This is part 4 of the 10 Years Of Safaris retrospective series.
In 2013 I wanted to offer a very different kind of safari to what we had been doing at Sabi Sabi. This time I set my sights on the big skies and seemingly endless desert landscapes of Namibia. A bit of wildlife would also be thrown in at the end. The Namaqualand To Namibia safari had been timed to coincide with the arrival of the Namaqualand spring flowers, occurring towards the end of August, beginning of September, but we also spent a few days at the start of the safari exploring around Cape Town.
As an adult I had been to this unique city a few times on business, but it was usually only for a day or two max and we seldom got to see anything other than the inside of an office or a restaurant. I call Cape Town unique because it really isn’t anything like the rest of South Africa. In fact, we normal South Africans often speak about Cape Town being a different country (or planet) entirely from the rest of us. If you’re ever left alone in conversation with a Capetonian for long enough you’ll likely come to the same conclusion. There might be something in the water that causes them to have a different outlook, but I think it’s probably too much wine. And cheese.
This safari was going to be my first real taste of Cape Town in the winter time. I’ll be brief; if you want to go there, don’t go in winter! I never knew that Cape Town got that cold. It doesn’t quite get below freezing, but the swirling winds and erratic bursts of torrential rain around each mountain corner combine with cold frontal weather systems pushing up from Antartica to produce very unpleasant conditions for humans. Especially where outdoor activities like photography are concerned.
So, as a result, much of our time in the city was spent at indoor venues, tasting the famous Cape Town wines and eating bread dipped in the lesser famous Cape Town olive oil. And paying through the nose for the privilege. I’m not much of a wine fan myself, especially the red variety, so most of the time I felt a bit like a cowboy being forced to endure endless performances of Swan Lake. The sensitivity of my tastebuds and nostrils were properly and permanently calibrated for simplicity after two years of being forced to eat army food. I don’t need to discover hints of chestnut, or mossy afterglows in the quest for intoxication. Just give me a lager in a bottle and I’m happy.
On one of the days we found ourselves in Hermanus, a town about midway between Cape Town and the most southern point of Africa, Cape Agulhas. This is a famous whale watching spot, however, it got so cold outside that I spent the bulk of my time sitting in the minivan while the others (who all hailed from Europe and thought the weather was delightfully refreshing) were photographing the flapping whale fins and enormous waves crashing onto the rocky coastline. Or so they said. I never saw any evidence of these whales, but then my memory of the event is suspect since I was in a state of partial cryogenesis by then. I did see lots of penguins at some point. Smelly little creatures, best observed from a great distance.
Anyway, after a few more days of wine tasting we met up with the rest of the group who were joining the safari and we all headed North in two vehicles. The West Coast of South Africa is very rugged and conversely very pretty in places. My first experience of it was when I went there on a family holiday to visit my grandfather in 1983. He had decided to retire himself to a small town about 30km west of Clanwilliam, going by the somewhat dire name of Graafwater, which translated from Afrikaans means to “dig for water”. That should give you some idea of what it is like in certain places in the Western Cape. When I went there as a kid we had arrived at about 10am and getting out of the car into the sun I thought my hair had literally caught fire it was so hot.
Although only 30kms apart, Clanwilliam is a completely different place to Graafwater. It is beautifully set amongst the Cederberg mountains and a relatively new dam that was close to over flowing at the time of our visit. Looking back at my photos of this safari though, I only took 6 there, mainly of our group clambering over some rocks in order to photograph bushman paintings. I do recall though that our one night in the town was very windy. And cold. Apparently several of the “permanent” tents we were staying in had blown away in the wind a week earlier. When it picked up again ferociously at some point of the very early morning I decided it would be safer for me to wait for the guests (who were stationed in proper buildings) in the car. This lack of sleep would set the tone for the rest of our trip.
