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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Composing The Dunes - the 2015 trip report

The Namibian landscape has an almost hypnotic effect on me. I keep finding myself drawn back to it time and again. The Composing The Dunes workshop that I run with Nature’s Light (a new venture between myself and Nick van de Wiel) is one of our mainstays for the very reason that Nick and I feel that this incredible country needs to be shared with visual artists. Simply standing and taking in the emptiness, the moisture sapping dryness and eery silence, can be a humbling experience. the act of crafting images in this otherworldly space is a true privilege. So I was extraordinarily fortunate to once again travel back to the desert in the company of two talented photographers during November for the second Composing the Dunes Workshop. 

Unlike last year’s trip report and 2013’s recce report, I won’t give a blow-by-blow account of the expedition. From what I understand, Dave Hoggan of The Veiled World, and one of the photographers on the trip, is putting together an extensive trip report accompanied by some beautiful images that he captured while we traveled the southern section of Namibia (update: the first part can be read here). I would suggest checking in on his site for his Namibia post as well as some of the other incredible locations that he has been photographing recently.

The workshop this year was decidedly small due to a lack of advertising on our part. Nevertheless we decided to give it a go, although it sadly meant that Nick had to sit the workshop out as we only had two photographers join in the end. So I took the long journey north by myself, listening to hours of TED talks and Susan Sontag audio books while the landscape changed from the subtropical Kwazulu-Natal coastline to the arid Kalahari sands that march across Southern Africa’s Tropic of Capricorn. After three solid days of driving I rolled into Ondekaremba Guest Farm to meet a smiling and ebullient Romeo who I hadn’t seen for several years. Together we collected Dave (@VeiledWorld) from the Windhoek airport and the journey began.

Well, actually it began the next day as I backtracked our Land Rover south to Keetmanshoop. Keetmanshoop is small farming town in the south of Namibia. Surrounded by rocky hills and sparse tufts of grass, the outlying district of Keetmanshoop is home to the extraordinary Quiver Trees or Aloe dichotoma. These astounding aloes (technically they aren’t trees at all) abound on the rocky slopes of the koppies and hills in the arid belt along the south of Namibia and Botswana and into the dry region of South Africa’s Northern Cape Province.

We spent two nights in the Mesosaurus Fossil Site and Quiver Tree Forest, having ample opportunity to play amongst the anthropomorphic like trees and sun-burned iron bearing rocks. The fantastical landscape never ceases to be put me in mind of some fairy take like land. 

A salutory warning came to us on our last night as we set up tripods to capture star-trails a little way from where we were enjoying a few drinks and snacks. We couldn’t have been more than 150 metres from where the vehicle was parked, but a miscalculation in direction sent us walking in circles for over an hour as we struggled to find our way back to the Land Rover. Do not take the desert and the dark for granted. Where we were was not dangerous in any way, but the same thing could easily happen in more extreme environments, like the actual desert. For us, our stumbling in the dark eventually led to a road which we were able to trace back to the vehicle.

A brief sojourn to the Fish River Canyon followed where we spent a day driving along the edge of the steepest portions of the Canyon. The Canyon is not an easy landscape to photograph admittedly, and we came away more excited about a lone Quiver Tree than the enormity of the water ripped earth. This is not to say that the Fish River Canyon isn’t interesting. I find it spellbinding, but photographing it is another matter entirely. I find trying to take on the entirety of the Canyon invariably diminishes its magnitude, so instead I find myself looking out for details in the canyon walls rather than the snakelike ribbon of the river course itself.

From the Canyon we made our way across the sandy plane between the Namib and the Sperregebiet deserts towards the coast and the lonely abandoned mining town of Kolmanskop. The wind was truly buffeting the coastline for our stay in this location. So much so that we had our first gear casualty. While photographing the lighthouse at Dias Point the wind bowled over Romeo’s heavy D3 with attached 24-70mm lens. The impact of the lens crunching into the sand severed the lens body from it’s mount. Not a pretty picture. For the rest of the trip Romeo managed - quite admirably actually - with just his 14-24 and 70-200 lenses (and a very occasional shot on a borrowed 24-120). This once more compounds the reasoning behind bringing multiple lenses rather than one ‘travel-zoom’ on a trip like this. Thankfully Romeo had other lenses to fall back on at this point.

Kolmanskop itself never fails to inspire image-making as you wonder the windswept and sand strewn ruins. The howling wind, difficult and uncomfortable to walk through, did have the added benefit that it obscured most of the footprints from the dozens of sightseers that pass through on a daily basis. In order to avoid the cellphone toting tourists we obtained photographers permits which allowed us into the ruins before dawn and long after the gates closed in the afternoon. 

Walking through the ruins in the early pre-dawn light is a spine-tinglingly eerie experience, prompting Dave to comment as to whether the ruins make a sound when there is no one there to hear them. As it is, there is an incredible amount of sound when you do walk through the ruins. Above the clatter of old window frames and their rusty hinges is the incessant howl of the wind. It’s a different wind to that which sighs through a leafy forest. It sounds more raw and sandpaper like as it whips over the crest of the dunes and whistles through the cracks in doors and the gaping holes in the roofs of the derelict buildings. A still calm takes over when you step into the buildings where windows still ward off the wind, but then the whistling is replaced by thumping and buffeting as if the buildings were trying to get up off the ground and move themselves elsewhere.

