feeling of solitude in amongst the dunes makes the heart beat just a bit faster, as if feeling that wind whip through your hair is a curser to increased heart rate. It really stimulates.
Dead tree pan: A photographers paradise. Dead tree pan has it all.
D200, 12-24 @ 12mm, f 22 – 1/8 sec, iso 100, tripod, polariser.
Sesriem campsite is situated just inside the Namib-Nauklauft National Park. What this means is that you get to go into the park 1 hour before sunrise and return 1 hour after sunset, whilst all the lodges can only enter at sunrise and have to be out at sunset. For any keen photographer, accommodation in the park is a must. There is a new Namibian Wildlife lodge inside the park (open July 2007) so camping is not the only option for early risers anymore. From the entrance gate, the drive to Sossusvlei itself is 60km and the speed limit is 60km/h. Doing the maths you will note there is very little time for setting up before the sun rises. This little problem seems to have been solved by the overlander trucks with their clients who line up at the gate at opening time. As the gate opens it becomes very much like the gumball rally! The trucks drive at speeds up to 120km/h to get to Dune 45 first. I don’t suggest that you drive at 120km/h, but you do get caught up in it and, advantageously, you arrive at your destination a bit earlier; allowing for you to set up your shots in peace. Up until now, no one polices the road, so it is a bit of a free for all. The last 5 km of the road to Sossusvlei dune and dead tree pan are heavy sand and you need a 4×4 to access this road. There is a shuttle service for those who don’t have a 4×4 vehicle.
D70, 70-200 @ 180mm, f 8 – 1/320 sec, iso 200, handheld.
I will cover the various aspects to photograph as you approach them along the 60km entrance road.
The large dunes
As you drive from the entrance gate down the ancient riverbed, the first large dunes you encounter at about 30 km are what I have termed “the large dunes”. The famous dune 45 is amongst these. You can choose any which one you like, park your car and walk up to it. The dunes on the south are generally better due to angle of the sun. Once there, the shadows, lines, s-curves, textures, lighting, patterns and compositions flow quite naturally. These are quite probably the most photogenic pieces of silicone in the world. An afternoon’s session here leaves you spellbound by their immensity and the various patterns that are created by the setting sun. Truly a great photographic (and personal) experience. I would suggest spending at least one afternoon or morning up close and personal at a dune of your choice.
Dead tree pan and dunes: The opportunities for including the dunes at DTP are quite understated.
D70, 70-200 @ 110mm, f 8 – 1/160 sec, iso 200, handheld.
Sossusvlei dune and dune 45
At 45 km down the road and at the end of the road (60km) you get Dune 45 and Sossusvlei dune respectively.
Sossusvleis’ two most famous dunes are now each morning attacked by hordes of tourists running up them to catch the sunrise. From a pure landscape perspective, the photograph is ruined, but as a travel image, there is a lot to offer. Photos with people in them show scale and emphasize the size of the dunes. Also, when the wind picks up, it creates a wind lip on the dune and when people are walking in this sand lip, it makes for a very interesting image! The S-curves of these two dunes are quite pronounced and offer great lead in lines with the walkers along them.
Dune grass patterns: Patterns abound on the dunes in the late afternoon.
D200, 70-200 @ 200mm, f 8 – 1/250 sec, iso 200, handheld.
Dead tree pan
Another Sossousvlei gem, and after the actual dunes, perhaps the most well know landscape feature of Sossusvlei. (And one that was chastised for always making the finals for the old Agfa awards; along with photos of lion) you reach it by following the road all the way to Sossusvlei dune, where you will see a parking lot indicating Dead tree pan. From there it is a 1.1km walk following the well-worn path to the pan. Set amongst some towering dunes, it is quite a spectacle and once again, offers creativity in bucketfuls. It is a morning place, as if you drive well and walk straight there, you should get the place to yourself for the first hour at least. After that, the tourists come pouring in and walk into your scenes. Due to it being set to the west of a very high dune, the light only enters the pan about 20 min after sunrise. This allows you some time to set up and then work your way with the light as it creeps along the pan, lighting up the dead trees and the cracked clay floor. Photographically, It is hard to do the place justice, as there are so many good images of the place. But when you get there, the creative juices are stirred and you instinctively get to work.
Dune Hikers: When the wind picks up, wind lips make for intruiging photographs.
D200, 70-200 + 1.4 conterter @ 280mm, f 8 – 1/160 sec, iso 200, handheld.
Driving the main road into Sossusvlei
So you thought the dunes were for the wide-angle lenses only? Not so. Driving along the main road reveals excellent compositions with an emphasis on lines, patterns and a play on light. Here a 70-200mm or an even longer lens comes in very handy. If you spend some time at the Sossosvlei area, you begin to feel that the place has many moods. Just comparing the place at midday to in the late afternoon is a huge contrast in itself. In the midday hours, the flat light makes the dunes look exactly that- flat. In the afternoon however, the long shadows and the winding dunes create all manner of lines and patterns, shapes and curves and colour. Add the quintessential dead acacia tree at the base of the dunes and you have some very good images in the making.
Dunes: Lines and beautiful landscapes, A photographers best friend.
