Archive for the ‘Namibia’ Tag

Friday Foto Talk: Flow & Travel Photography   6 comments

Rising pre-dawn to climb Tajamulco, highest peak in Central America, a half-asleep state gave way to flow as the sun rose.

Rising pre-dawn to climb Tajamulco, highest peak in Central America, a half-asleep state gave way to flow as the sun rose.

Flow, or “being in the zone” is all the rage these days.  It’s considered to be how creative people create.  While that’s true, flow is not that uncommon.  We’ve all experienced it.  I heard a radio interview the other day and the guest referred to flow as something experienced by people at the highest level.  I think that’s too narrow a way to think about it.  Any time you get 100% engaged in an activity and lose track of time, you’re in flow.  Flow will help you progress toward expertise, but being very good at something isn’t a prerequisite for flow.

This series, which started with the idea and concept of flow, has moved on to how to foster the state in different types of photography.  Today let’s look at travel photography, which consists of shooting a wide variety of subjects in unfamiliar places.  I call the entire western U.S. my home area and by definition travel takes me to countries outside the U.S.  My travel photos lean heavily toward cultural subjects, including people, but includes landscape and wildlife.  While traveling I photograph far more people (and fewer landscapes) than I normally do.

A bit of a cliche, but prayer flags and the Himalaya are just too big a part of the scene in Nepal to pass up.

A bit of a cliche, but prayer flags and the Himalaya are just too big a part of the scene in Nepal to pass up.

When you’re traveling and shooting there is no shortage of distractions.  So flow is not that easy.  Here are a few tips:

  • Observe & Engage.  Just as it is with other kinds of photography, keen observation and then intense engagement with your subjects is a sure route toward experiencing flow.
  •  Filter & Focus.  Traveling can overwhelm the senses.  It’s one of the great things about it.  But in order to do your best photography focusing on the subjects that you want to shoot is necessary.  The kind of concentration required to capture images with strong subjects can help you experience flow while doing it.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t get a few overview shots that establish context and show the place you’re in (you could also do this with video).  But it’s easier to get into flow and capture good images if you zero in on one subject at a time, filtering out the rest.

With huge views of the Nepali Himalayas outside this teahouse, I shifted focus to smaller things.

  • Quality vs. Quantity.  Let’s be honest.  Travel can be hectic at times.  That’s probably inevitable.  But your whole trip doesn’t have to be this way.  If you plan an overly busy itinerary, you shouldn’t expect to experience flow while shooting.  And you should expect more snapshots than quality images.  You simply can’t have both quality and quantity, and this goes especially for traveling.  As you plan your itinerary, choose one or the other and be happy with the consequences of that decision.

 

  • Slow Down.  I prefer to plan a light itinerary and cover less area in more time.  This way I get to relax and spend some time with subjects.  When I take the camera out in some new place, randomly exploring with no real destination in mind, flow comes much easier than when I’m rushing to move on to the next place.  Leaving real time for deep exploration is a key to successful travel photography (and travel in general).  Of course during the trip there will always be those times when you have to hurry to catch a train or to check out.  Just don’t let that pace infect your entire journey.
Angkor Wat's West Gate is an easy subject to like, but it took patience and time to shoot it with pedaling commuters and the sun in the right position.

Angkor Wat’s West Gate is an easy subject to like, but it took patience and time to shoot it with pedaling commuters and the sun in the right position.

  • Make it About the Journey.  While it’s important to get to your destination in order to spend time exploring and shooting, the journey is at least as important.  Sometimes it’s more so.  You’ll encounter some of your best photographic subjects while you’re traveling from one place to another.  So a second key to travel photography is being ready at all times to capture images.  You may prefer your phone for this, or a small point and shoot camera.  It doesn’t matter, just keep observing and shooting things that are interesting along the way.
I was rushing to a waterhole where the game was supposed to be when I stumbled upon this cheetah stalking the grasslands: Etosha, Namibia.

I was rushing to a waterhole where the game was supposed to be when I stumbled upon this cheetah stalking the grasslands: Etosha, Namibia.

  • Be Flexible.  This is good advice anytime you travel, whether shooting seriously or not.  But consider this:  you can take yourself right out of your game if you get uptight about the inevitable changes and screw-ups that occur during any trip.  Being upset about things that are outside your control means you’re not about to enter flow anytime soon.  I won’t claim to be perfect in this regard.  But isn’t it better to look upon an unforeseen left turn in your trip as an opportunity to photograph something unexpected?  Go with the flow so you can experience flow!

I didn’t plan on attending this rough ‘n ready rodeo on Omotepe, Nicaragua. But I let my hosts drag me there and didn’t let their fun with my flag get in the way of a good time.

  • Be Outgoing.  Some of the best travel images are of people, often showing something of their unique culture.  But unless you play at being a paparazzi, you’ll need to break out of your shell and approach strangers in order to get good people shots.  Luckily, most people around the world (not all) are happy to be approached by tourists.  You may be rejected occasionally.  Don’t let that stop you.  All it takes is one great interaction to make your travel day.  Once you’re with an interesting local talking and laughing, all the time shooting great candids, photo flow can’t be far behind!
This Himba boy in northern Namibia was cute in how serious he was about standing tall and noble.

This Himba boy in northern Namibia was cute in how serious he was about standing tall and noble.

By the way, a future post will go into more depth about photographing people in strange (to you) surroundings.  Thanks so much for reading and have a wonderful weekend!

At Tikal, the ancient Mayan city in Guatemala, rainy weather and the late hour made it feel empty and helped me to experience photo flow.

At Tikal, the ancient Mayan city in Guatemala, rainy weather and the late hour made it feel empty and helped me to experience photo flow.

