2011 Namibia Trip Report

By Jeff Vanuga on Jun 23, 2011

It had been 25 years since I last photographed in Namibia and, when I was asked by Joe to lead the 2011 Namibia photo safari, I was ecstatic. Revisiting some old locations, and exploring a few new ones, the trip provided a fresh look at what I first photographed with 35mm film cameras on the iconic Kodachrome 25 and 64.

After meeting in Windhoek, our photographic adventure began at the Quiver Tree Forest near Keetmanshoop. The quiver tree, or kokerboom, is a species of aloe indigenous to Southern Africa and Namibia. Although the “trees” are found sporadically around the country, it is the concentration of trees in the Quiver Tree Forest that makes this area unique and worthy of national monument status in 1995. We photographed this incredible aloe species at both dawn and dusk—giving some of our images a “painterly” feel by the low light of sunrise and sunset. Vincent van Gogh said in a letter to his brother Theo that, “it often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day.” We decided to put his theory to the test and spent one night shooting under the brilliant skies of the Milky Way and the Southern Cross. The sky was so very crisp and clear, it held everyone in awe. I have seen night skies around the globe and yet this particular night took my breath away for its beauty and impact. Setting our ISO to 1600 with camera settings of 30 seconds@f/2.8, we photographed and “light-painted” the quiver trees with flashlights in the total darkness. The resulting images were iconic representations of both the quiver trees and the southern night sky. For many in the group, these were the most breathtaking images from their entire trip!

From Keetmanshoop we headed to the quaint seaside town of Luderitz made popular by the discovery of diamonds in 1908 at nearby Kolmanskop. Luderitz is known for its turn of the century colonial architecture including some well-preserved Art Nouveau buildings popular from 1890 to 1895. We briefly photographed this classic architecture and used our stay here as the staging point for photographing the nearby famous ghost town of Kolmanskop. Built by some of the early German diamond miners, the town is constructed in typical Germanic style with living quarters, ballroom, power station and other amenities of a small bustling boom town. When the diamond mining became exhausted after WWI, the town eventually became a ghost town yielding to the shifting coastal sands where buildings and rooms of the once thriving town are engulfed in sand.

Leaving Luderitz we crossed huge expanses of desert on our way to Aus and photographed the wild horses that have survived this inhospitable environment since WWI. With less than 200mm or less of rain per year, these expansive plains contain almost no vegetation and are only interrupted by an occasional rock outcrop that rises from the African veld or kopje as they are locally known. What I found interesting about this part of the country was that there was literally no evidence of water courses, erosion or gullies from rainfall. It is more like a moonscape than almost anything you would find here on earth.

One of the highlights of any trip to Namibia—and the most famous geologic feature—is the dramatic Namib Dunes at Sossusvlei. We spent two glorious days photographing the sinuous curves and shapes of some of the largest and highest dunes in the world. The entire group was very interested in exploring even more of the dunes—so we chartered our own plane for a 1-hour sunrise photographic excursion from the air. The dunes are equally impressive from the air as they are on the ground. At the nearby renowned Dead Vlei salt/clay pan—where camel thorn trees died long ago leaving their skeletal remains—the eerie trees challenged us to create order out of chaos in this barren and denuded landscape so popular with photographers.

From Sossusvlei, we drove along arid Kuiseb Canyon to Swakopmund. In the canyon we stopped for a midday picnic in one of several caves occupied by Henno Martin and Hermann Korn, along with their dog Otto, during WWII. For 2½ years, the two German geologists escaped capture and internment by living in one of the most barren and arid landscapes on the planet. Their story was later told in Henno Martin’s fascinating autobiography, The Sheltering Desert. The next morning we boarded our private chartered flight to Etosha National Park.

Etosha is the “Great White Place.” Devoid of vegetation, this desert salt pan partially fills during the fleeting wet season—attracting thousands of flamingos and shorebirds. The perennial springs along the pan attract more than 114 mammal species and 340 species of birds. Due to the unprecedented rainfall in Namibia this season, the game was much more dispersed in the park than usual. Our best opportunities for finding elephants, giraffes, the elusive black rhino and other iconic images of African game animals came from the surrounding water holes—including ones less than 100 feet in front of our lodge doors! After a relaxing dinner many of us stayed up until the wee hours to photograph at those water holes behind our bush chalets. My favorite was the flood-lit water hole where visitors can watch and photograph animals at very close viewing distance. Flood lights presented their own challenges and generally we pumped our ISOs to 6400 and changed our Automatic White Balance to 2400K. This prevented the images from turning a brilliant glowing orange and balanced out the warm effect of the flood-lit lights. Shutter speeds were slow at 1 to 3 seconds but most of the images captured were of animals drinking and fairly stationary. Shutter speeds were reduced with flash and the use of the Better Beamer Flash Extender with telephoto lenses.

By the end of the trip, we had covered nearly 2,075 miles driving the dusty roads of Namibia and flying by chartered bush planes. Would I do it again tomorrow? Definitely!