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.
Then came the desert in earnest. Part of our group split off to photograph Sesriem Canyon while the other half took a flight over the dunes as the early morning light washed over the sandy ridges. Photographically, the best times to shoot the desert dunes from the air are in the early morning and late afternoon when the shadows are at their longest and darkest, (the exact opposite to some of the commercial photography I shoot from the air when the clients often want almost shadowless images).
Taking off was a bumpy affair as the wind had shifted violently to the west and buffeted the small Cessna as we lifted into the already hot air at 6am. Runnels of wind-whipped sand tore through acacia trees below us, as we sped over the Sesriem Canyon and flew towards Dune 45 and the Dead Vlei. Scouring sands whipped off the blade edges of the towering dunes below us, causing one of the photographers in our group to comment that they were relieved to be in the air rather than on the ground and in the path of the grinding wind and grit.
Seeing the desert from the air always takes my breath away. The enormity of it 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 drifted past as the pilot worked his way to the end of ‘Dune Alley’ before heading back to look for Gemsbok along the grassy verge of the Namib Desert proper.
The aerial photography was a wonderful respite from the heat for some. Driving in towards Dead Vlei on one afternoon, the temperature was clocked at 45 degrees centigrade! It was only after the sun had dropped and the moon was high in the sky that the inexorable heat seemed to dissipate. This makes creativity quite difficult and some of us struggled during the first photography session at Dead Vlei amongst the famous petrified trees. A note for anyone wanting to do serious photography in the dunes is to carry plenty of water and drink it. Dehydration is not fun and can rapidly lead to heat stroke.
Our most exhausting location happened to also be our stay at the dunes. Leaving Dead Vlei in the twilight we made our way back to Sossus Dune Lodge - the only lodge providing unfettered (if prior permission and permits have been obtained), access to the dunes. For some of the group the stay was extraordinarily short as we were up again at 1:30am the following morning in order to be back out at Dead Vlei for star trails and astrophotography. Very few of the photographers joined on this particular shoot, opting rather to head out to Dead Vlei at sunrise and get a few more hours sleep. For those who did make the early trek out to the middle of the desert, it was a special treat to stand in silence amongst the majestic skeletons of the trees. The full moon lit the sides of the dunes beautifully so that we walked away with images of an ethereal quality.
Photographing a location as incredible as a desert is an amazing experience. Being somewhere like Dead Vlei even more so. But, to be at a location of this stature virtually on your own as the moon scuds through the sky before clipping the tip of a dune and disappearing is awe-inspiring. It’s an event few can experience and I feel privileged to have been able to have seen it (and even more privileged to be able to potentially do so again next year).
With weary bones and brains we now leave the Namib Desert (1,5 hours of sleep in two days is going to catch up with me I am sure) and strike out towards the cold air of the coast where the Namib and Spergebiet meet. Here lies the hauntingly beautiful colonial houses of Kolmanskop.