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Friday Foto Talk: Depth of Field III   13 comments

This Friday I’d like to continue with depth of field. But before I do I want to thank all those who contributed to my campaign to replace my camera gear (which tumbled over a waterfall several months back) and get back to showing you all some fresh material on this blog. I will be sending out a reminder email to those folks, to pick the images they want.

I didn’t make it all the way to my goal, but I got partway there. And that means something. I’m busy right now working 7 days/week doing the only thing I know how to do that makes me money quickly. And it’s actually legal, go figure! So it won’t be long before I make up the difference myself.

Make sure and check out the first two parts of this series: Part I and Part II.  They go over the basics behind depth of field.  The example here will show how to apply those basic principles in the field, so it’s important to know them.

Cape Ground Squirrel

I was traveling through Namibia when I took a break from the road.  Namibia is one country in Africa where you can very easily rent a car and take off on an impromptu road trip, like you would in the western U.S.  If the roads in the west were still largely unpaved that is.  

I strolled up a small ridge with my camera and one lens (a 400 mm.).  Suddenly directly ahead this cute little fellow popped his head up and looked at me with big dark eyes.  I had never encountered this rather tall slender rodent before.  Later I found out it was a cape ground squirrel, native to southern Africa.

Of course I wanted a shot of him, and quickly before he decided I wasn’t all that interesting.  But as usual my position wasn’t ideal.  A portion of the scrubby hillside formed the background not far behind him.  My lens only opened up to a maximum aperture of f/5.6.

Since I wanted a portrait that showed him plus a bit of the bare ground at his feet but little else, the hillside was a problem.  It was too close and would have been too much in focus, too distracting.  I wanted as shallow a depth of field as I could get.  But I was limited in what I could do.  I couldn’t open the aperture larger than f/5.6, couldn’t go longer than 400 mm., and couldn’t change lenses.

I was down to one option, changing relative distance between camera to subject and subject to background.  And since I couldn’t move closer without scaring him off, increasing the subject to background distance was all I had.

I grabbed a quick shot or two, in case he ran away. Then I slid down low, lying on my belly so that the hillside behind him was out of view. Now a much more distant ridge formed the background.  Problem was, the lower point of view put my little friend out of view.

So I waited, hoping that his curiosity would get the best of him.  Sure enough he popped his head up again.  Luckily his long tail (which is what fascinated me about him in the first place) trailed to the side.  I had been framing a vertical photo, but I quickly switched to get his tail in and fired off a few frames before he zipped off to continue his daily desert rounds.

The Cape ground squirrel lives in rocky areas of Namibia and South Africa.

The Cape ground squirrel lives in rocky areas of Namibia and South Africa.

I ended up with a pretty good shot of him, a key part of it being the smooth gray out of focus background. The shallow depth of field was afforded by a relatively long focal length of 400 mm. combined with the squirrel’s proximity to me relative to the distance between him and the ridge behind.  The low point of view resulted in the picture’s main weakness, an out of focus rock low in the foreground.

I tend to combine all the factors controlling depth of field (aperture, focal length and positioning).  But since focal length is pretty much dictated by the composition I’m after, aperture and positioning are the main variables.  I’ll move closer or farther from my subject, change point of view to move background forward or back, or ask my subject to move if that’s possible (I haven’t figured out how to speak to animals yet).  All the while I will adjust aperture to the degree that I can.

Of course I run into shutter speed limitations when adjusting aperture.  But it’s easy to mitigate that by adjusting ISO.  Better to have a little noise from a higher ISO than to have a blurry subject because of a shutter speed that is too slow.  I have ruined many a shot because I thought animals or people were perfectly still when they weren’t.  I’ve been a very slow learner in this regard.  Always shoot live subjects at somewhat faster shutter speeds than you think are necessary. 

Travel Theme: Dry   17 comments

It’s been too long since I’ve participated in Ailsa’s travel theme posts.  This week the topic is Dry.  Enjoy these images from southern Africa.  I was there for three months a couple years ago, at a time that straddled the end of the dry and beginning of the wet seasons.  My better desert landscapes are from the American Southwest, but these show the real impact of dry.

It was amazing the sense of anticipation among the animals (and also people) as they awaited the rains.  It is for many of them a time of life and death, a time of anxiety.  This is especially true with respect to their young.  Most animals there have babies not long before the wet season.  Then they have to wait out the worst days, the end of the dry season while watching their young suffer.  Maybe it’s a way for them to make sure the young are strong, I don’t know.

If you are interested in any of these images (copyrighted and not available for free download), please click on them.  If you have any questions or specific requests, please contact me.  Enjoy and thanks for looking!

A lone wildebeest stands watching the wet season's first storm sweep into the Mbabe Depression of Botswana.  No rain came at first, only wind and incredible dust.  A moment after I shot this, the wildebeest ran for shelter.

A lone wildebeest stands watching the wet season’s first storm sweep into the Mbabe Depression of Botswana. No rain came at first, only wind and incredible dust. A moment after I shot this, the wildebeest ran for shelter.

A clump of grass grows at the base of an enormous orange dune in Namibia's Namib Desert.

A clump of grass grows at the base of an enormous orange dune in Namibia’s Namib Desert.

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during the hottest days of the year in Botswana's Chobe National Park.

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during one of the hottest days of the year in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

The standing snags of camel thorn trees trace a dry watercourse in Namibia.  the mountain-sized dunes of the Namib Desert lie in the background.

Standing snags of camel thorn trees trace a dry watercourse in Namibia. Mountain-sized dunes of the Namib Desert lie in the background.

Ostriches seemed to be most abundant in the dry grasslands of Namibia.

Ostriches seemed to be most abundant in the dry grasslands of Namibia.

During their incredible migration into the Makgadikgadi Pans of Botswana, a zebra mom uses her tail brushes insects away from her foal.

