Well, the hard part is over. I’m in Namibia at the fabulous Windhoek Safari Lodge. It was a LONG trip for me. My 2 hour flight to Windhoek was nice and I was with a cool Dutch family who lives in Canada and are here for a family reunion in Namibia. The only thing wrong with this flight was when I smacked my head on the top of the exit door and descended to the tarmac in a daze. I met Dirk right outside the gate and it is old home week. Cat and Stan’s flight came in 40 minutes later and we are all here with all the luggage and SUPER excited about the prospects for our Namibian adventure. We are off to dinner and (I bet) a great night’s sleep! Tomorrow we are off to the Red Dunes of Sosusvlei!
Day one After breakfast we drove 4 hours to the Namib Desert and the Sossus Desert Lodge. We checked in to our sweet double huts, 24 hour electricity, a floor fan, writing desk, soft rain style shower with an open teak floor, a huge bed and amazing pillows…all located inside the National park! And, yes, my Kindle died again at the beginning of my Namibia trip… I can’t believe it. Our afternoon drive into the dunes area was a great way to scout out the best locations for later photography. We covered LOTS of ground and made lots of dune photos from the moving vehicle. We pulled to the side of the road for some of the more majestic dunes for more careful composed photographs. The night sky in the desert is beyond description. The clear air and no light pollution give unparalleled views of the Southern Cross and the Southern Hemisphere Milky Way!
Day 2 This is the day for our early morning balloon ride over the desert. We got to the launch pad at 5:30 as the balloons were being filled with hot air. We lifted off and drifted on the morning breeze as the sun came up. Spectacular views of distant escarpments, golden grasslands and, of course, the giant red dunes of Sossusvlei! My favorite shots were with the 10.5mm fisheye lens. Our pilot expertly guided us over a herd of 100 Oryx for fun shots of them in and around the balloon’s shadow. We touched down and were met by the ground crew who had set up a Champaign breakfast set in the golden valley between the red sand dunes. Our after noon shoot was a drive deep into the dune area to find the most dramatic dunes. We got out of the vehicle, hiked to our best vantage points, set up the tripods and photographed for the rest of the afternoon. Our ultimate goal was to find the perfect set of dunes for a big panoramic shot. I enjoyed looking for the right tree at the base of the dune for more detailed shot.
Day 3 This morning is one of the many highlight mornings of the trip…the trek to Dead Vlei. We got up at 4:00 AM, loaded into the vehicle at 4:30 and drove in the dark to the farthest reaches of the park. At 5:30 Dirk found the right area, parked the car and we took off on foot through the dunes by the light of a half moon. It was a half hour hike to Dead Vlei and we arrived at 6:00 for some pre dawn shooting. Petrified salt flat, the skeletons of 900 year old acacia trees surrounded by towering red sand dunes…that’s dead vlei. The perfect shooting for me was when the sun came up over the huge east dune and illuminated the west dune. The salt pan and the trees were still in shadow with the bright dune behind them creating an otherworldly affect as we chose out singles and clusters of trees as our main subjects. Somebody pinch me! I gotta be dreaming! On the hike out Dirk gave us the fascinating natural history of how the dunes formed and created this unique environment. We took the afternoon off. Tired from the early morning trek and photographically fulfilled from Dead Vlei experience, we hung out at the bar and talked about photography concepts, Photoshop techniques and life, in general.
Day 4 We packed our bags, left Sossusvlei and took on the open desert that leads to Wolvus Bay and Swakopmund. We stopped at the one horse town of Solitaire for drinks and the most amazing apple strudel EVER! Later we were able to stop and photograph some of the northernmost quiver trees before leaving the high desert for the Atlantic planes. Lunch at Walvis Bay was at a restaurant suspended over the bay. We had baked Camembert and cranberries with hot fries on the side…AMAZING! Then we went around the bay hoping to see some flamingos (if they are in) and whatever birds are on the Salt marshes. We only saw 1,000,000 flamingos! The were everywhere but the best was a fresh water pond in the sand dunes with flamingos flying in and out and going crazy when a jackal came through looking for an easy meal. Then we drove through the salt pans using the vehicle as a blind and got within 30 feet of greater and lesser flamingos (for head shots), pied avocets (head shots), stilts, and tiny chestnut banded plovers (not for head shots). There were literally millions of birds to choose from. Tonight we have our amazing seafood extravaganza at the beach restaurant.