Moving a little further north east the following day we finally came across some of the famed Namaqualand wild flowers. To be honest, I was left a little underwhelmed with the whole wildflower experience. It certainly was pretty to see in places, but not as spectacular as I had been led to believe. The bulk of the flowers were either yellow or orange, depending on the town we were in. Occasionally we might have seen a bunch or two other colours, but for the most part yellow and orange flowers was it.
As we pressed on northwards towards Namibia my spirits were buoyed at the prospect of doing what I had wanted to do more than anything on this trip, photograph landscapes! When you cross the border into Namibia from South Africa the landscape changes almost immediately and I could feel myself getting giddy with excitement as we passed through customs and began the very long trek northwards through the desert.
Ranked second, behind Mongolia, in terms of population density, there is a LOT of Namibia’s deserted landscape to get through and you can drive for ages without seeing another car on the road. A lot of the time you’ll see other cars on the side of the road where they have been abandoned for years, left to the merciless elements. It’s definitely not a place you want to break down unprepared.
Our first stop in Namibia was at the Fish River Canyon, which is apparently the second biggest in the world, behind the Grand Canyon of North America. Staring into this void etched into the earth I couldn’t help but think that I was staring at death itself. Nothing grows here. At the time of our visit Namibia was in full drought and the Fish River that usually snakes its way through this canyon had long dried up, leaving the popular multi-day hiking trail closed due to lack of a water supply.
Northwards further still we went, eventually reaching the town of Sesriem, which is the gateway to the Sossussvlei desert reserve. I’ve written extensively in the past on this experience of the world’s highest sand dunes and of course the Deadvlei itself. If you’re going to take a road trip through Namibia it’s definitely worth visiting, even though it has become something of a major tourist trap. From a landscape photography perspective you will need to rely on your wiles to avoid getting other people in your frame, but there are certainly plenty of opportunities to get great shots of the area.
One of the things about this road trip that sticks in my mind was the incredibly difficult drive from Sesriem to Swakopmund. According to the map it’s only 343km, but it took us close to 8 hours after leaving Sesriem before we reached this Germanic coastal town. The road conditions were awful. Deeply corrugated, filled with random rocks (that if driven on would shear your axle off instantly – something we actually saw happen to another vehicle on the way) and generally not the kind of road you’d ever want to travel for 8 hours on. Unless you’re a rally driver in search of a dry and dusty ending. We did stop a few times for photos, including the obligatory pose at the signpost for the Tropic Of Capricorn.
As we got closer to the coast I was amazed to see the external ambient temperature drop from the low 40˚C’s to the low 30’s, then low 20’s and eventually settle at a somewhat chilly 12˚C by the time we reached our hotel. That’s the effect of the Benguela current that runs up from the south Atlantic ocean along the south west coast of Africa. As many mariners over the past few centuries have discovered, this is not a coastline to be trifled with! It’s known as the skeleton coast for good reason as it is littered with the hulking remains of many vessels that didn’t quite make it around the Cape Of Good Hope.
We spent three days in Swakopmund which gave me a much needed break from the wheel. During this time we made use of some day tour companies to explore the dunes as well as neighbouring Walvis Bay and it’s colony of greater and lesser flamingoes. Walvis Bay is nothing like its charming neighbour Swakopmund. It’s actually quite depressing as it’s largely and industrial settlement. Aside from the flamingoes there isn’t much else to see unless a steady stream of lorries carting salt from the many salt pans to processing plants is something you’d enjoy.
And then it was on the road again, this time to Damaraland, which is where the Namibian landscape gets really interesting. If I ever return to Namibia this is where I would like to spend more time. Huge orange boulders, mountains, dead trees and seemingly endless sunsets all come together to create what is for me the Zenith of landscape photography opportunities. Sadly we were only scheduled to spend a single day and night there, which left me somewhat disheartened as this was my main reason for going to Namibia in the first place.
While we were in the Damaraland region we were taken to a Himba people’s village. It was here that I made some of my more memorable images, albeit not in a manner in which I was particularly comfortable. I wrote about that excursion here, so I won’t get into it again in this article. Suffice to say that it was here where the benefits of my little mirrorless Olympus E-M5 and a 75/1.8 lens really began to hit home. I got photos that I don’t think the giant DSLR’s were able to, simply because I was able to shoot from the hip, mostly unnoticed. One of these images was later exhibited at Photokina by Olympus during my 2 year stint as a local brand ambassador for them.
