When it comes to photography, I love Namibia more than any other place on our incredible planet. As much as I know that, I also know that humans are unique and that my passion for Namibia is no-doubt subjective. In search of a more objective outlook, I have spent many days pondering what inclinations nature and nurture leave upon us towards specific environments. I have also spent many days comparing Namibia to places like Patagonia and Iceland to try and figure out why it is my favourite destination on earth for photography. My love for Namibia comes naturally, so trying to decipher and analyze it in order to answer the question of “what makes Namibia special?” is a bit of a backwards introspection. As it is the question I am asked most frequently in life, I believe that I have given it enough thought to be able to give some insight into the matter. Hopefully the below can answer it to some extent and sell you on the destination.
- Hougaard Malan
As humanity occupies more and more of the planet, open space is fast becoming one of the most sought after commodities. Namibia has that commodity in abundance – it is the second least populated sovereign country on earth and it’s 2 million people are concentrated in a few very small areas.
Open space has the ability to stir great emotion in us. One can theorize for years whether it scares us, humbles us or stimulates ancient instincts that we have long lost in modern life. Looking upon a view that is void of human presence for as far as the eye can see on a clear day is incredibly moving. It evokes wanderlust, contentment and curiosity about our planet and the universe. It reminds us that we are an insignificant coincidence in a vortex of infinite variables.
Seeing the sun set over such a vista, drink in hand, good company by your side, the sound of a barking gecko or a pride of lions announcing the transition from day to night, that is the magical allure of Africa; knowing that in that vista of nothingness, life goes on as it has for millennia. It is what lured explorers like Livingstone and it is the experience that keeps bringing people back to Africa time and time again.
My favourite saying about composition in photography also fits the story of Namibia’s scenery perfectly - subtract all that is unnecessary until only the essential remains.
Namibia is a landscape that has been simplified by time. It is one of the oldest environments on earth, dying a slow death, on a timeline far too great for humans to comprehend in their short time on earth. The work of volcanoes and tectonics is long over. Millennia of drought has subtracted all but the most stoic fauna and flora. That which remains is slowly sculpted and blown around by the desert winds and the occasional flood.
The result is an abundantly photogenic landscape that is easy to compose.
My earliest memory of Namibia’s night skies date back to family holidays when I was ten years old. We spent nights camping in dry riverbeds, making a campfire from fallen Acacia branches. I recall watching the embers drift up towards a milky way so bright that it seemed to contest the bright flames for attention.
Namibia has developed a lot since those days, but not much has changed in terms of night sky visibility. The Namib desert remains one of the best places in the world for astro-photography. If you give your eyes enough time to adjust on a moonless night, you can see the shadow of your hand on the white clay pan in Deadvlei – under nothing but starlight. If you visit at the right time of the year, you can shoot the galactic core rising on the eastern horizon and setting on the western horizon in one night.
If you’re interested in astro-photography or it is on your bucket list to sit around a campfire under the darkest skies on our planet, Namibia is one of the ultimate destinations.
Everyone loves a sharp, well exposed animal portrait, but as a narrative about the animal it often falls short of saying much more than that the animal has a hairy face or sharp teeth. The challenge in most of Southern Africa is that the moment you zoom out, the animal gets lost in what is colloquially known as “the bush”. The majority of Africa’s wildlife hotspots are densely vegetated and any attempts to capture the animal in its surrounds just ends up in very cluttered photos.
Yet again, Namibia’s ancient and stark landscape comes to the photographic table. It’s clean valleys, dunes and pans are an incredible background for wildlife photos. It allows photographers to capture the animal in its surroundings without placing emphasis on the environment. If it is simple enough, the environment complements the animal and adds to the narrative, without overpowering the often small subject. In Photos like these, the animal also adds scale, perspective and narrative to the landscape, which would be void of a specific point of interest without it. If you trawl the world’s major nature photography awards, you will see that Namibia’s animals in their surroundings have won countless awards over the last decade.
From Etosha to the Skeleton Coast, to Sossusvlei, this is a very exciting prospect of all our photo tours, whether it is a Lion, a white Elephant, Brown Hyena or an Oryx – we always try to capture images that tell a powerful story.
Whether it is due to environmental significance, aesthetic appeal or an inexplicable attraction, trees have captured the hearts and minds of artists for as long as history serves us. I have always had an obsession with photogenic trees and it was and still is a key factor around which I plan my travels. No one can resist the classic lone tree photo.
Namibia’s harsh climate produces some of the most incredible trees that you will ever lay your eyes and focus your lens on. In the far south there are the spiky and luminous quiver trees that are unlike anything else on earth. In the grasslands along the edge of the desert you can find the most incredible lone Acacia trees that survive thanks to a tap root that can find water over 100ft below ground. The dead Acacias at Sossusvlei certainly don’t need an introduction.
It is not just the trees by themselves, but the minimalist landscape surrounding them that accentuates the beauty of Namibia’s trees. If, like me, you are someone who loves photographing trees, you will find immense contentment from photographic the Namibia's ancient trees.
This element is a bit ironic as it is the absence thereof that makes it so special when it does fall. If you think about most of the world’s photographic hotspots, they generally deliver what they promise, year after year. This makes those destinations more popular amongst photography tours, but it also makes them more boring, crowded and over-photographed. Namibia is an incredibly photogenic destination in any year and delivers good photos if you know where and when they happen regardless of the year to year climate fluctuations, however, when rain falls in abundance, magic happens. Nowhere is the effect of water more noticeable than there where it is needed the most.
Once or twice every decade, sometimes not even once in a decade, a freak weather pattern forms that sucks moisture down from the tropics and pushes Namibia’s rain systems westward. During February, March and April, powerful convective energy and high humidity creates monstrous thunderstorms over the desert and rivers that haven’t seen water in years come down as raging torrents of sand and water while the setting sun paints rainbows in the downpours as they retreat Eastward for the night.
If this event occurs a few times at the right interval, the barren plains transform into endless valleys of grass and the wildlife populations explode on a biblical scale. The simplicity and bright luminosity of the grass temporarily changes the Namibian landscape from a photogenic one into arguably the most photogenic landscape on the planet. It carpets the rocky plains in a veil that transforms from an almost neon green at first, to a soft mint green as it matures and eventually into a shimmering ivory tone as it forms seed to complete its life cycle. These years also bring with them incredible cloud formations, an abundance of rainbows and colourful sunsets.
I was lucky enough to witness such a year in 2011 and the flood-clock has been slowly ticking away since. The prospect of the next big flood year and the photo opportunities it will bring is a truly thrilling prospect. In 2011 the photo tourism market was an infant and there were very few cameras going around the desert during those incredible few months. Will you join us for the next big flood year? Make sure you sign up to our newsletter to know when it happens and what tours we will have on offer during that time.