Namibia 2017 Trip Report

By John Shaw on Jun 12, 2017

Namibia, on the southwestern coast of Africa, offers much to the traveler no matter your interests.  There is a ghost town in the middle of endless sand.  There are exotic endemic plants, such as quiver trees, which are not trees at all but giant aloes.  Immense red dunes stretch for miles, amidst which mummified trees stand starkly on dry hard pan flats.  Over 600 species of birds and more than 200 species of terrestrial mammals have been recorded in the country.  And then there is Etosha, an 8,600-square-mile national park, the fifth largest park in all of Africa. 

Namibia is a relative new country, known as South West Africa until 1990 when it gained full independence.  It is a vast country, roughly four times the size of the United Kingdom, but is one of the most sparsely populated with about 2.5 million people.

Quiver tree in Namibia against clear night skyOur Photo Safaris group, with participants representing four different countries (the US, Australia, Canada and Belgium), all met at a hotel in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital.  We had all arrived at least one day early, just in case there were any airline connection problems or delayed luggage.  Fortunately, these didn’t happen, so the extra day allowed us time to relax and adjust to any time zone changes.

After a first-night dinner at our hotel, we left Windhoek early the following morning, heading south in our expedition trucks (equipped with cellular Wi-Fi!) toward the first of four main areas, each of which we would spend several days photographing.  Our first destination: the “quiver tree forest” located near the town of Keetmanshoop.  So what is a “quiver tree” and why the name?  These are not trees at all, but rather giant succulent aloes.  Found only in South Africa and Namibia, they have a distinct shape and are perhaps the most striking desert plant in all of southern Africa.  Quiver trees have been named the national plant of Namibia.  The name comes from the Bushmen, the San people, who used the hollowed out branches for making quivers to hold their hunting arrows.  The “forest” near Keetmanshoop holds an exceptionally dense growth of these plants.  We photographed both early and late in the day, wandering through the area to find exact tripod locations to isolate the trees against the clear Namibian sky.

Kolmanskop NamibiaFrom Keetmanshoop we drove northwest to Luderitz, near the famous ghost town in the dunes, Kolmanskop.  In 1908 a railway worker picked up a “shiny stone” lying on the sand and showed it to his supervisor.  The stone turned out to be a diamond, and was far from being an isolated find.  Supposedly so many diamonds lay on the surface of the ground that it was common for prospectors to lie down on their bellies, slowly crawling across the sand picking up diamonds by the dozens.  The diamond rush was on; people flocked to the area.  Kolmanskop—Coleman’s Town, that is—was founded by German miners, hence its architectural style of a German town.  At its peak in the early 1920s, Kolmanskop had about 1,200 residents and was one of the richest towns in southern Africa, boasting a hospital with the first X-ray machine in the southern hemisphere, a power station, a school, an ice factory, a theater, a bowling alley, and even a swimming pool.  However, shortly thereafter a richer diamond find was discovered on the coast about 250 km south, and people quickly left.  By 1956 the town was completely abandoned to the shifting sands of the Namib Desert, the buildings preserved by the extremely dry conditions.  Our group had special photography permits, allowing us access from sunrise to sunset.
From Luderitz we made the long drive north to our third tour location, the immense red sand dunes of Sossusvlei at the southern end of Namib-Naukluft National Park.  Some of these dunes reach a height of more than 1,000 feet (over 300 meters), which makes them the highest dunes in the world.  They are without a doubt one of the highlights of any trip to Namibia, and are a photographer’s delight with light and shadow patterns in the low skimming light of morning and evening.  In the very heart of Sossusvlei lies Deadvlei, a white clay pan with skeletons of dead camel thorn acacia trees.  A short hike offers access to this area, and because our lodge was located inside the park, we were able to be the first photographers on site in the mornings.  Some of the skeletal trees, desiccated and blackened by the intense sun, are estimated to be approximately 900 years old. 
Elephants at watering hole in NamibiaAfter three nights in Sossusvlei, we overnighted in the coastal town of Swakopmund, allowing us to take a special tour of nearby dunes to search for unique desert dwellers, such as the Namaqua chameleon and the venomous Namib sidewinder adder.  In the afternoon, we flew a chartered airplane to Etosha National Park (or the "Great White Place" referring to the 1,800-square-mile salt pan), our fourth and final photographic destination.  We spent five nights in Etosha, at two different camps about 150 km apart—which says something about the size of the park.  
Etosha is very dry, so wildlife concentrates at the park's water holes, offering a parade of animals coming and going.  One of the most photographically productive water holes, Okaukuejo, was less than 100 feet in front of our first lodging.  Two commonly seen species of Ethosa's animals, zebras and elephants, have noticeable characteristics.  Most of the zebras have a distinct brownish/tan coloration of their white stripes, so called shadow stripes, while many of the elephants have broken or shattered tusks, caused by a combination of nutritional deficiencies.
After a leisurely last morning in Etosha, we flew to Windhoek via chartered aircraft, and caught connecting flights back to our home towns.  I'll be leading the 2018 Namibia photo tour, and I look forward to seeing you then.  It's a great trip!
Zebras at Okaukuejo watering hole Namibia