Text and images by: Emil von Maltitz and Nick van de Wiel
There are some places on this earth that truly conjure the imagination of the landscape photographer. The towering Torre del Paine in Chile, the blue iceberg fragments on the black volcanic sand beaches of Iceland, the majestic and gravity defying coastal cliffs of Hạ Long Bay in Vietnam, the iconic Yosemite and Death Valleys in the United States and the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
There are places we continually see in images from southern New Zealand to the northern shores of Ireland that make us gasp and wonder in their beauty. Yet, ask anyone to imagine a desert scene, particularly one with a tree, and invariably the image that pops into their head is one from Namibia. Specifically, an image from the incredible and visually haunting Dead Pan. On hearing this, people are often surprised, not imaging that a country this far south on the African continent could be home to such an incredible landscape.
Want to see what Namibia is all about when it comes to landscape photography? check out this amazing time lapse video.
Here are just three ways in which Namibia offers landscape photographers some of the best photo opportunities in the world.
Being taken up in large part by desert, Namibia is very much a desert photography location. What with the mixture of the Namib and Kalahari Deserts there are a range of desert sands from alabaster white through to vivid red and orange. Then there are the grasslands that border the deserts, resulting in the otherworldly landscapes like that of the Marienfluss and the grasslands that stretch to the east of the Namib-Naukluft National Park.
The variety of otherworldly scenes is as large as it is diverse. Photographing with Nature’s Light, a dedicated photographic travel company, we have actually had to isolate scenes that we feel are the most different, while still being accessible to a traveller. Ultimately, as landscape photographers we have tended to remain in Namibia’s dry southern region. As incredible as Namibia’s north is – with its famous Etosha National Park, curious Zebra Mountains along the Kunene River, lush mopani forests that stretch for miles between the Zambezi and Linyanti Rivers, the harsh landscape of Damaraland and the forbidding and deadly sands of the Skeleton Coast – the south is possibly the more iconic from a photographic point of view.
In particular, the south and central portions of Namibia are home to the Namib-Naukluft National Park with it’s extraordinarily well known dune alley culminating in Sossusvlei and neighbouring Dead Vlei, the prominent and towering red sandstone mountain of Spitzkoppe, the ghostly remains of Kolmanskop and the quizzical quiver trees on the edge of the Kalahari. It is these four primary locations and scenes that we seek out every year with photographers whose imaginations have been fired up by images that defy belief that these places could even exist.
The loneliness of the desert
Namibia is vast. It is also gives the impression of isolation and loneliness. This isn’t surprising considering the population of only 2.3 million people (as of 2013) in a country as large as 825,615 km2 (the 34th largest country by area in the world). That’s insane. It means there are about two people for every square kilometre. This of course means you see a lot of empty roads as you drive along. Empty roads, empty hills, emptiness everywhere. It’s almost a surprise when you come across another vehicle travelling in the opposite direction.
Apart from the emptiness, another thing that visitors find so striking is the exposed geology of the country. Unlike countries with higher rainfall patterns that promote the growth of covering vegetation and grasses, the landscape is bare and exposed, like the bones of a bleached skeleton. This means that there are times driving down lonely stretches of road that you imagine yourself to be a traveller on Mars rather than driving down a road in Southern Africa.
Nowhere is this more evident than the lonely stretch of tarred road between Luderitz on the coast and the desert town of Aus. Here the road lies straight as an arrow across the Khoichab Depression. The heat haze shimmers off the distant horizon which looks for all the world like that viewed by one of NASA’s exploratory Rovers on Mars. A straight line of power cables looks anachronistic in this world of hard gravelly sand and rock. The joy for the photographer in all this are the myriad of shapes and forms that there are to photograph.
Namibia from the air
There is one last treat that, if possible, one should try. That is to view the desert from the air. Seeing the desert from the air always takes my breath away. The enormity of it simply becomes more obvious. The scale is almost incomprehensible. Walking in dunes you are constantly fooled into thinking that just over the next dune is a different horizon. In the air you realise how far away that horizon really is. Looking down at the ground ridge after ridge lazily drifts past as the pilot works their way to the end of ‘Dune Alley’.
It is a truly awesome, phenomenal experience to fly over the desert. However from a photographic point of view I would recommend the helicopter flights over that of the fixed wing planes that operate from the Sesriem airstrip. Although the helicopters don’t go as far into the desert as the Cessnas, the removal of the doors from the R44 helicopter means that you can obtain crystal clear and sharp images. It’s also a lot easier to look down to the desert to create images of the dunes and their surreal patterns. The plane – as incredible as the experience is – moves very quickly across the sand and has scratched plexiglass windows. Images that are well composed and in focus can still be soft; both as a result of the plexiglass windows and the actual speed at which the fixed wing planes fly. So an utterly phenomenal experience, but not one which yielded much in the way of imagery apart from ‘we were there’ shots.
Once in the air, circling over Dead Vlei, or looking at the tracks gemsbok make as they wander across the waves of sand dunes, the enormity of Namibia’s desert strikes you. It is powerful, dangerous, isolated and intensely beautiful. Namibia is extraordinary to photograph and explore. You cannot help but come away with images that seem as if from a different planet. It’s the reason that so many photographers return again and again to experience and to photograph desert. Namibia as a whole deserves to be there as a bucket list location for photographers.
Visit Namibia 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.