During their incredible migration into the Makgadikgadi Pans of Botswana, a zebra mom uses her tail to brush insects away from her foal.

A desert plated lizard in the dunes of the Namib desert uses its armored head to dig quickly into the sand.

A desert plated lizard in the dunes of the Namib desert uses its armored head to dig quickly into the sand.

Plants adapted to dry conditions normally grow very slowly, but it's hard to beat the ancient Welwitschia of Namibia.  Some are well over 2000 years old.

Plants adapted to dry conditions grow very slowly, but it’s hard to beat the ancient Welwitschia of Namibia. Some are well over 2000 years old.

The long horns and large ears are characteristic features of the gemsbok, an antelope living in arid regions of Africa.

The long horns and large ears are characteristic features of the gemsbok, an antelope superbly adapted to the arid regions of Africa.

This lioness in Botswana's Kalahari Desert is preserving her energy during an incredibly hot day in order to hunt in the relative cool of the evening.  Wish I had as good an excuse to be lazy!

This lioness in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert is preserving her energy during an incredibly hot day in order to hunt (the above animal) in the relative cool of the evening. Wish I had as good an excuse to be lazy!

Namibia's Skeleton Coast is by far the driest, most empty place I've been, an extremely arid coast with plenty of shipwrecks.

Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is by far the driest, most empty place I’ve been, an extremely arid shore with plenty of shipwrecks.

Anyone who has spent a lot of time in deserts knows about the annoyingly dry thing that happens inside your nose.  This giraffe in the Kalahari has the solution!

Anyone who has spent a lot of time in deserts knows about the annoying, dry thing that happens inside your nose. This giraffe in the Kalahari has the solution!

Then he smiled mockingly at me for having far too short a tongue!

Then he seemed to smile mockingly at me for having far too short a tongue!

A mirage of a lake appears on Namibia's Skeleton Coast.

A mirage of a lake appears on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.

Sunset in the dunes of the Namib Desert.

Sunset in the dunes of the Namib Desert.

Etosha National Park   Leave a comment

Etosha is a very large park in northern Namibia that is dominated by one of the biggest dry lake beds (called pans in this part of the world) you will ever come across.  With only a few days before my flight home, this was literally squeezed in at the end of my recent 3-month trip to southern Africa.  The highlight of the trip was undoubtedly my cheetah sighting.  I had not seen this cat in my travels, and along with wild dog was the only major African animal species I had not seen yet.

Two cheetah cubs in Etosha National Park, Namibia, appear to be taking turns keeping watch.

Most people enter Etosha from the south (Anderson Gate) or east (von Lindenquist Gate).  The far western (Galton) gate is  nearly forgotten, largely because this region of the park was closed to the public for years.  A couple of years ago it was opened, and only recently has the only lodge in western Etosha been accepting guests.  Since I always try to do things with a twist of difference, I made a detour after visiting the Himba people (previous post), driving up through gorgeous, unpopulated hill country to the Galton Gate.

A curious young springbok with stubs for horns and huge eyelashes in Etosha National Park, Namibia.

I arrived too late to enter the park, but the friendly (and lonely) ranger set me up in a campsite.  I was very comfortable, and I heard lions calling in the night, but from outside the park.  His wife showed up next morning, wearing bright African dress, and she was delighted to allow me to photograph her.  I later sent her some photos.  This should go without saying, but if you are traveling, make sure to never promise to send photos to someone unless you are certain you will do it.

Entering the park, I immediately headed to Dolomite Camp, which is only an hour or so from the entrance.  Dolomite is perched on a long ridge of (what else?) dolomite.  This craggy outcrop rises dramatically from the surrounding wildlife-rich plain.  Beautiful chalets are perched along the ridge, with decks that have stunning views of classic African savanna.  What a place!  A bit spendy, $100/nt with no activities or meals included, but well worth it.  It was near the end of my trip & I was treating myself.

Checking into my airy chalet, I took a cool shower and parked myself on the deck, cold drink in hand.  I spotted some zebra, antelope and even giraffe through my binoculars.  Later I enjoyed the ultra-refreshing pool and chatted up the young Namibians tending bar.  I chilled out for the whole afternoon in fact, a hot one that “forced” me to take numerous dips in the pool.  Then toward evening, I got into my little rental car and did a game drive through western Etosha, which was empty of other tourists.  I drove the dirt roads (passable in 2WD as long as you drive carefully) and saw the rare black-faced impala, the strangely intense kori bustard, and also the red hartebeest (a funny-looking critter).  No predators though.

When I returned to camp, the moon was rising over the savanna, and the evening breeze had kicked up – very beautiful.  By the way, Africa newbies might be confused when they hear the word “camp” applied to what are actually lodges. Camp is often used when the lodge does not even have an attached campsite, and is pretty luxurious.  This is the case with Dolomite.

Next morning, I woke early and went out on the deck.  Soon I saw a herd of antelope below, and while slowly sweeping my binoculars over the area around the herd (this can net you a stalking predator), I was rewarded with lion!  The first one I saw was a big female, who was staring intently at the herd from thick cover.  I found the rest of the pride nearby, including the male (who was still sleeping, go figure!).  After watching for awhile with no attack, I walked to the breakfast cafe for coffee.  I told the staff about the lion, and one of the young girls working there wanted to see.  Since the lion could not be seen from the main camp, I took her to my chalet and pointed them out. She was amazed.  Turns out these were the first lion she had seen in Etosha (she had just started working there).

Termite mounds dot the savanna of Etosha National Park, Namibia.

