Namibia was still very green and there was grass everywhere up to the Angolan border. There were places in the Namib desert where the sand dunes were so overgrown by grass that we almost missed them. There was still plenty of water at Sossusvlei and we could see the traces of the last floods. The good rains of the last 10 years have really changed the face of Namibia, turning the desert into green and golden fields.
When we crossed the border into Namibia from South Africa and were driving along the Orange river, we were surprised by a bright carpet of yellow flowers in the stretch of the Ais-Ais/Richtersveld National Park, which usually looks more like a barren moonscape.
Desert wild horses
On the road to Luderitz, we stopped at the Namib Naukluft National Park view point to meet the feral horses and I was particularly impressed by their numbers. When we stayed a few days with them 3 years ago, we saw less than 80 and now we counted at least 200. The good rains have certrainly encouraged these herds of desert horses to multiply. They also looked very healthy and put up some show right in front of our cameras.
My guest photographers, Christine and Kim were delighted!
Luderitz was cold and windy, so we all decided to stay at the Nest Hotel instead of camping on the peninsula near the light house. The detour to Luderitz was mainly to visit some of the famous ghost towns in the Sperrgebiet area well known for its diamonds.
Pomona and Bogenfeld ghost towns were interesting and the German owner of Coastways Tours, Elia was our guide and with her powerful voice, she told us many amazing stories from the diamond era.
The natural arch near Bogenfeld is a natural wonder but be carefull not to stand on the left of the path or even peek to the mining operations in the South... Big Brother is watching! The day tour was enjoyable but in after 9 am and out before 6 pm is not really a photographer's dream when you want to catch the best light ... so be it.
The next morning however, we were at Kolmanskop before sunrise. It costs you R180 per person but at least you have the place for yourself for about 2 hours. The morning was a relentless search for pristine sand waves inside the old buildings... quite a challenge!
On the way to the Tirasberg mountains we stopped for lunch with the feral horses.. again. There were so many, all standing around the trough and they gave us a good show with a bit of fighting here and there.
As soon as we turned on the D707, the scenery became surreal with the Namib sand dunes on the left and the majestic Tirasberg mountains on the right. We set-up camp at the campsite of the Namtib Lodge under the camelthorn trees, which by the way is beautifully located against the mountain, overlooking the plains and the faraway sand dunes. The facilities are typically German, which means that everything works!
A strange creature
We walked in one of the gorges of the Namtib Biosphere where we found some good macrophotography opportunities but the rising wind obliged us to return to camp, which at that time was very sheltered. On the way back, we spotted strange creatures... and when I walked closer to them, instead of running away, they were looking at me with a lot of curiosity. These zebroids were not like the zonkeys (zebra x donkey) I had seen before in Africa. On my way back after some 'googling', I discover that these cross breeds were zorses (zebra male x horse female). These animals were stunning, and my only regret is that we couldn't spend more time with them.
During our second night at Kumbis, we survived a powerful sand storms. The two ladies were very brave and none of us really slept that night. The wind was blowing so hard that the tent was giving the impression that we were going to take off at any moment, although I woke up in the middle of the night to secure the big fly sheet around the trailer. In the morning, the dismantling of the camp was epic. The most critical task was to flatten the huge trailer roof tent. My assistant Josiah and I finally managed to put it down with the help of the two ladies pulling the ropes on the other side. Applause for the ladies, we would still be there without you!
A few hours later, after a hot coffee at the lodge, we were safe again and on our way to Drifters' Lodge, where the managers, Shawn and Belinda Gibson showed us around the farm. It is a beautiful place that offers plenty of photographic opportunities and the newly built lodge offers stunning views over the plain at sunset. Just be aware that there is no power point to charge your batteries as the lodge is only solar powered. This was not really a problem for us as we have power converters in the car and in the trailer.
The Namibian sky after sunset is always amazing, and driving along the river bed counting numerous dead trees, we all tried hard to spot the most intriguing tree silhouette, to take stunning photographs. Kim was the driving force for such photographic creativity and I really thank her for that.