Travelling further north-east we eventually arrived at the Etosha National Park where we would spend the next 4 nights in 3 different camps. I’m not going to sugar coat this in any way, but by this stage I’d seriously had enough of driving Namibia’s endless roads and I’d also had enough of the relentless dry heat. Every day the mercury would rise over 40˚C and like every other national game reserve where you are driving yourself around, you can only leave the camp at first light and you must return before sunset. This doesn’t make for great photography and it also isn’t particularly comfortable when you are sitting in a baking hot vehicle for hours on end looking out for whatever animal might decide to visit the watering holes (which is the only place you will typically see them in Etosha).
However, on the final day of our visit to Etosha we stayed at one of the newer, more exclusive camp sites in the north of the pan called Onkoshi. The great advantage of this camp is that you can’t drive yourself there, you leave your vehicles at Namutoni, they collect you in 4×4’s and you have daily game drives from rangers, just like you would at a private game reserve. It was on our last evening game drive that we saw one of the most incredible lion sightings I have ever witnessed.
We had stopped to photograph a lilac-breasted roller when off in the distance I noticed a bit of a kerfuffle amongst a group of wildebeest about 100m from where we were. It was a full on lion attack in progress! Our ranger raced towards the scene and we witnessed the demise of a wildebeest at the claws of two juvenile lions, one male, one female. I don’t believe in the 10 years of hosting wildlife safaris that I have heard more shutters being actuated than what occurred in the hour we spent at the scene. It was like the Battle Of Britain.
It took a long time for that wildebeest to die. At least 30 minutes passed from the initial terror I photographed in its eyes until the final glaze of its welcome death. This is the way nature works.
That night as we recounted the story of our sighting at the camp dining room, one other guest who wasn’t a part of our group remarked that he had been coming to Etosha for 10 years and had yet to even see a lion there, let alone a lion kill. I guess we were just lucky.
The final stretch of this epic safari involved yet more Le Mans endurance type driving from Etosha southwards to Grootfontein before heading north-east again on the longest straight road I have ever driven on. The B8 between Grootfontein and Rundu on the border of Angola was constructed by the South African Defence Force before Namibia gained its independence from South Africa. It is about 230km of flat track with barely a kink along its entire length. From Rundu we drove eastwards into the Caprivi strip and then crossed the border into Botswana where we would spend some time on the Kavango River.
When we got there I felt immediately relaxed. It was as if somebody was pouring soothing oils on my travel weary soul. For me there’s nothing quite like big rivers and spending time exploring them on boats and this was a little piece of heaven that arrived just in time before my mind went all Colonel Kurtz on everybody. We saw an abundance of birdlife, crocodiles and many other river dwellers for a few days before the final leg of our journey to Windhoek and the departure of the Safarians.
Windhoek was a pleasant surprise to me. It’s not as hot as the rest of Namibia and it’s quite cosmopolitan for a small city. There’s a lot of German influence in the buildings and of course the famous Joe’s Beerhouse serves up a mean traditional Eisbein with sauerkraut (way more food than any human should ever consume in a single sitting!).
As we said our goodbyes to guests the following day I realised that it had been a whole month since I arrived in Cape Town for this safari, but there was still another two days of driving south from Windhoek before I would be able to fly from Cape Town to my home and family on my beloved east coast. I was, as they say in the UK, proper knackered. I ended up spending 5 days in hospital a week or two later with all the symptoms of malaria, but according to the tests I didn’t have malaria. They still don’t know what it was, but it was most unpleasant.
Will I go back to Namibia? For sure, but if I do that trip again it will be very different and there won’t be anywhere near as much driving. I’ll be looking into charter flights between points of interest which will obviously make the adventure more expensive, but infinitely more enjoyable.