I finally dragged myself away from Dolomite and drove into the heart of Etosha.  After about 5 hours, I caught sight of the enormous Etosha Pan.  This is a tan expanse of pancake-flat dried lake bed that is 130 km (80 mi.) long and up to 50 km (31 mi.) wide.  You cannot even see to the other side it is so huge.  It is surrounded by typical African bush/savanna, peppered by large termite mounds (image above) and waterholes where animals gather.  The campsites along the southern margin of the Pan are situated near these waterholes, but they are not really that great.  They are much like Kruger’s, in that they have restaurants, pools, and simple cabins, but those that I saw were somewhat ratty in appearance as compared with Kruger.  But they do work for campers like me, and I had no problem pitching my tent at them.

A rare blue crane feeds near Etosha Pan in Namibia.

A gorgeous cheetah rests after a hot day in Etosha N.P., Namibia

Now on to more animals!  After photographing a pair of rare blue cranes (above) next to a viewpoint over the Pan, I drove toward Halali Camp and saw a vehicle stopped on the road.  I scanned the bush for what he was looking at, but realized I was looking out too far.  As I drew closer I saw them: a family of cheetah!  Woohoo!  I had finally seen cheetah!  Mom and two cubs lay at the edge of the road just chilling out in preparation for the night’s hunt.  I started snapping away, with my Canon 100-400mm f/5.6, and a crop-frame Canon 50D.  I had close to 600mm of focal length, but still could not fill the frame with the cubs.  This is because I was not parked as close as I could actually have gotten without scaring them away.

I’m conservative in this regard, and feel you must strike a balance between getting close enough for good shots, and yet keep enough distance to avoid drastically changing the animals’ behavior.  Since light was getting lower as dusk approached, it was hard to keep my shutter speeds high enough (a common challenge on safari).  I noticed the other guy there had a mount for the door of his 4×4, with his big lens attached.  That is the ticket, I thought, for my next African safari.  You will undoubtedly use such a mount more than you use a tripod on safari.

I did catch some adorable shots of the babies, who were fighting sleep.  Mom was so sleek and graceful!  The other photographer and I had them to ourselves for awhile, until an overland truck arrived.  If you don’t know, overland trucks are basically big 4×4 transports, like a mini-bus on steroids, which carries (mostly young) tourists inside.  They are popular with travelers on a budget, since they typically camp out on their long routes through Africa.  Many overland trips travel from Nairobi, Kenya to Cape Town, South Africa.  This means being on the road for a month or more, all with other people you don’t know, and on somebody else’s itinerary.

It is likely obvious that I do not have a high opinion of the overland option.  I saw many overland trucks pull into a campsite late in the day, where the tourists proceed to hang out as a group, catching up on the internet.  They then pull out next day, usually before daybreak.  This is not my idea of a memorable travel experience.  They tend to pass through Africa without really interacting much with locals, yes doing many of the activities and seeing most of the sights, but all in a rush, and on a superficial level.  I won’t even go into the cliques and politics that inevitably take place along the way.  Ugh!  But if you are one to sacrifice quality for quantity, by all means do it.

Back to the cheetahs: the overland truck stopped in the middle of the road, startling the mother who rose and grew nervous.  Then the truck squeezed through, further disturbing the family.  The tourists, who cannot open their tinted windows, had maybe a 3-minute sighting before being ushered away to keep on their schedule.  But the family was still there in the bush by the road, and the light was getting very nice as the sun set.

A mother cheetah leads her cubs through the savanna near Etosha Pan in Namibia.

Mom led her family off in a row, stopping to scan the meadows (above).  I had brilliant photo opportunities as the setting sun hit their sleek bodies.  I did get some pretty good photos, but I am a perfectionist and next time will be certain to have the door mount for my big lens.  A gorgeous sunset led me to camp, and I had a glow about me for hours from the cheetah sighting.

A big elephant in Etosha N.P., Namibia shows how dexterous a trunk can be.

But there was more.  On my last full day in Etosha, I stopped at a waterhole on the way to the southern entrance.  While photographing very interesting-looking ducks there, I was about to leave when a herd of elephants showed up, including babies.  They proceeded to splash and spray muddy water all over themselves, making all sorts of racket. Since I was parked on the grass very close to the waterhole’s edge. I got good (not great – it was high noon) pictures and video.  They were leaving now, and the head cheese, a huge specimen, was trailing the group.  He (or she?) was looking at me now, and pulling her trunk into all sorts of contortions (showing off?).

Then the big elephant came over and stood immediately next to my open driver’s side window, blocking my retreat.  I realized he could have simply hooked his tusks under my little car’s body and flipped it into the waterhole with no effort whatsoever.  I dared not start my engine, since that can startle an elephant and cause violence.  So I just froze there, managing to grab a couple shots & a brief video.  They are super close-up!  She stared down at me, watching me.  I could not even close the window for fear of her reaction.  Finally, the big bruiser slowly meandered away, destroying small trees in the process of using them as scratching posts.  My adrenaline was really pumping.

After that, the herd of wildebeest, the close-up of the jackal, the black-faced antelope buck, they were all anticlimactic.  I reluctantly left the park, and drove back to Windhoek on a good paved highway with little traffic.  Next morning I was on an airplane heading to Jo’burg, and then to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where I unexpectedly was bumped and had to spend the night (not a bad thing!).  Then it was back to the good old U.S.A., and a serious case of reverse culture shock.

Africa had changed me for certain.  I had finally completed my dream trip.  I would say I had knocked off a big item on my “bucket list”, but I detest that term.  I’m really not a list person anyway.  Don’t like to list accomplishments, don’t like to keep track.  It’s too much like competing with other people, or even worse, with yourself.  Each stage of life brings new priorities in life, and my goal is to live in each moment, not fret about a bucket list.    But if Africa is in your sights, strongly consider an independently-oriented trip.  However you do it, do not let any fear of danger or crime dissuade you from taking control of your own trip.  Africans are friendly and honest people, and will welcome you with open arms.

