“You’re going to Namibia in November?”
There’s usually an aspect of incredulity accompanying the above comment when I tell people that I’m off to lead a workshop in Namibia in November. Most photographers tend to associate shooting in Namibia as a winter or late summer early autumn experience. The former for the night skies and the incredible Milky Way opportunities and the latter for the late summer rains. Both are excellent times of year to visit this amazing country, but November can be as good.
First off, November is usually the start of the rains in Namibia. This means for dramatic cloudy sunsets, rain dumps and long dawns. Secondly, It isn’t nearly as hot as December through to February (although it can reach the mid 40’s centigrade in some places) which is what most travellers think when you tell them you are heading there in November. Thirdly, it’s the start of the tourism low-season, so you get fewer people at the top photographic locations. This has served us well for several years on our ‘Composing the Dunes’ workshop which runs in the south of the country.
This year was our first Northern Namibia workshop. Admittedly, and despite what I’ve written above, November is not the best time to visit the Kunene region as the river is simply not at it’s highest level, but our group was a full group of returning photographers who all had time available and had done the south with Nature’s Light before. The vast consensus amongst them was, ‘now’s the time!’. Yet, the November cloud magic was still there as we made our way through Etosha on our long route to the north.
The crew of photographers, coming from America, Germany and the UK, all met up in Windhoek to start the 3000km round trip from Windhoek, via Etosha and the Kunene River, down Damaraland to finish up at Walvis Bay. The journey took in fantastic wildlife sightings in Etosha (under some great cloud formations), serendipitous water flow at Ruacana Falls, awesome light at Epupa Falls, spectacular desert scenery in Purros Canyon, gorgeous alpine glow on the massive Brandberg and an extraordinary day out photographing Pelicans in flight and traveling over the dunes of the Namib desert.
The photography proper started once we reached Etosha and it’s vast herds of plains animals. The vastness of the pan is hard to comprehend unless you have actually seen it up close. Sightings are predictably good of animals like springbok, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest and a multitude of birdlife. We were also treated to a phenomenal sighting of a leopard stalking through the grass and a large herd of elephant visiting one of the waterholes north of Namutoni. A highlight of the workshop was a private game drive through the Onguma Reserve which abuts Etosha National Park. Here, we had wonderful opportunities photographing lion.
After a whirlwind three days in the park we made our way north and had a sort of restful night at on the plains north of Etosha at the King Nehale Lodge. The Gondwana Collective have bucked the wildlife trend here and have unabashedly embraced the cattle culture of the region…and the reason the plains have been shaped the way they have over hundreds ion years by human and cattle occupation. Here a vast grassland stretches as far as the eye can see while large herds of Nguni cattle dot the landscape.
In the opulence of the lodge we were able to catch up with some crit sessions of images - one of the features of the Nature’s Light workshops - allowing photographers to get a sense of what each of the others were working on, while also getting advice on processing and composition.
From King Nehale we worked our way north towards Ruacana. Recent rainfall meant that for most of the way there was standing water on the side of the road. Unfortunately the clouds receded after this rainfall and only reappeared as we finished out journey tend days later (unfortunate timing between two fantastic fronts of weather meant for clear skies for most of the trip barring Etosha and Wallis Bay).
Ruacana was always going to be a pot-luck location. This time of the year it is often bone dry as it only flows when water is released from the dam just upstream. The best time to visit is really March through to April when rains in Angola cause the Kunene to swell and the Ruacana dam to reach capacity. Still, by some stroke of fortune some water was released while we were there and the we were able to shoot some of the fascinating rock features of this large cliff with white flows of water running past (not the thunderous volume expected in autumn, but good enough to train a lens on).
An advantage of traveling in November is of course being able to take the gravel D3700 from Ruacana through to Epupa Falls. In late summer this road is often impassable due to water flow in some of the tributaries of the Kunene. November is early enough that the road is easy to travel down, although it still takes a long time as every corner opens up a vista that begs for a camera to be taken out.
The route passes several Himba villages which gives lots of opportunities for meeting some of the locals herders. There are portrait photography opportunities galore, although always be aware of the ethics of photographing people. We usually travel with a polaroid camera (Fujifilm install) and try to get to know individuals before broaching the topic of creating images. If there’s an opportunity to purchase curios, these are usually a good way to ask about creating portraits. Like many touristed areas though, the Himba have come to acknowledge their culture as something that has marketable value, so are likely to ask if not demand financial compensation if you choose to create images of any of the people you meet.
Epupa is always a treat to photograph. Large Baobab trees stand proud on the edge of the narrow gullies that roar with the sound of water rushing through them. Like a lot of places in Africa there is a lackadaisical approach to personal safety, so if you are stupid enough to fall in, then it’s your own fault if you die. This is stuff photographers yearn for: no guard rails and unimpeded access. Of course it’s unlikely to last if photographers (it’ll be a photographer when it finally happens) kill themselves trying to get that shot. At the moment though there’s a wonderful bliss to being able to explore an area like this without the handbrakes and having one’s hand held every step of the way. The difficulty in getting here also means that the lack of handbrakes hasn’t been too detrimental to the site itself…for the time being (although unfortunately accessible Baobabs all bear the trace of chiseled graffiti…a scourge of every baobab within reachable distance anywhere on the continent).