Now that we got used to creature comforts, it was obvious to stay at Sossus Dunes Lodge within the boundary of the Namib-Naukluft national park. This is a huge advantage for photographers as you don't have to wait for the gate to open and you can also return a bit after sunset. So grab the special at around R1200 ppd and go for it!
You will not be disapointed. The bungalows are fabulous (get one close to the lodge on the pool side) and the manager, Jonathan Uiseb is charming and always ready to help.
Hot air balloon in the Namib sky
One of the highlights of the trip was the flight in a hot air ballon over Sossus Valley. Although the weather was a bit hazy, it was an incredible experience. At around R4000 pp for a good hour flight and a spectacular champagne breakfast in the middle of the dunes... it is pricey but an unforgettable moment, the kind you do once in a lifetime. So yes go for it!
Eric Hesemans, the owner of Namib Sky who organizes these hot balloon flights, settled down there more than 15 years ago and now runs a full operation with balloons for up to 16 people. But don't worry, even in these big baskets, you will have all the photographic opportunities as the pilots are really experts and they will turn around in the wind so everyone sees it all. A perfect landing just on the trailer's plateau is also quite impressive, before a regal champagne breakfast.
What I love is the smoothness of the flight... as you fly with the wind there is almost no sound... unless the pilot is blowing the stove whose flame can be up to 4 m high! It is so peaceful up there... and the best is to flight in tandem with another balloon. My advise is to go in the second balloon, so you can see the first one lighten up by the sun rising.
Every following morning we were always the first ones on the 70 km tar road going to Sossusvlei. First at destination and after a good 30 min walk in the cold sand, we almost had Deadvlei to ourselves for 1-2 hours and with the perfect light.
The place is simply magic and of course we had to come back in the afternoon... but... we were all so busy taking photographs of the dead tree silhouettes after sunset that we forgot the time and when we left the white reflecting vlei to climb over the sand dune en route for the car... it was already pitch black.
Kim wanted to go right and I wanted to go left... fortunately Christine sorted us out with the help of her miniature led flashlight, so we could guess some of the footsteps in the sand. After 20 minutes, we walked straight into the car, but I have to admit that I was a bit worried for a while! Kim and Christine were once again very brave and they had already made a plan to cut some of the dead trees in Deadvlei to keep us warm at night...:)
Walking in the sand and climbing the dunes is quite a exhausting job, so after two days of intensive photographic activities, we decided to rest at the lodge which we almost didn't enjoy so far as we were always leaving early and returning late!
Red petrified sand dunes
If you like German style lodges, then the Namib Desert Lodge which is part of the Gondwana portfolio is a must. It is quite big and has been recently upgraded with a new swimming pool and a huge bar-restaurant. It is nestled in beautiful surroundings at the footsteps of the petrified dunes which turn red at sunset.
The whole plain was covered with high grass that at some places had already turned gold, as the rains had stopped a few months before.
The campsite is not to be recommended for its location but offers however all comfort. Christine and Kim stayed in the bungalows, much appreciated by Christine as she had to recover from a food poisoning or some strange stomac bug that only affected her.
BTW, get the Gondwana card if you stay more than 2 nights in one or more of the 6 Gondwana lodges spread across Namibia... you will not regret the little investment, and will enjoy big discounts on almost everything they offer.
Spitzkoppe was our next step. These bold granite peaks (Spitzkoppe = pointed dome in German) stand impressively from the flat surronding plain near Usakos.
The campsite is run by the nearby local community but don't expect hot showers or a fully stocked restaurant. The place is wonderful if you are self-sufficient!
We all enjoyed it a lot and had numerous walks on the granite boulders at sunrise and sunset, especially under the bright light of the full moon.
On the way to Walvis Bay on the national road B2, we took a shortcut to the Welwitschia plains via the D1991 and when we crossed the Swakop river which was still running, Christine squealed when she saw a board announcing tea and cake. We were at the Goanikontes Oasis nestled in a palmeree along the Swakop river. The cake was delicious and I took good note of the wonderful location.