Of course this means that for the rest of the trip we were carrying Kolmanskop around with us. For the days following (in fact even now as I write this back in the humid and muggy South Coast of South Africa) sand would trickle and even pour from cranny’s and pockets of our camera bags. Sand got in everywhere thanks to the wind. Standing drinking a beer at the end of the day near the entrance to Kolmanskop, you could literally watch the grains adhere to the neck of the bottle. Sand accumulated within minutes on the windscreen wipers on the landcover, as well as anywhere else there was a minuscule amount of shelter from the incessant blasting wind.

This also means that sand was invariably going to end up on our sensors. There were several days where we yanked out the cleaning kit and removed dust and debris from the camera sensors. All of us were shooting full frame bodies as well; a larger sensor surface meaning that our cameras were that much more prone to dirt. The trip was a perfect example as to why every serious photographers needs to know how to clean their own camera sensors. You cannot just quickly nip into a Nikon or Canon service centre to have the dust removed from your sensor. To this effect, I am hoping to put together a video and accompanying article in the near future on the technique that I use to wet clean my camera sensors.

From Kolmanskop and Luderitz we made our way along the stunningly scenic D707 road that skirts the edge of the Namib desert. Amazingly, despite the wind and dusty air on the coast, we had beautifully crisp skies with high overhead cirrus clouds on the desert edge itself. Several stops later we eventually found our way to Sossus Dune Lodge within the Namib-Naukluft National Park. This is the launching point to the extraordinary Dead Vlei and Sossusvlei at the end of what is colloquially known as ‘Dune Alley’. Our first experience of this would be from the air as we immediately chartered a helicopter flight as soon as we arrived in Sesriem, the small town that services the tourism trade into the desert park.

I have been extraordinarily fortunate and privileged to have been able to fly over the dunes on more than one occasion. This was my first dune flight in a helicopter however, and hands down, it is the best way for the average photographer to photograph the dunes from the air. The significantly slower pace of the Robinson 44 helicopter, as well as the lack of doors (they are removed prior to take-off) mean that you have the opportunity to actually compose accurately while not battling the flare from a perspex window. Watching the dunes slide beneath the aircraft as you move slowly towards the coastline is an amazing experience. Being able to capture this on camera, doubly so.

More incredible than flying over the dunes is experiencing the silence at night. Striking out in the early hours and standing in the dunes and Dead Vlei with the stars scudding overhead is truly humbling. Admittedly the zen like tranquility was shattered on the one night as I gave chase to a Black-Backed Jackal that thought my headlight (marking the spot where one camera was shooting a time-lapse) would make for a tasty treat. The sound of jaws crunching, plastic cracking and the sudden disappearance of any light from near my tripod alerted us to the canine criminal. Sadly the sanctity of the cathedral like dunes was shattered by my blasphemes as I loudly and vocally hurtled after the jackal. Headlamp saved ultimately, but bearing some injury. Thankfully it wasn’t the iPhone that was running Triggertrap on the time-lapse; that would have been expensive. 


Working the dunes in the Namib desert is probably the most exhausting part of the Composing The Dunes workshop. It’s three nights of intense shooting, processing and learning with seemingly little time for a break in-between. For this reason we take a well deserved rest at the oddly but aptly named Rostock Ritz. The idea is simply to rest, although we still found ourselves looking at Photoshop and the intricacies of luminosity masking for hours (so much for a rest ;) ). Rostock Ritz is a relatively short drive from Sesriem, so it makes a nice break from the long drive north to the iconic rock that is Spitzkoppe. 

Rising like some kind of aboriginal dreamtime creature from the flat plains east of the Skeleton Coast are the fiery red rocks known as the Spitzkoppe and Pontok Mountains. There soft folds seem almost incongruous and out of context with the rest of the flat landscape, and completely at odds with the sharp and jagged edges of the mountains to the east of the Namib desert. The round shapes bubble up from the flat earth, allowing you to climb surprisingly high above ground level with relative ease. 

We spent our last two nights amongst the surreal forms and shapes that make up the Spitzkoppe range. By now I suspect that exhaustion had truly taken a toll as we opted out of the sunrise shoots on both mornings that we were there. We did take full advantage of the evening though and I am looking forward to seeing some of the work from Romeo and Dave that we captured. It was with a deep sigh of contentment that we sat and drank a last (almost) cold beer on a rocky outlook that provided a superb view of Pontok mountain with a panoply of stars above us. Satellites were simple to pick out against the dark indigo night sky and meteors flashed by every few minutes. Yes, Namibia is truly a landscape photographers dream.

 Post Script: Due to a particularly busy commercial period after the trip it has taken me a while to post this trip report, let alone have the chance to reflect on the journey, the images and my companions. Three photographers in close confines is maybe asking a lot. Yet, I feel that Dave and Romeo handled the desert, the photography and me admirably. Thank you gentlemen for an astounding two weeks in the desert. I look forward to seeing some of the results soon!

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