Day 5 Easy wake up, breakfast, load the vehicle and off to see the white dunes of Walvis Bay. The dune belt starts behind the town and goes south following the Atlantic coast. While not as red, or big in area covered, these rounded, pastille peach colored with iron highlights, include some of the largest dunes in the world! Mighty dune # 7 was climbed by South African troops in full battle dress as a basic training exercise. I was whipped a quarter of the way to the top while only carrying a camera! Still, that quarter of the way gave us great views of the dunes around us as well as complex compositions of dune curves and textures. On the way out we did some panoramic shooting and even had a train go by with the dunes as a back drop. We explored Swakopmund, went to the shops, got groceries and had huge burgers for lunch before heading up the Skeleton Coast in search of ship wrecks. There is a great one a half hour north not far from shore with waves crashing around it on their way to pound the beach. Cormorants perch on the masts and give it a wild remote look. My favorite shots were taken with a 10.5mm lens as the sea foam from the powerful waves covered the shore with the unfortunate ship stranded in the midst of a wild sea. Right now I’m in my room at Cape Cross listening to the pounding waves of the Atlantic Ocean as I drift off to slee…ZZZzzzzzz……
Day 6 Cape Cross. We are in the middle of nowhere and literally at the end of the road. You really have to want to be here to get here. Our lodge is the only thing happening for miles and miles and has a beautiful view of the Cape. At 8:00 we went round to the entrance gate of the Cape Cross Fir Seal Colony Reserve. Our photo shoot began with panoramic views of beaches, rock outcrops, and an ocean that was sending wave after huge wave crashing to shore. Spread across, through and in this scene were 150,000 cape fur seals. From the 200 meter board walk we were able to photograph portraits, snuggling, nursing babies, fighting, barking, yawning, swimming and fur textures. That was the easy part. Then we noticed seals diving off the back sides of the towering waves as the broke at the reef line. It was a “high mortality shoot” but we did get some stunning action shots as wave after wave came crashing to shore. It was then that the fist wave of Cape cormorants flew through the scene. I thought, “Wow. That’s a big flock….” 35 minutes later with no break at all the flock ended. There had to be over a million cormorants in the group. As they flew over the waves the swimming seals all put their heads up to see what was happening. More and more dove out of the wave crests for even better photography. At the far end of the board walk there was a view of thousands of seals pushed right against the wave line. The incoming waves towered over them as they crested and broke creating a dream-like background for the seals. Sometimes 2 and even 3 waves would stack up behind the seals a break at the same time. AMAZING. We shot all day with a break for lunch and no one wanted the day to end!
Day 7 Damaraland Today is technically a travel day so we won’t count the photo ops with Himba and Harero Tribes coupled with the stark beauty of Damaraland. We had a picnic lunch under a Mopani tree before a visit to the Organ Pipes, a rock out crop of dolerite whose jagged shapes were reminiscent of giant city skylines or …wait for it…organ pipes. Our lodge at Traifel Fontaine is built into the powerful boulders of ancient granite formations. SPECTACULAR! They put on a great spread for dinner, after which we drove into the desert for star photography. The 10.5mm fisheye gave us the ability to take killer photos of the whole Milky Way. Now it’s off to bed…
Day 8 Twyfl Fontein Doubtful Waters is the largest area of 6000 year old bushman rock etchings. The etchings show the history of each artist’s travels, hunts, sharing of knowledge and even mapped layouts of where water holes are located. Thousands and thousands of etchings in everything from singles to full panels with a hundred etchings were located along a red sandstone trail. My favorite was the “Lion Panel” that had giraffe, Oryx, rhino and the famous lion of Twyfl Fontein. Last year we were here in the heat of the afternoon biut today we hiked in right when they opened so we got the best light and a lovely morning hike. From there we drove to Etosha and arrived at 2:30. The first animals we saw were 7 greater kudu! An auspicious start. We got to the lodge and were handed the room keys to my usual chalets right by the watering hole. We went to the watering hole at 4:30 and there were a few zebras and an Oryx wading and drinking but the wind was up and the reflections were poor. When they left it seemed like that was it for the day. Just as the started getting low and the wind died a big elephant bull came across the plain to drink. The reflections were perfect as he walked by and started to drink. After a dinner break we cam back to our rooms to find 10 giraffe drinking, 60 elephants coming in from the bush and 3 black rhino up to their stomachs in the watering hole! Dial up the ISO! We are shooting at night!