Then we climbed on the plateau and to our surprise discovered a spectacular vista over the Swakop valley and the mountains at the horizon. Even at mid-day we had to take a panoramic shot of that moonscape! BTW, this is quite a popular destination from Swakopmund, so be aware to meet a horde of tourists there.
Kim was looking forward to see the Welwitschia... and she was thrilled when we saw them. OK it was hazy but for close-up photos it was not too bad. These gymnosperm plants which in fact are trees with burried trunk, only occur in Namibia and Angola. They are considered a living fossil and some specimens may be more than 2000 years old.
We arrived in Walvis Bay in the late afternoon and we settled down at the luxury Oyster Box guest house at the waterfront.
This is the day we were supposed to meet two new guests - friends of mine - sharing the following desert trip with us, and at the same time my assistant Josiah was going back to South Africa.
My friend Willem arriving from South Africa surprised me when I saw him standing alone without his girlfriend Calli. She was sent back to South Africa as she didn't have a proper travel visa to enter Namibia. This happens when you are Greek and you forget to read the small prints!
Christine, Kim, Willem and myself, prepared for our next 4-day trip in the desert. Quite a challenge as we had to repack the car to travel without the trailer.
Magical Namib desert
The next morning, Simon - our guide from Uri Adventures - was at the rendez-vous to take us through the sand dunes South of Walvis Bay to Conception Bay for 3 nights in the Namib desert. I had arranged that special custom-made tour for us only, with the main objective photography of the best places with the best light. It is quite expensive but worths the money and our guide was absolutely perfect. The logistics too with an incredible lunch buffet and a tasty evening menu every day. We only had to organize our drinks and our camping gear. I slept under the stars in my sleeping bag every night and it was stunning! Christine, Kim and Willem however prefered the cosyness of their little tents.
It is difficult to convey the magic of these moments with words, so the photos will speak for themselves, and I invite you to see all of them following the links at the bottom. There was a great variety of landscapes including golf-looking plains with vibrant green grass in the middle of the sand dunes, colorful sand dunes sometimes showing petrified sections or basaltic outcrops, fresh water pools in the Kuiseb riverbed, and majestic sand dunes with their feet bathing in the blue ocean.
And we were so lucky with the weather... no wind and no fog. The fog is beautiful to photograph but also very cold! And the wind which was blowing hard a few days before our visit was perfectly rearranging the sand in the ghost towns to erase all previous footsteps and even car tracks.
I will also never forget the first time we drove down the slip face of a huge dune... my blood was pumping (I was using my own car)... it was very impressive, especially the roaring sound of the sand compacting at the front of the car!
After a few slip faces, it almost became a habit to drive down these 42 degree slopes!
I remember the last day when we found the biggest dune on our journey and I was going on top alone so that the others could take pictures of the Land Cruiser sliding down. Then Christine looked at me when I returned and when I saw an expression of regret, I immediately invited her to do it, once more... the last time of the journey. And she loved it!
Yes we will do it again... next year!
See more photos...
The next expedition
...and I am preparing the Namibia expeditions for March/April 2012.
Watch your mailbox for the second part of the story where I will tell you all about our adventure up north to the Angolan border, the extreme driving with my 1.5 T off-road trailer along the Kunene river and down the infamous Van Zijl pass, our encounter with the proud tribes of Himba people, the magical Hartmann mountains, the desert elephant chasing us near Puros, the surreal landscapes around the Mesum Crater and the many giant Welwitschia mirabilis, the quite unusual non-smelling seals at Cape Cross and the absolute magic and almost mystical moment spent with my children Enya and James with the wild horses.
This interactive Google map shows the routes and most of the points of interests... enjoy, play around and send me your feedback!
View Paul Godard - Soul Photography - Photo Safari & Workshop - Namibia 2011 in a larger map