The bush in Etosha National Park, Namibia, has abundant open spaces and few large trees. Thus they are in heavy demand for weaver bird nests.

Northern Namibia   2 comments

A Cape fur seal pup checks me out, thinking I might be mom.

Northern Namibia is a different world.  On my recent trip to Africa, it was the last region I visited.  I also went to Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and those articles are accessible below.  I’ll cover the Skeleton Coast, Damaraland & the Himba tribe.  Etosha National Park I will cover in the next post.  My jumping off point for the north was the town of Swakopmund (Swakop for short).

One of the many shipwrecks along Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.

Swakop is touristy – it’s the go-to beach holiday for Windhoek residents – but I found it pleasant and not at all overdone.  Strangely enough for Africa, white people seem to outnumber blacks.  It’s best feature is that it is right on the beach.  There are the usual tourist attractions here, which I am not generally interested in.  But there are plenty of outdoor diversions too, including great boat tours, excellent bird watching, and the desert is just outside town.  A prime driving route for nature lovers is Welwitschia Drive.

This route, which takes about 4 hours  with stops and does not require a 4×4, takes you east out of town into the northern Namib Desert.  A permit is required, which you can obtain at the Ministry of Environment & Tourism office on Bismark St. in Swakop.  They will set you up with directions and a guide to the natural attractions.  Simple campsites allow you to take your time, and I started late in the afternoon, camping one night and returning to Swakop in the morning.

The dirt road traverses the gravel plains of the northern Namib Desert, which  are uniquely covered with low-growing lichen.  Here you will find the fascinating, namesake Welwitschia plant.  This plant is, strangely enough, related to pines & firs.  Individuals can live over 2000 years!  In the picture below you can see what looks like many large leaves, but it is actually only two leaves that split and wander.  It does not absorb water through roots, but through its leaves.

Next morning there was a dense, moist fog lying over the dry landscape; this is characteristic of the Namib.  And so this strategy makes perfect sense.  There are separate male and female plants, and when I visited, the blooms were on display, meaning that these aged plants still had some youthful exuberance left in them.

Welwitschia plants, well over 1000 years old, grow on Namibia’s gravel plains.

I was eager to head north to the emptiness of Namibia’s famous Skeleton Coast, but before I could leave, a reckless driver, a local woman, slammed into my rental car as I was parking.  She did not even brake, so the damage was severe.  Luckily, Hertz had an office in town, and they were quite helpful in replacing the car.  The unfortunate thing was the woman was claiming it was my fault.  Police here will visit the accident scene, but they refuse to investigate or make a report.  So it is always a he-said she-said situation when you are in an accident.

I completed a police report, but in scanning her report, it was quite obvious who the untruthful one was.  A couple months later, after I had returned home, a Hertz office in Africa gave me a nasty surprise when they tried to charge me $3500 for the damages.  Since the local office had assured me I would not be charged, I was not about to go along with it.  I had to dispute the charge with my credit card company, and thankfully Hertz finally gave up.

Venus flies over the southern Atlantic on the lonely Skeleton Coast of Namibia.

The Skeleton Coast is a lonely piece of coastline, no trees, gravel plains looking inland, and endless beaches seaward.  Numerous shipwrecks dot the coast (its name refers to skeletons of ships), and there colonies of Cape fur seals.  Cape Cross is the easiest colony to access.  I drew up to this site near dusk so it was closed.  Since it was almost dark, I had two choices.  One was to stay at the nearby hotel, newly built and quite nice.  If I were not in the third month of a trip, I might have gotten a room.  But money was running out so I camped.  I found a nice patch of beach to the north of the hotel, where it was just me, the sea and the sky.

The African jackal is a resourceful and intelligent predator that is very similar to the North American coyote.

The wind blew that night and my tent was rocking a bit.  But upon waking in the middle of the night (something I did in Africa more than at home for some reason), I noticed my tent was really moving, and the wind had not increased in strength.  I was about to get out and look for the reason, but before I could I felt a pair of jaws clamp down hard on my big toe!  I yelled ow as the sharp teeth sunk into my tender toe, and yanked my foot away.  I was fully awake and alert by now, believe me.

When I popped my head out, I saw a jackal standing there, staring at me hungrily.  I had to wave my arms and yell  before he took the hint and ran off.  I checked my toe and lucky for me there was no blood.  If he had broken the skin I would probably have had to go to a doctor immediately for the long, painful process of rabies shots.  So that was it.  I actually was bitten by an African animal.  All I know is he must have been awfully hungry to go after me.

Next morning I sleepily rose and walked the beach.  There were many dead seal pups lying washed up on the shore, and I wondered why.  Were they hunted?  Did they die of natural causes?  Later, at breakfast in the hotel, I found out that the males killed many babies, and their bodies wound up spread along the coast.  Sad.  I visited the seal colony and, aside from the incredible stench of thousands of close-packed seals, was truly amazed.  The babies were especially precious.  They waddled right up to me (thinking I was mom I guessed), so I was able to get some great frame-filling shots (top picture).  I also witnessed numerous fights among the males for the title of “beach master”!

After the seal colony, I drove north into the increasingly barren, strangely beautiful landscape.  I spotted numerous mirages (image below); these were the most obvious I had ever seen.  I reluctantly turned away from the coast, and began climbing on the M126.  I entered southern Damaraland, and started to see a very familiar landscape.  With the mesas of reddish volcanic rock, the broad semi-arid valleys and big skies, this area is very similar to eastern Oregon.  Near sunset, I pulled up at a campsite near the World Heritage Site of Twyfelfontein.  This is an amazing collection of rock art, and is well worth visiting.  There are numerous campsites in the area, and scattered lodges of various price-scales as well.

A mirage of a lake appears along the extremely dry desert coast of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.

