There are places that create a real turning point in our perception of the natural world, places that spur in us a total immersion and a deep connection with our surroundings. Places that, for the photographer, cast a magic spell of inspiration, enlightenment and reflection. Namibia produced such an effect in me.
I felt something different as soon as we approached the airport at Windhoek and through the window I saw a sea of hills spotted with acacia trees and an infinitely stretching horizon under the blue sky. That was the first time I visited Southern Africa, but somehow, it was as if I already carried in my blood a small part of this ancient land, a genetic souvenir of this continent; the cradle of humanity.
When we hear about Africa, we tend to visualise a world of opportunities mainly targeting the wildlife photographer, a place where the last Eden of wild animals can be found at home in their natural environment. We think about safaris, about the savannah and about those stereotypes that have become associated with the African dream... If this is indeed the reality in most of the Western African countries, Namibia stands apart by providing a whole new set of particularities which create a visual feast for all nature photographers.
Nestled on the south-western part of Africa, Namibia is a land of deserts, infinite coasts, rugged mountains that expose their naked geological features, incredible wildlife, surrealistic vegetation, ink-black night skies and one of the lowest population densities in the world.
This combination leads to a huge number of photographic opportunities for the landscape photographer, which I would say even outnumber those available for the wildlife photographer. This is a place that defies all familiarity, where surrealistic is the word to use to define the experience and where the concept of time takes on a whole new meaning.
Some of the most impressive landscapes in Namibia can be found in the Namib-Naukluft area, home to the biggest sand dunes on the planet, where trees have been transformed over hundreds of years from living beings into natural sculptures.
In other places, sand gives way to rock, and isolated mountains like the Spitzkoppe pierce the sky turning gold as they are kissed by the first and last rays of the sun every day.
In the South, the graphical and otherworldly Quiver trees grow amongst the rocky plains, raising their fractal beauty towards the sky and begging to be photographed.
To the West, the Skeleton Coast, a sailors’ nightmare for centuries, sees the convergence of ocean and desert in a wild setting where only the wind and the sound of the waves break the silence...
But even if the smell of the grass, the quality of the light and the purity of the sky would suffice to remind us where we are, it is the wildlife that completes the African experience for the nature photographer.
Namibia possesses some of the finest jewels for the wildlife photographer from the whole continent; an incredible wealth of wildlife roams free in Etosha National Park; sea lions gather in Cape Cross in what is the biggest colony of this species in Africa; desert elephants, a particular rarity of Namibia, roam the dried riverbeds quenching their thirst by digging into the phreatic level; lions stand proudly on sand dunes on the Skeleton Coast or the Kalahari Desert...
One of the primary decisions to make when visiting Namibia is when to go. Although the country could be defined as an arid place, two main seasons exist: the dry and the wet, each providing different implications for nature photography. The dry season, which still occasionally sees clouds in the sky, occurs during the austral winter (May to December) and decorates the landscape in browns and yellows. During this period, transportation is easier, the temperature is bearable and wildlife concentrates around waterholes, making them easier to observe. During the wet season (January to April), however, moisture and heat can make the experience suffocating. Strong and sudden rains can cut through roads making transportation a challenge and wildlife tends to spread further afield, making finding them less predictable. However, advantages are offered by the wet season too, and so booming clouds fill the sky, flowers can carpet the arid plains and water can even fill the desert vales where the sand dunes are mirrored.
Travelling through Namibia is easier than would be expected. Distances are not too far, and one can normally reach any one of various interesting areas on the same day, using the time to photograph instead of being behind the wheel.
However, despite the extensiveness of the road system, a 4x4 vehicle is needed in order to visit some areas. This applies particularly to the end section of Sossusvlei where driving on sand is compulsory (and fun), visiting the Spitzkoppe area or crossing the Damaraland region, for example. Even if local transportation can be arranged for these particular places, the price to pay for doing so is losing the flexibility that is so crucial when approaching photography.
In terms of planning, Namibia is a place to be enjoyed slowly, and even more so for the nature photographer who wants to connect with the place and go beyond the iconic trophy shots. This is why the minimum duration for a first trip to Namibia for photographic purposes should be at least two to three weeks.
Another possibility is attending an organised photographic tour to this country, which can reduce the required time since the group leader has optimal experience at placing participants in the right place at the right moment. This can be a solution to make the most of the photographic opportunities offered by this country in a lesser amount of time, while maximizing the possibilities of bringing wonderful photographs of this amazing place.
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