D200, 12-24 @ 13mm, f 13 – 0.3 sec, iso 100, tripod, cable release, mirror lock up.
We spent 4 nights in Luderitz, I would say that was two nights too many. A small town with distinct German architecture and a quaint port lend it a nice charm. The main attraction at Luderitz is the ghost town of Kolmanskop. An old mining town that experienced a boom of diamonds and money in the 1930′s, Kolmanskop is now an uninhabited, derelict town that is slowly being taken over by the encroaching sand dunes. For Nam $125.00 you can purchase a photography permit that allows you access to the town for all the hours between sunrise and sunset.
Permit in hand; we entered 15 min before sunrise. What transpired over the next few hours was like trying to relive the past. Capturing images of times gone by are quite difficult and the place makes you work for your time there. The results do show though, the place is littered with excellent opportunities. Things to take note of are converging verticals, especially with the wider lenses and exposure conundrums resulting from the dark rooms and the bright windows.
The best part about a having the permit is that, like at Sossusvlei, you get the place to yourself for a few hours. This means no footprints in the sand, nor any people walking through your carefully composed images. By the time the tourists came in at 09h30, I was drinking my coffee in the café, my work done for the morning.
Human scale: People walking up dunes add a sense of scale and size.
D70, 70-200 @ 200mm, f 8 – 1/1000 sec, iso 200, handheld.
Ghost town Dawn:
The colours of the rising sun make for great colours on the aging wood.
D200, 12-24 @ 12mm, f6.3 – 1/13 sec, iso 250, tripod.
Flamingos and Dias point
As you drive out to Diaz point you come across inlets, bays and some salt flats. These often have both greater and lesser flamingos feeding in the shallows. In the mornings we could drive close enough to the flamingos to get good shots. With the wind really pumping hard at times, seeing them take off was like watching it in slow motion!
Photographing them was probably the easiest flight photography I have every done.
Diaz cross, at the head of the point offers nothing sensational in photographic terms. There are hartlaub’s gulls and many black oystercatchers around, but are quite wary of stalking photographers. There is normally a lot of wave action, allowing for some spectacular crashes on various rock outcrops, making for dramatic sunset backlit shots.
Feral “wild” horses of Aus
100km from Luderitz (a short distance in Namibia), near Aus, is the lookout and waterhole for these feral horses. The actual origin of the horses is still disputed, but they have been running wild since approximately 1909. They number about 300 horses in total and forage widely in many small herds. The Garub waterhole is their only permanent source of water in the whole of their range. In winter a horse drinks about every 30 hours, meaning that the likelihood of seeing some horses in the dry season is very good. We stopped in three times, (going in and out of Luderitz included) and there were horses there every time. They are remarkably photogenic as well as being very relaxed around humans. If I hadn’t known better, I might have jumped on one for a quick canter! They allow you to slowly get quite close, and the mountains makes a very pleasing backdrop to the images. Definitely one of the highlights of the area.
Kolmans hospital: The harsh light shining in from the windowscan cause exposure conundrums.
D200, 12-24 @ 12mm, f 8 – 1/400 sec, iso 100, handheld, manual flash.
I used two camera bodies:
One body was attached to the 12-24, f4 lens, which had become my primary lens for the images in this article. The other body had a 70-200mm lens on. I love the compressed angle of view the 70-200mm gives for landscapes and a lot of my landscapes were taken with this lens. A heavy tripod with the centre column cut off made those low ground shots much easier. I tripod and a cable release are essentials here, along with mirror lock up. All images were downloaded onto a laptop after each session and then backed up onto a portable hard drive. Our party had three laptops and various portable drives if any one of our drives or laptops died. This was our insurance in case anything crashed.
People on dunes: High dunes and a human element add up to images with a strong travel emphasis.
D70, 70-200 + 1.4 conterter @ 240mm, f 8 – 1/640 sec, iso 200, handheld.
The sea of sand
The Sossusvlei area was one of my highlights on my recent trip to Namibia. The large open spaces with large dunes allow for all manner of photography. If you are staying there a few days, I would suggest that on your first drive into the dunes, you just drive slowly in on the main road and witness the place in its entirety. Its easy to just jump onto the first dune you see and start photographing away, but there are many such dunes, and by seeing the tourists, all the dunes and dead tree pan you will have a much better overview of the actual area. Kolmanskop is a slightly different. You get into the town and after looking at a few houses, find yourself immersed inside one and then two hours later you are wandering around with no idea of where you actually are!
I would recommend three nights at Sesriem and two nights at Luderitz for any serious photographer. You may think that three nights are a lot at Sesriem, but the desert winds are bound to blow for at least one session, negating any photography. Oh I almost forgot to mention that- when the wind blows, it blows hard. It is especially strong in August and covers everything with a thick layer of red sand. I woke up to Dune 45 in my tent and a sandy taste in my mouth on my first morning there. It’s a hard life in Africa.
Shem Compion is a photographer working throughout Southern Africa. His work can be seen at http://www.shemimages.com/. He also runs C4 Images and Safaris , a company that presents photo courses, workshops and photo safaris.