Next morning I enjoyed a guided hike into the rocky terrain (you must do a guided hike, and there are many available at the entrance station/museum.  It was amazing to see all those African animals etched thousands of years ago in stone.  Most are petroglyphs (carved into the rock) as opposed to pictographs (painted).  They even depicted seals.  It was obvious that in the past the area possessed many more animals – lion, elephant, etc.  Now the animals of this area are difficult to spot.  They travel the long dry river beds between the highlands and coast, and include the famous desert elephants, rhinos and more.  I did not see much, a few antelope and giraffe.  There are opportunities to hike with rangers who go out on anti-poaching patrols, looking for rhino-killers.  Check this site for more info. on this outstanding opportunity (one I sadly did not have time for).

Petroglyphs, including a seal, adorn the rocks near Twylfelfontein, Namibia.

A young Himba woman from northern Namibia has a direct gaze.

I continued north towards Etosha, and near the town of Kamanjab asked at one of the lodges for some local knowledge regarding the Himba.  This tribe, famous for the red clay the women and children spread all over their near-naked bodies, features in many travel photographer’s portfolios (search for images of Himba and you’ll see).  I wanted to meet them and get a feeling for how they lived, to what degree they had been influenced by modern life, etc.  You really have two choices when it comes to the Himba.  You can go to an organized “village”, which are normally run by a lodge which pays Himba from other villages (often quite distant) to demonstrate their way of life.  A mock-up of a village is constructed and tours run.  The other option is to take off on your own and visit villages, asking the chief or elder if you may visit and take pictures.

The second option was my preference, but it is almost impossible to do this without two things: a 4×4 and plenty of time.  Since I had neither (my flight home was 5 days away and I still had Etosha Park to do), I opted for the former.  I expected to be somewhat disappointed, but was surprised to find I had a wonderful time.  Out of a lodge run by a German woman (go figure), I met a nice young guy who took me and an English couple into the “village”.  When we arrived, the Englishman started taking pictures.  Although the Himba are in part there for photography, and they know that, I resisted the temptation to start firing away.  This isn’t really my style.

I instead started to talk to them, of course focusing initially on the precocious butt-naked kids, and then picking on the most beautiful girl there (I’m incorrigible).  I am using “talk” very loosely here, as they did not speak English and I didn’t speak Himba.   But these women (no men, just women and children) were so delightful that I did not have to try very hard to loosen them up.  As I began to take pictures of the pretty girl, who was sitting against a mud hut wall in beautiful open shade, I tickled her feet to get her to smile.  This had the desired effect, and she started cracking up.  Her friend came over and joined in the fun.  She even playfully took her friend’s bare breast in her mouth and…well, I turned red, let me tell you.

The red ochre they mix with animal fats, applying it to their hair and skin.  It helps with their stunning hairstyles, and protects them from the sun and insect bites.  They have began to substitute store-bought vegetable oils because of the intense odor caused by the traditional mixture.  I was told tourists were shying away because of it, and this I found very sad.  I would not have minded the smell.  Their simple beauty attracted me and no matter their (natural) smell.  The Himba are very real, very personable, completely unself-conscious. I loved them.

After getting numerous great photographs, I finally allowed the guide to drag me away.  I will certainly spend more time with these people if I am lucky enough to return to Namibia.  It is also possible to visit San (bushmen) communities in northeast Namibia.  So the combination of Himba, Herrera (whose women wear Victorian dresses) and the San makes northern Namibia one of Africa’s finest destinations for those interested in indigenous culture.  Of course things are rapidly changing; these traditional nomads are transitioning to a settled existence in towns and cities.  So I recommend going soon.

Springbok in Damaraland, Namibia, flee using their signature springing leaps.

A Himba child has an amazing hairstyle, in northern Namibia.

Next up: Etosha National Park (my last wildlife safari in Africa)!

Namibia’s Naukluft Mountains   3 comments

The second of my Namibia articles, the Naukluft is a place you should really consider visiting if you go to Namibia’s number one tourist attraction, the Namib Desert at Sesriem.  The mountains are visible from the desert, and only take about 90 minutes to drive to from Sesriem.  There is a great campsite at the end of the road (very doable in a regular non-4×4 car).  You register at the little office on the left, then drive another 3/4 mile to the camp.  It is a quiet little place, lying right along a gorgeous creek, which flows year-round most years.

The Tropic of Capricorn crosses grassy plains near the Naukluft Mountains.

But I should say right here, right now, beware the baboons!  These are some of the most aggressive I saw in Africa, and though you (probably) won’t be attacked, keep every bit of food inside your vehicle, hidden.  Also keep an eye on the kids if you have them.  Finally, take it from me and don’t leave your tent unattended.  More on that later.

The mountains are quite diverse, with smallish trees, cactus and shrubs.  Namibia’s signature tree, the strangely beautiful quiver tree (a type of aloe), even grows here, as do wild olives.  But the Naukluft is dominated by bare rocky outcrops.  These are really desert mountains, and like those in many other deserts, they have been shoved up by faulting.

Granite underlies the range, but it is the limestone and dolomite which overlies the granite that gives the range its character.  Since limestone tends to dissolve easily in rainwater (think caves and caverns), this means much of the water flows underground.  And where the water surfaces in the many springs, it is clean and sparkling and forms natural swimming pools.  These splendid spots lie in steep canyons, cut into the easily eroded limestone.  The word Naukluft means ‘narrow ravine” in German.

By the way, if you were curious as to why you find granite in so many mountain ranges, it is because granite is much lighter than most other rocks in Earth’s crust.  So when faulting happens (as it inevitably does when plate tectonics is affecting the region), the granite areas tend to rise while the others fall.  Yes, it’s that simple.