Day 9 Okaukuejo Dirk had heard lions in the early morning so as soon as we could get out of the gate we headed toward where we thought the sounds had come from. 13 k later there was a lion walking on the bad light side of the road. Bummer. But it didn’t matter because 2k later there were 2 pair of lions in beautiful light in mating behavior. We got great shots of the act, teeth and all before running the water hole circuit. Between water holes we found a rare antelope called Tsessebe. It’s similar to hartebeest but is much darker and the horns have a narrow curve above the head. Then came the pale chanting goshawk and the tawny eagle on nice perches before the water hole with the gazillion zebras followed by the watering hole with springbok, ostrich, giraffe, Oryx, and 3 monster old elephants. We got back to the lodge for lunch but got no time to rest because the were 20 greater kudu in the watering hole right out side our rooms! They were followed by zebra, Oryx, kori bustards, jackals, all mixed together with scads of springbok. The kori bustards went into a maniac display if anyone got near them while they were drinking. An hour before dusk 5 giraffe came in out of the bush but it took them an hour to approach and actually drink! In the mean-time, zebras lined up in the late light for drinks while Oryx were up to their necks and drinking their fill. I’m done! Things are still popping out there but I gotta get some sleep!
Day 10 Halali We got up, packed the vehicle, had breakfast, and did a game drive to Halali, our next lodge. Things along the way included a handsome little spotted hyena (really, you have to see the photos…he was handsome), lots of yellow-billed hornbills, kudu (our count is now 52 kudu) steenbok, southern giraffe, and best of all 2 black faced impala who were busy grooming each other 15 feet from the vehicle. They just looked like they were in love! The waterholes were pretty quiet so we hunted around and found some tawny eagles and a Black Kurhaan, a large bustard-like bird.
Day 11 Halai This morning the watering holes were quiet again so we shot more (and better) yellow-billed hornbills and finished our morning with a visit to the Etosha salt pan. This dried remnant of a huge ancient lake goes seemingly forever, from horizon to horizon. It’s a perfect spot for the 10.5 fish eye lens! In the afternoon we found some more lions in mating behavior, but they were in a difficult spot for photography, on a half hour mating schedule, really didn’t perform well so we left to search for cheetah. That was a bust so we did a visit to a great afternoon watering hole where there a lots of green reeds, open water and perfect afternoon light. When we turned toward the hole we saw a sight that will stay with me for a long, long time. 70 elephants in and around the water! They were of all ages, and they were running, drinking, fighting, playing, swimming, snorkeling, mud tossing, and dust bathing…all in the last half hour of golden sunlight. Some were dusty white, some were black with mud, while others were splattered black and white. One of the babies was so little that his mother had to bathe him and the mud-covered youngster could hardly walk!. When they were done, the whole group turned as one and walked to, around and past us into the sunset! A life moment if there ever was one.
