It has to be one of the bucket-list destinations for photographers from around the world. It ranks there with Antarctica, the Okavango Delta, Torres del Paine and Death Valley among others. It's instantly recognizable from screen-savers splashed across both Microsoft and Apple computers around the globe, and it was our last location. What a finale! Sossusvlei and the incredible tree skeletons of the Dead Vlei.
Prashant mentioned to us as we walked back from the Dead Vlei and our last shoot that he had seen screen-saver images of the bare trees against a vibrant but featureless orange backdrop, a white carpet of bleached cracked mud as a stage. He said that he had thought the image was computer generated and only later heard about the Dead Vlei when he first moved to Southern Africa. It's true that nothing prepares you for the incredible location that is the ending point for the Tsauchab River, amongst the Namib Desert and its copper and red colored dunes. The contrast of the cracked brown fossilised wood against the wall of sand that surrounds it is both startling and profoundly beautiful. It is also a disturbing metaphor for the planet.
We're here, so why not? Etosha Game Reserve in the north of Namibia is one of world's most famous natural reserves. Its enormous pan and surrounding arid lands are home to thousands of animals and some of the most startling photographic opportunities to be had. Although we are in Namibia to recce for next year's landscape workshop, it seemed silly not to take a look at Etosha. So, although the reserve won't be included in the 2014 workshop, it is an option for photographers to continue to after the workshop (which can be organised through Tailor Made Safaris as an addition to the workshop).
The flatness is what strikes you most as you enter the reserve. We made our way through Anderson Gate to Okaukuejo where we spent our first night. Driving out to the pan you are met by the sight of a limitless horizon, where the end is impossible to see and only ever hinted at by the shimmering heat haze in the far distance. Through this nebulous horizon the ghost of gemsbok and giraffe seem to float above the surface of the pan. There is little wonder that Etosha means 'the Great White Place'. It is only once you visit the park that you ever really appreciate the name.
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 colored 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.
This is our third photographic location after picking up our guests, Preeti and Prashant in Windhoek. 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 Uhuru (Ayre's Rock). An incongruous, in this setting, pinnacle of coarse granite whose orange hues contrast dramatically against the azure blue sky.
Leaving the surreal landscape of the Quiver Tree Forest we cut across the southern end of Namibia towards the coastal town of Luderitz. The landscape only gets more surreal as you journey along the B4 highway. Dolerite capped hills disappear and you find long avenues of short grassed sandstone hills that march along the side of the highway, forming a huge geologic avenue of sorts. The very occasional farmhouse stands out starkly against this semi-desert landscape. An oasis of humanity in a sea of emptiness.
But it changes. Rapidly. From these soft hills the horizon suddenly starts to get hazy as the heat builds up an ocean of mirages ahead. Oncoming vehicles grow as a ghostly reflection and the hills and mountains in the distance look as if they are growing out of a silvery sea. Then the orange sands of the Namibia desert pounce upon the horizon and move like a glacier towards the dead-straight road that runs between Aus and Luderitz.
Namibia is a long way to travel if you want to start from the Indian Ocean. Two days driving, not all of which was uneventful, and 1667 kilometres from Durban to Keetmanshoop with a short stop in Bloemfontein en route. Clouded skies rapidly made way to limitless blue skies over a burnt horizon. Miles and miles of scrub and dust make for a harsh beauty in the dry landscape.
Finally crossing the border between the Northern Cape Province and southern Namibia we were surprised by the distance between the South African and Namibian border posts. At one point we even wondered whether we had now entered the country illegally. We finally made it through the small buildings that marked our official entry into Namibia and set off across the flatness towards our destination near Keetmanshoop.
Crossing the desert one last time we drove between Luderitz and the Fish River Canyon, before snaking our way back north-eastwards to the incredible scenery of the Quiver Tree forests north of Keetmanshoop. Crossing the desert was itself an experience. The tarred B4 highway shoots straight as an arrow after the permanent dunes around Kolmanskop towards the West. Distances are truly vast, particularly when you get to the flat landscape of the Khoichab depression that looks more like it should be found on Mars rather than on earth. The searing heat throws up shimmering mirages that double the sense of vastness.