From Epupa we hit the gravel to Opuwa, often likened as the gateway to Namibia’s North. Opuwa is charmingly described in several travel books as a dirty town full of grifters. You cannot get out of a car without being accosted by a dozen curio sellers aggressively trying to get you to buy whatever wares they have. These are all watched over by a few ‘pimps’ who control the actual market. Each of the sellers reports back to the controller and receives their cut out of the final tally. Avoiding the huskers is all but impossible.
As one of the periodic dust storms hit Opuwa, we dashed from its mercantile centre and made our way to a plain to the west of the town. Here dust whistles in great clouds across the landscape, making for dramatic photographs of trees and people standing against the whipping sand storms. One of the reasons to visit Namibia as a photographer is to photograph the raw weather that often assails the country, and Opuwa did not disappoint on this occasion.
Our longest drive was heading from Opuwa down the C43 to Sesfontein and thence though the corridor of mountains that leads toward Purros Canyon. This is the lesser known dune corridor and desert edge to the more famous corridor in the Namib-Naukluft. Purros seems flung out into the middle of nowhere. You could be on Tatooine for all you know. After Sesfontein the track winds its way over a depression in the Geinas Mountains, dropping you into a massive grass plain pockmarked with fairy circles and thence in and out of the Gomatum Riverbed. This is the easy route into the canyon, with other longer and more technically difficult routes for the off-road enthusiasts.
At the end of this track you are left in the opening between the Hoarusib and Gomatum Rivers. This forms a large bowl surrounded by mountains, naked of any trees, and propped up by massive red sand dunes. It’s an extraordinary site to look out over at sunset as the skies’ hues shift from burnt orange to iridescent pink and purple with the fading light. Over all this is an uncanny silence broken only by the wind and the voices of the other photographers.
Another long day of driving lay before us from Purros, so we opted for a pre-dawn start in order to be deep into the valley formed by the Gomatum for sunrise. This allowed for alpine glow striking the mountains in a location where we were relatively close to the steep stoney cliffs. The surprise is how cold it is in the early morning. Here, just to the east of the Skeleton Coast you are still hit by the icy winds off the Atlantic Ocean. So, despite searing afternoon temperatures, the early morning is decidedly brisk.
Twyfelfontein is famous for its rock engravings, although for us it was really just a stop on the way to Brandberg. Nonetheless, we still took the opportunity to explore some of the basaltic rock outcroppings that scatter the hills around Twyfelfontein. As with just about any location in Namibia, one night seems far too little to spend, even if the stop is literally just a stop between locations.
Brandberg though was our actual destination. So, after a very comfortable night in luxury tents at the base of a basalt outcrop, we headed towards the massive lava uplifting that is the Brandberg. This is an ancient granite intrusion that is very different to the other mountains in Namibia. From space it looks like a giant red pimple, almost perfectly round, and massive. The mountain even has the highest of Namibia’s peaks: Königstein at 2573m above sea-level (impressive as the base of the mountain is at 800m above sea level).
We came to Brandberg to search Desert Elephant (although only one of the group ended up seeing a herd of 20 on a drive while the rest of us went hunting afternoon light) and alpine glow. We were staying on the eastern side of the massif, meaning that early morning the mountain would light up burnished gold. We were not disappointed. Like Africa’s Uhuru, the massive form of of Brandberg rises distinctly above the yellow grass of Damaraland. As the sun starts to crest the horizon the whole mountain looks like it is on fire with orange and pink light.
Being a longer stop again allowed more crit and editing time for the massive amount of images that had been shot over the last few days. As with many trips of this nature, it seems extraordinary looking through images to think that so little time has actually passed between locations.
The longer stop also meant for an astro shoot, although this didn’t work out as desired in the end. It really does need something like the Milky Way rising above the mountain, and shooting the Milky Way is very much a winter activity in this part of the world.
On from Brandberg to the coast and the surprisingly cold weather off the Atlantic seaboard (cold for anyone who imagined that Namibia is permanently hot). Our coup de grace for the workshop was a full day’s outing in Sandwich Harbour to photograph pelicans and terns, followed by a drive into the dunes of the Namib Desert. Mola Mola tours did not disappoint with their lunch on the spit of land aptly named Pelican Point. Here we toasted an incredible two weeks together traversing the north of the country.
We had hoped for some more clouds over the desert admittedly. As it is we seemed to have landed slap bang between two weather fronts. Epic cloud scapes greeted us in Windhowk and Etosha, only to disappear and subsequently return on our final day as we drove to Windhoek and airport. Regardless, the light was phenonemal for much of the time. Being in the low-season also meant we usually had the landscape to ourselves.
November is still one of my favourite times of year to travel to visit this extraordinary country. That said, to capture the power of water in this harsh landscape requires visiting at a slightly different time. For that reason we are looking at running the Namibia North workshop in March/April 2024 (with the ‘Composing The Dunes’ workshop continuing in November 2023) . If you are interested in joining the 2024 workshop, drop an email to be put on the first-takers list.