Day 12 Namutoni You know when you have a morning where the light is perfect and there are no animals and when the light is still OK there are animals but they are all walking away from you or on the wrong side of the road? Well, this is that morning. Our best chances were with elephant backlighted but close and zebra backlighted so the grasses look like they are on fire with light. They turned out to be great shots but that was it till we got to Namutoni, our last lodge. It all changed when we saw 20 giraffe just outside the gate and while we were waiting for our rooms Dirk got us back in the vehicle because he had seen a black rhino (also just outside the gate) This was the first of the 21 rhinos we have seen on this trip to actually walk toward us!! Our rooms are nothing short of spectacular! It made it difficult to go to lunch. Our afternoon game drive was to a great watering hole where we had 6 giraffe drinking, springbok and blackfaces impala, 8 greater kudu, and to top it off 2 big elephants came down to drink. Dirk said, “I don’t want to spoil the party but there are LOTS of elephant coming.” LOTS meant 50 elephants. It wasn’t crazy like yesterday. There were quiet family groups drinking in clusters and solid walls of elephants. There were several babies that had fun with the water but this shoot was more about groups and shapes where yesterday’s was more about action. On the way back to the lodge…another rhino coming straight at the vehicle!! Dinner was outside in the courtyard of Namutoni Fort under a palm tree and a spray of stars. Not a bad day…
Day 13 Namutoni We tried to find giraffes to photograph with the rising sun, but we struck out. The morning ended up for the birds. The track we followed seemed to always have great light angles and sweet perches for dramatic birds. The first was a greater kestrel whose rusty hued feathers were painted with the peachy glow of first light. Next up was a yellow-billed hornbill that landed on the best perch just as we slowed down to comment on how great a perch it was! Best of all was a black shouldered kite on a perfect perch at eye level in peachy light eating some kind of small mammal with a long tail. FANTASTIC shots as he flapped his wings for balance. The afternoon shoot was back at the PM waterhole but there really wasn’t anything great going on. Dirk asked if we wanted to find the Damara dik-diks. They have a tiny habitat and this is the only place you can find them. We drove for 5 minutes and Dirk carefully stopped the car. My question was “Did you find the dik-diks?” His answer….”No, something even better….a leopard!” And I’m not lying. There was a female leopard less than 20 feet away just resting in the sun! She didn’t seem to mind that we were there taking photos and she gave us lots of looks. The scene was demolished when a browsing giraffe walked around the bushes and spooked the beautiful cat. I got off some shots as she left the bush, cut in front of our vehicle and disappeared into the bush on the other side of the road. Wow, wow, wow! It was hard to concentrate on the dik-dik hunt after that, but we ended up with 12 dik-diks and got great photos! We had a lovely toast at dinner to the Damara dik-dik and our amazing leopard. It didn’t even matter that we haven’t seen giraffe in the sunset or sunrise.
Day 14 Namutoni…Our last full day! Of course we are going to try to find the leopard again this morning! Too bade for us she was not to be found, but great for us, we found dik-diks that made everything we shot yesterday obsolete. They were just standing around in the sun, feeding, walking…and all right by the road! A short drive later and we were at our morning waterhole for another giraffe show. This time it was 11 giraffe and one of them was a 2 week old baby who just wanted to run around, jump and twist between short sips at the waterhole. Some zebras later and it was time for lunch. After a mid day rest we wound our way to the afternoon watering hole where we really had it all. At one point there were kudu, Oryx, impala, springbok, warthog, 15 giraffe, and even a black rhino, but all of that paled to insignificance when a family of elephants appeared at the edge of the bush. Other elephants joined them and stacked u[p behind them until the press of animals became too much and 70 elephants came to the waterhole in a solid wall of animals. There were so many animals, groups, activities that it was hard to choose what to shoot. Then the small babies started to play and all other choises became mute. I made some of the best photos of my life at that waterhole! Happy Birthday Dirk!
Day 14 Last morning drive at Namutoni. We loaded EARLY and went out with the hope of finding giraffe in good position for sunrise silhouettes. Our best chance for open ground and giraffes was the afternoon watering hole. We were not disappointed as we approached. There was a single giraffe wandering around the area. He did not stay still (which was a challenge) but we got in good position to get great shots of him on a ridge with the golden sun rising behind him. We said good bye to the morning water hole and the 2 male lions that were sunning there, drove to the lodge for checkout, and began the long trek home.