Not that I took much of this in. I had finally hit my wall the night before during the star-trail shoot and crashed inside the vehicle for a much needed snooze. Serious lack of sleep had caught up with me from the very little sleep we had afforded ourselves while in the Namib-Naukloof National Park. Revived, I arose somewhere near the weirdly out-of-place Seeheim Hotel. This odd feature on the map is marked as a town, but is actually the site of a near 100 year old hotel that had a township spring up around it during the heady days of the diamond rush. One should visit simply to say you have been there, and at least pop into the bar and stare quizzically at the stuffed animals, some of which are meant to be used as drinking (more like quaffing) aids. The mercury hovering at 48 degrees centigrade soon had us cowering in the air-conditioned comfort of our vehicles as we cut southwards towards the Fish River Canyon.
Traveling south from Sesriem along the D707 is an incredible experience. The vastness of Namibia’s desert landscape is only made more intense by its near emptiness. Our three vehicles moved rapidly along the dirt road that flanks the eastern edge of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, but still, distances seemed to crawl by. That is one of the complications of travelling in Namibia. The distances between locations are enormous. The workshop we are leading takes in four of the most iconic landscape destinations in Africa, but, they each require almost a full day’s traveling to get between.
Namibia as a country is extraordinarily first world in its services, tar roads and major cities. Their dirt roads are also some of the best that I have ever driven. However, in this huge country with such a small population, dirt roads are long and rough in a large number of instances. If you are going to travel overland in Namibia be prepared to expect some issues with your mode of transport. In most cases it has to do with the tyres.
The thing that strikes people most strongly when they first encounter the desert is the absolute vastness. It just stretches on forever. The horizon is a shimmering mirage that intensifies the sensation of endlessness. Add a cloudless blue sky and desiccating oven-like heat and you cannot help but be overwhelmed by the waves and waves of red sand marching into the distance. This is the Namib desert. It is a place that is simultaneously eerily beautiful, and brutally harsh.
Leaving Spitzkoppe our group of photographers first traveled across to Karibib and then down south past rows of roughly hewn mountains before cresting over a sea of stubby yellow grass that lies on the edge of the Namib desert. From here we then continued towards Solitaire and then directly on to Little Sossus Dune Lodge for a ‘rest’ afternoon of image critique and seminars. We finished off our long travel day with a practical session photographing a lone tree towards the end of the day, with each photographer tackling the angle and the light in a slightly different manner.
In what seems like the blink of an eye the Composing the Dunes workshop has suddenly arrived. I'm writing this overlooking the vast expanse of the grassy plains to the east of the Namib Desert on a rest morning that is sorely needed by our weary group of photographers. Although we have only taken in one of the selected landscape venues of the photography workshop, one of our photographers admitted that it seems unlikely that what we have already seen could possibly be improved upon. Yet, every inch of Namibia is like that. The country is a landscape photographer's dream.
The logistics of preparing for a workshop of this nature are enormous, and here I am incredibly thankful for Nick and Freya from Tailor Made Safaris for their tireless commitment to giving the photographers in our group an incredible experience. We're only on day 4 at the moment but it feels like we have been here for a month - not because anyone wants to go home - simply because there has been so much to do, see and photograph.
Several years ago, sitting in the dry heat of Namibia sipping a beer, I asked Nick van de Wiel, my partner with Nature's Light, "What about Madagascar?"
I remember him laughing and saying something along the lines of, "Sure! You organize it, we do it", not for a second thinking that we would actually manage to put together a photographic trip on the odd land mass floating off the east coast of Africa. That conversation was on the tail end of our now annual Composing The Dunes workshop in Namibia. Typing this, I am sitting on a Airlink Avro plane with the ochre coloured rivers of Madagascar shimmering in the late afternoon sun far below us. Somehow we managed to put it together...
Madagascar is not an easy country to visit. Putting together something like a photographic workshop is even more difficult. To try and sort out the logistics in the French speaking country, we teamed up with the dynamic team at Island Continent Tours. Meeting with them last year at Durban’s Travel Indaba, they were the only tour operators that were prepared to give us the inch of flexibility that is required for the specific needs of photographers. Even then, there are a number of things that need to be adjusted when we return in 2018 (yes, as I write this we are taking inquiries and bookings for next year’s workshop to this mysterious island). In a nutshell, there are virtually no dedicated photography workshops (as opposed to tours), that take in Madagascar save for a few wildlife workshops in the country’s northern regions