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 made our way south from Etosha in an arduous but beautiful drive past the Kalahari of Namibia and then in a south westerly line from Windhoek through the stunning Gamsberg and Rantberge Mountains. Vast jumbles of desert-varnished dolerite and tilted sheets of sedimentary rock coalesced into mountains that shimmered under the harsh heat that bakes the rock-face. The sinuous dirt road winds through the mountain passes, crossing countless dry river beds. Water obviously formed the country's valleys and gorges, but it is now conspicuous in its absence. Indications of occasional inundations of biblical proportions are apparent thanks to the obvious precautions that the Namibian government has made in preparation. Sturdily built bridges, weirs and gabions mark almost every dry river-bed crossing. Signs warn of water flow and deep drifts. For us though, there was only dust, heat and negative condensation (it was sucking us dry).
At the end of this road you are suddenly confronted with a sea of short tufted yellow grass floating over reddish orange sand. A sharp barrier of mountains thrusts up from the grassland so that the sea of grass looks like it's breaking against a coastline of black rock. This is the impressive Naukluft Mountains that literally break the seemingly inexorable progress of the desert. Beyond this barrier lies the sands of the Namib Desert and the start of the Skeleton Coast.
We arrived to an exquisite welcome at the little Sossus Lodge some 30 kilometers further south than Sesriem Gate to the Namib Naukluft National Park. After a long day in the vehicle we all felt more than a little sweaty and tired. Still, the light was stunning enough that Preeti and myself downed our welcome drinks and rushed outside to catch the last rays as they hit the neat ranks of small clouds scattered across the sky.
Our biggest day from the whole trip dawned early as we sped to Sesriem to catch a dawn flight across the dunes. This hour and a bit flight in a small Cessna 206 flies low over the Sossusvlei and Dead Pans then heads straight out to the coast, skimming low over the sand dunes as they become increasingly less grassed and more like the vision of a true desert. Its like flying low over a giant's sand pit sculpted by wind and the imagination of some huge giant child dribbling his finger through the sand. The dunes are mesmerising as they slide by beneath the aircraft. Then suddenly you're banking hard to the right and sailing low over the waves of the cold Atlantic with the tall dunes now above the aircraft. Waves lap against the shore and every hundred meters or so a large seal bolts for the water while jackals look lazily at the small white plane as it hurtles past. The pilot pulled up steeply and then banked back toward to the desert, giving an overview of the immensity of the Namib Desert with the black expanse of the Naukluft now small in the perspective distance.
Flying over the desert is a truly awesome, phenomenal experience. It's one of the best ways to come to grips with the size of the desert (which still seems endless). However from a photographic point of view I would recommend the helicopter flights rather. Although they don't go as far into the desert as the Cessna, 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 onto 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. As much as we all enjoyed the overall experience, all four of us were disappointed in the photographic experience. Images that are well composed and in focus are still soft; both as a result of the plexiglass windows and the actual speed at which we were flying. So an utterly phenomenal experience, but not one which yielded much in the way of imagery apart from 'we were there' shots. For this reason we'll be recommending the helicopter flights for next year's workshop.
From the airfield we made our way into the park to first visit the Sesriem Canyon. This is a gorge cut in the soft sand and rock at the edge of the desert. In full flood the Tsauchab rushes through like a freight train in a tunnel, forcing debris high above the canyon floor (we saw logs and river debris some 6 meters above where we stood). Sesriem Canyon is largely ignored by the visitors to the park, but it is actually a fascinating photographic location. We ultimately planned to return at night when the moon was high to do a night shoot. Of course plans tend to get broken as we were just completely exhausted by the time we finally made it back to the lodge from Sossusvlei and watched the sun set over the Dead Vlei.
The easiest way to access the dunes as a photographer is to book into the Sossus Dune Lodge run by Namibia Wildlife Resorts. Admittedly it is considerably more expensive than most of the other lodges in the area, but it allows virtually unrestricted access to the dunes. It also happens to be an exquisite lodge with incredible facilities, amazing views and a wonderful staff. As Prashant quipped, "It's ironic that the best lodge we stay in is the one we spend the least time at". And herein is the reason you cough up to stay there. All other visitors to the dunes have to wait for the official gate time of 6 o'clock (a.m.) to enter the park and then trundle the 60 kilometers to the dune parking lot, and then walk a further half an hour to the Dead Vlei. By staying at this lodge, you are able to leave earlier, in our case 3a.m. in the morning.
The early rise is worth it in so many ways! We stood in the centre of the vlei as stars spun in the night sky above us. It was almost full moon (not great for star trails sadly) which lit up the trees like cold candle light. It was extraordinarily eerie. The silence was deafening. It practically roared in our ears. It was only broken as the moon slid below the dunes and a crow broke us from our reverie by screeching into the dark. Watching the light slide down the side of the vivid orange dunes is a truly moving experience. The dark skeletal trees seem to burst into browns and coppers as the sunlight burns its way down their remains and creeps over the cracked ground. Overwhelming is the best way to describe the entire experience.
In the end we had the vlei literally to ourselves until 7am when the first of the other visitors started to arrive. Walking away all I could think was about when I would return. But sadly, we had to walk away. Preeti and Prashant had a plane to catch in Windhoek, and a mammoth 2400 kilometer drive awaited Nick and I. Namibia is a truly spectacular country. It's as if the landscape was formed for photographers and artists. You can contemplate the mountains and plains for days, weeks, months and still feel inspired looking at the arid and harsh terrain. It was a veritable playground for us for two weeks. I am hoping we'll be meeting like-minded photographers next year when we return for the actual Landscape Workshop.
Nick is sharing his images on www.facebook.com/tailormadesafaris. We'll be posting details about next year's workshop shortly. Details will also be available in the monthly Photo Writing. You can also email with any questions regarding the workshop and tour that will take place in October/November 2014.
See the side Recce to Etosha on this page:
A Sho't Left to the Great White Place - Part 3.5 of the Namibia Landscape Workshop Recce