Text and images by: Emil von Maltitz and Nick van de Wiel
Namibia holds even more visual treasures for the landscape photographer than just the Namib-Naukluft National Park and its famous Dead Vlei. When you realise how many iconic photography locations Namibia holds, suddenly you are no longer surprised to see so many of these scenes in international photographic awards.
Rightly so, Namibia can claim a lofty spot on a landscape photographer’s life long bucket list of spell-binding photographic locations. Here are just four Namibian destinations that should not be missed on your next trip.
Luderitz is a small, distinctly German in flavour, coastal port town that is also the entry point to the European settling of the formidable coastline. Its existence is in a large part thanks to the Atlantic fish stocks and the insatiable human desire for diamonds. What it has left us photographers with is the hauntingly picturesque abandoned diamond mining town of Kolmanskop.
It’s hard not to find images of Kolmanskop in any major photographic competition. The combination of time worn buildings slowly being eroded by the wind and colonised by the sands with bright pastel shades of paint makes for some incredible imagery. Obtaining a permit in advance also allows photographers access to the town outside of normal tour operation times. This means that it is possible to wonder around the decaying sand filled rooms before the sun even rises. When the sun does finally crest over the lip of the dunes, you are already in place to capture the interplay of warm sunlight against the weathered doors and walls of the abandoned homes. The town is so eerily silent that even though you are working with a group of photographers, when you do come across someone its with a fright that you bump into each other.
The town is truly a photographer’s playground. It actually makes sense to visit twice so that you can get a better idea of what there is to see and photograph. Certainly, a single trip to the town can leave one frustrated as there seems to be such a plethora of possible subjects; from the sand filled rooms and overwhelmed doorways to the more delicate peeling paint and the eery corridors of the school and hospital. Wherever you move there is only the sound of the wind as it inexorably eats away at the dry timber and worn cement walls, causing window frames to creak and bang and sand to whistle through gaps in the ceilings.
Quiver trees in Keetmanshoop
Standing like an army of sentinels on rocks that are reminiscent of some fairytale like ramparts are the quizzical quiver trees of southern Namibia. The quiver tree, or kokerboom, is found in the arid zone to the edge of the Kalahari desert in Botswana, South Africa and Namibia. However, the images that strike the popular imagination of the quiver tree are predominantly from the hilltops near Keetmanshoop. It is here that they seem to amass like a euphorbia army that stands proud on every desert-varnished hilltop.
Many travellers seem to miss these incredible trees as they hurtle along the long and straight tar road to Windhoek. For the landscape photographer though, they are an amazing source of inspiration. To me, they appear like skeletons rising from the rocky ground, their limbs stretching towards the sky as if in supplication. For that reason I often find myself photographing them in black and white, such that their branches appear bleached against the dark sky.
To only see this arboreal sentinel in black and white is a mistake though. The golden colour of the quiver trees positively glows at sunrise and sunset when the sky turns vivid orange. Visiting the trees is relatively simple. Several farms are dotted about Keetmanshoop which allow access and accommodation to travellers wanting to visit the trees. Either taking a break on the long trek to Etosha, or splitting the journey between Luderitz and Windhoek, Keetmanshoop and the farms that allow access to the trees make for a surreal photographic stopover. It really is one of those places that one should try and see. If not for the amazing quiver tree forests, then there are the rock formations themselves which look as if some giant creature has literally stacked great blocks of stone in crazy leaning towers. The ‘Giant’s Playground’ is one such large area where there are nothing but brown igneous rocks scattered in child built like formations as far as the eye can see. The landscape and the vegetation are truly bizarre and a constant source of photographic material.
Towards the west of Namibia’s Kalahari, in the region that settles itself as the Nama Karoo but is spitting distance from the Skeleton Coast, is the Spitzkoppe. Rising some 600m from the flattest of landscapes, this incredible engorging of orange coloured granite is like a giant beacon visible from dozens of miles away. It’s immense folds of rock contort and wave around the pinnacle that is the Spitzkoppe itself, creating a mountain that would not be out of place in a Martian landscape. Meanwhile the heat of the desert bakes the rock face so that moving over it is like walking across a massive stove top, searing your body if you dare to spend too long in the sun.