The scenic tumbling creeks are not only perfect for swimming, they also attract wildlife.  These are mostly small mammals, amphibians and other small critters.  But you can also spot the mountain zebra, kudu and gemsbok (large antelope; image left).  Many types of birds also call here (over 200 species), including the beautifuly-named rosy-faced lovebird.    Leopards prowl, but you’ll probably not see them unless you go out starting at deep dusk.

The long horns and large ears are characteristic features of the gemsbok (or oryx), which lives in arid regions of Africa.

There are two main hikes accessible from the campsite area.  One, the Waterkloof Trail, leaves right from the camp and is 17 km. (10+ miles) long with a modest elevation gain.  It climbs the beautiful creek bed, with gorgeous waterfalls and pools all the way.  Hiking out in the early morning, I photographed with long shutter speeds for the silky water effect, but it was not until I got to a pool that was filled with frogs that I got a shot that I really like.

This little guy (picture below) just floated on the green surface of his pool as if in the air, staring curiously at me.  After a few minutes of communion with him, he dived and swam away.  For me, this shot really sums up the Naukluft’s contradictory nature.  Who would think that in Namibia, one of the world’s few true desert countries, you would run into a scene like this?

The Waterkloof Trail continues up and over a pass, with awesome views out over the desert, and down into another valley, descending to a spectacular dropoff and waterfall.  Note that the trail switches just before the waterfall to the left side of the valley – it can get confusing here.  Just follow the yellow footprints.  I saw little flocks of lovebirds in the valley.  They seemed to prefer trees shaded by the cliffs.  I also saw, in a rocky area with a cave, a group of rock dassies (image below).  These incredibly cute critters are similar to marmots in the western U.S. where I live.  But they have a funny, cute nose.  It is this nose that gives a clue to their strange heritage.  Their closest relative in Africa, genetically-speaking, is, wait for it…the elephant!

I was loving this hike, but the climb over the pass had made me hot and sweaty.  No problem: the first large pool on the descending creek was too good to pass up, so I stripped off my clothes and hopped in.  Oh what a feeling!  And all alone…or so I thought.  Soon I had a troup of baboons barking at me from the trees overlooking the pool.  I don’t know why I did this, but I jumped out of the water, buck naked, and swelling my chest, barked right back at them.  You should have seen their reactions!  Priceless.

 

Later, I saw my first and only hikers.  They had caught up with me (what can I say, I’m a photographer), and were, predictably, German.  They of course were camping at the same place I was, but they were smart and did not leave their tent standing.  They were actually using one of those roof-top tents.  In fact, I never saw anyone else in Africa using a tent you pitch on the ground.  I was the only one.  Go figure.

The clean streams in the Naukluft Mountains of Namibia host many frogs, including this curious little floater.

 

But when I got back to my prized little one-man Nemo (a fantastic tent-maker), yikes, it was damaged!  There was a neat little rip in the screen netting, just big enough for a baboon to squeeze through.  Nothing was missing inside, and it looked just like a person had rifled through my things.  They were looking for food of course.  Since I never have had food inside the tent (leftover habit from my days in Alaska’s bear country), they found nothing.  I did have a package of snacks visible on the front seat of my car, however, and that meant I had baboon tracks all over my windshield, along with a slightly bent windshield wiper blade.

Unlike other animals, baboons are like us and use their eyes and brains more than their noses.  Remember this when you are in Africa.  But here’s the thing:  it’s only when baboons are fed by people, inadvertently or not, that they become bothersome and potentially hazardous to humans.  So please, if you go to Africa, do not feed baboons, and don’t leave food for them to find either.  It will eventually result  in their deaths at the hands of locals.

A denizen of rocky places all over southern Africa, a rock dassie checks out the stranger, but from the mouth of the cave that he and the family live in. Naukluft Mountains, Namibia.

 

The other day-hiking trail in the Naukluft is the Olive Trail, which is somewhat shorter than the Waterkloof and requires a short drive from the campsite.  If you have some time, consider the much longer Naukluft Trail, which traverses nearly the entire range.  The trail, 120 km (75 miles) long, takes about a week to hike.  It is easy to find a guided trip for this one, or if adventurous you can get some good maps and backpack it yourself.  But check the regulations, since hiking in Namibia is not like hiking in America.  To get a permit, you even need to submit a doctor’s note saying you are fit enough!  And they actually close trails to hiking during the hot season.  Definitely not like the U.S., believe me.

Visiting these gorgeous mountains is much easier than you might think.  You only need to be geared up for camping, which you should really be if you want to travel Namibia independently and not spend a fortune.  Take a break from the desert when you visit the Namib-Naukluft National Park: hike the Naukluft!

By the way, this website is a great first start in researching Namibia.  For guidebooks, Bradt’s are a great choice, but Lonely Planet will do you well too.

A Namibian ground squirrel, with its signature super-long tail, pops up over a rock.

The Namib   2 comments

Namibia is a desert country in southern Africa.  That does not mean all of it is dunes & sand with no vegetation.  Most is in fact semi-arid country of the Kalahari “Desert”, and in the north it even starts to resemble standard African bush with a pronounced rainy season.  But the heart of Namibia is its desert, the spectacular Namib, with the largest and oldest sand dunes in the world.

The Namib Desert near Sossusvlei, Namibia.

 

Culturally the country is similar to South Africa in that it retains significant white influence.  This cultural flavor takes German form; it was occupied by them during colonial times, and there are many German natives of the country.  This means that the architecture, food and customs will often make you think you took a left turn on the way to Africa and landed in Frankfurt.  The country gained independence from South Africa after a prolonged war in 1989.  But Namibia is different than its southern neighbor in that there is not the same sort of acrimony between the races that still exists in today’s South Africa.  The country is so young that most people seem to have family members who fought in the war of independence.

This country is clean and safe, and perhaps in that lies its major drawback.  It’s terrain is not the only thing that makes it stand out from most African countries.  As in South Africa, Namibia does not create the feeling of being in “true Africa”.  The tribal towns in the north might be an exception to this.  So if you visit Namibia and have time for one other country, do not make it South Africa – too similar.  Choose a country like Zambia instead.

A rare rainbow appears over the dry grasslands of southern Namibia.

I’d been dreaming of coming to Namibia for years.  I knew as a geologist and lover of big empty landscapes that I would feel right at home.  I was not disappointed.  I saved Namibia for last on my recent 3-month trip to Africa, and (predictably) ran out of time before I was finished exploring.  Flying from Cape Town to Windhoek, Namibia’s ultra-clean, compact little capital city, I watched hundreds of miles of empty plains, canyons and lonely coast glide by underneath the wings.  The plane was full of Namibian roller-hockey players returning from their championship run in Singapore.

The weather was actually a bit rainy when we hit the ground, which is unusual for this part of the world.  But I was firmly into the rainy season, so it wasn’t too surprising.  After a night in Windhoek (the cleanest, most walkable city I’ve been to in a long long time), I headed south toward the Namib in my rental car.  One can easily get around Namibia in a regular sedan.  There are many gravel roads but they are well maintained.  If you want to go deep into northern Namibia, however, or off the beaten track anywhere, a 4×4 is necessary.

It was still drizzling, and I was hoping for great light in the desert because of the clouds.  Although it is only a 4-5 hour drive SW from Windhoek to the heart of Namib-Naukluft National Park at Sesriem, I left late and took the long way, swinging south and approaching from the south.  The landscape was some of the emptiest I had seen in Africa.  It reminded me of the empty areas in Nevada and a few other areas of the interior western U.S.  I experienced some dazzlingly beautiful light at sunset (image left), then spent the night at a funky little place run by a talkative Frenchwoman.  The town, called Maltahohe, was no more than a wide spot in the road, and the surrounding   countryside was as unpopulated as places get in this world.

The Namib’s dunes began to appear in the intense sunshine of the next morning (the storm had abruptly broken the previous evening).  At first I thought I was looking at mountains.  Then as I drew closer I noticed their smooth, reddish color.  Can that really be sand dunes?  Wow, I was amazed (and, sadly, I’m not easily amazed anymore).  At the little village of Sesriem, there is an excellent campsite that sits right at the gateway to the National Park.  The onsite restaurant is fine, and the views even better.  From there, I drove the paved road down the long valley to Sossusvlei, towering dunes on either side.

The animals of the Namib are one of its unique characteristics.  Stopping at one of the bigger dunes on the way to Sossusvlei, I hiked around and spotted a cute little lizard with a shovel on top of his head (image left), obviously for burrowing into the sand.From beetles to birds, reptiles to mammals, the creatures have fascinating adaptations to the extreme aridity.  This desert gets most of its moisture not from infrequent downpours as in other deserts, but from a moist fog that rolls in from the cold South Atlantic only a few miles away.  A decade or more can pass between rains, but when they do come, it can pour buckets.  Then small ponds and even lakes can appear in the ‘vleis’.

 

Note that these images are available for licensing or purchase as prints (framed or unframed) from my website, and if you click on an image you will be taken there.  If you do click an image and it does not take you to my website, that means you can copy the image, but for personal use only.  If you have any questions at all, please contact me.  Thanks so much for your interest and cooperation on this.

A shovelnosed lizard prowls his sandy home in the Namib Desert of Namibia.

There are numerous dried lake beds throughout the area, and these are called vleis.  Sossusvlei is one, and nearby Dead Vlei, with its stunning dead camelthorn trees, is another.  You may have seen pictures of Dead Vlei; it is the target of serious photographers from around the world.  I visited both.  Note you cannot drive there without a 4×4.  There are jeeps that will take you from the car park, but they don’t run all day.  So needing to stretch my legs anyway, I hiked in toward sunset.  This is Namibia’s most popular tourist attraction, but I saw only two other visitors there.

The light was not perfect for pictures, but I did get an expansive view of the dunes (image at top).  The dunes in the background are over 3000 feet high.  I rushed back to camp but it was still well after dark when I arrived.  Fortunately it was a simple matter of contacting the guard at his nearby house, and the gate was opened for me without any hassle.

Next morning I was out early.  A thin fog had swept inland overnight, and was laying over the dunes.  As the sun rose, so did the fog, and I grabbed a shot I doubted would turn out well.  The contrast was high, with washed out color.  But I was surprised when I looked at the picture later.  It makes, I think, for a starkly beautiful black and white image (below).  The dead camelthorn trees in the picture follow a now-abandoned water-course.

 

A thin fog lifts over the huge dunes of the Namib Desert as the sun rises.

 

I hiked up a moderately high dune, but after reaching the first peak, I realized that I didn’t have enough water to push on to the far summits.  It was tougher than I thought, humbling for an outdoors hiker guy like me.  But after stowing my shoes, I ran and skied/skipped down the dune yipping and yahooing all the way.  I rolled to a stop at the bottom laughing like a kid.  Exploring further, I loved how the dune grasses contrasted with the deep reds of the sand (image bottom).

I very much hope I can make it back here to this heart of the Namib, and with more time.  Perhaps it will be as a pro photographer, or even running a tour/workshop.  One thing I missed is doing some serious night sky observing.  I was simply too worn out to stay up late.  But there is at least one lodge near Sossusvlei with its own telescope.  So next time, I’ll make stargazing and night sky photography a priority.  I left Sossusvlei too soon, but I wanted to check out the Naukluft Mountains nearby.  So next post up: the spectacular Naukluft!

In the Namib Desert, a clump of dune grass takes root in a slightly more stable part of a red dune.

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