The drive north-west from Windhoek passes first through terrain that seems quite familiar to the average South African. This is of course landscape similar to the rest of the Kalahari’s edge, a biome that stretches across Namibia into Botswana and down into the north of South Africa. But the geologic mass that is the Spitzkoppe is more reminiscent of Australia’s Uluru (Ayer’s Rock). An incongruous – in this setting – pinnacle of course granite whose orange hues contrast dramatically against the azure blue sky.
So unique and primordial is this view that the producers of the movie 10,000BC chose Spitzkoppe as the location for the movie’s filming. Although this has meant that Spitzkoppe became significantly more famous overnight, it has also meant, unfortunately, that there is now a sinuous network of roads that criss-cross the base of the Spitzkoppe, making the flat land around Pontok and Spitzkoppe mountains look more like a go-cart race track than the pristine desert landscape that it once was. Thankfully, most photographers are able to concentrate on the soaring granite face of the mountains and their flowing patterns as the rocks seem to grow out of the desert floor.
Surprisingly, despite being well known thanks to the blockbuster movie, Spitzkoppe is still relatively unvisited by hordes of tourists. The campsite at the mountain’s base is a community run affair with a small and basic restaurant alongside a few rustic reed-sided huts as accommodation. Most visitors prefer camping near one of the famous rock features, for which numerous ablution and showering facilities have been erected. The joy of this is that it means unfettered access to any of these locations at any time of the day (apart from the quiver trees, the other locations mentioned here require special permits and permissions for access outside of conventional sunup to sundown times). Imagine sitting on a high rock looking out at the Milky Way, clear in the sky above as a ribbon of twinkling lights, slowly slides towards the western horizon. This is possible at Spitzkoppe, and indeed in my opinion, a requirement if you visit this extraordinary giant rock.
It has to be one of the bucket list items for photographers from around the world. It ranks there with Antarctica, the Okavango Delta, Torres del Paine and Death Valley amongst others. It’s instantly recognisable from screen-savers splashed across both Microsoft and Apple computers around the globe. It is the most famous desiccated salt pan in the world I suspect. It is the Dead Vlei, where the skeletal fossilised remains of acacia thorn trees stand silently in a bowl of enormous rust coloured sand dunes.
Every morning, as the gates open to the Namib Naukluft National Park, there is a rush of vehicles along the stretch of road from Sesriem to Sossusvlei and the Dead Vlei. This means that unless you are able to strike out earlier you miss the opportunity to wander around the ghostly trees by yourself. To do this you have to book into the Sossus Dune lodge which is within the confines of the national park. Doing so allows a few precious minutes before the main gates are opened so that you are literally at the head of the queue to visit the dunes.
Then there is that incredible experience of sheer loneliness as the magnitude and silence of the desert sinks in. Talking to other travellers who have had the rare opportunity to explore the salt encrusted dried lake that is the Dead Vlei without any other visitors; they tend to talk of ‘spiritual experiences’ and a sense of awe. Nothing prepares you for that first glimpse of the ancient and worn trunks of the trees as they stand resolute on the flat sun baked and cracked floor of the pan. The trees are believed to have died roughly 700 years ago and have been sun-baked and fossilised by the intense sun and dry air. Now, they stand frozen, like ancient ballerinas in mid dance, graceful and mournful in a frozen dance of time. I find that when photographing the Dead Vlei, I actually have to put the camera down and recompose myself. Otherwise it is simply too easy to rush about photographing without actually seeing this amazing site.
Sadly, the fact that the trees are so open to the public is both it’s allure and the seeds of its demise. On Facebook and visitor’s personal webpages we now see images of laughing travellers hanging from the ancient tree limbs by their hands and slowly destroying the trees that time has forgotten. Each time I return it is now becoming painfully obvious that small sections of tree have been damaged, not by nature but by the wilful ignorance of visitors who just don’t realise what they are doing.
Witness this country of contrasts for yourself with Nature’s Light Photography Tours & Workshops’ annual 13 day landscape photography workshop to Namibia. There is one more space available for the 2016 tour starting end of October! Email Nature’s Light for more information.