If you tell a photographer that you are about to visit Namibia a flash of images starts to flood their brain – wildlife, Fish River Canyon, the mountains of Damaraland, the houses of the ghost town of Kolmanskop. But above all, the first thing they will think of is Deadvlei. Hidden in between the gigantic dunes of the Namib desert, the valley and its dead Camel thorn trees have reached iconic status, especially among landscape photographers. So when my family planned our travels through Namibia, Deadvlei was the first cornerstone of the list of places I needed photograph.
Naturally, I did everything to make sure I could shoot this place in ideal conditions. Trying to ensure the best possible light, I insisted we should get there as early as possible. Deadvlei is located in Namib-Naukluft National Park which, just like Etosha, has travel restrictions – gates open at sunrise and close at sunset. On 16th July sunrise was at 6:31 am, add a drive of about one hour from our lodge and we rose at the ungodly hour of 4:30 am. The evening before we had told the lodge staff that we would leave for the day at around 5 am and asked whether it would be possible to have breakfast that early. Probably used to requests like this from all the people going to the national park they answered in the affirmative, but when we walked up to reception the next day, rather than being greeted with a quick breakfast of toast and jam, we were presented with one of these massive cooler boxes, packed full with sandwiches, cheese, some cold meats, fruits, yoghurt, drinks and a lot of other luxuries at no extra cost at all. We heaved that thing into the car and drove into the night.
Sesriem, the settlement at the national park gate, is essentially just a petrol station with a couple of small shops, a campground and dwellings attached. As we arrived at the gate we were pleased to notice that we were the first to do so and would thus take the pole position. It was still dark, but slowly the sky changed from black to a dark blue and a queue of dozens of vehicles started to form behind us. Soon we noticed car after car leaving the campground that is located just behind the gate, which felt somewhat unfair to us. At the same time touring vehicles from outside the park just drove past us and where let in via a little side gate. What is the point of getting up early to be the first ones at the gate if a bunch of other people are allowed to start much earlier? Later we learned that those who stay at the state-run campground behind the fence get a head start of about one hour over those entering from the outside, which somewhat appears to defeat the entire purpose of the ‘no driving in the dark’ policy, but so be it. About half an hour after the sun had risen behind he horizon, and a growing uneasiness over the park staff not sticking to their own policy of opening gates at sunrise, we finally passed the gate. And from there it all turned into a race.
On account of not caring much for photography my family was indifferent as to the order in which we would visit the destinations of the day, and because I cared very much indeed about the light it was decided that we would visit Deadvlei first. Unfortunately it lies exactly at the end of a kind of valley that leads through the dunes, and is thus the furthest away from the gate of all the attractions in the area. As with all Namibian national parks, the speed limit is 60 km/h, but that did not appear to worry anyone at all. As we zoomed along at about 70 km/h we were overtaken by car, after car, after car. Apparently there were more photographers abound, all racing the magic morning light to Deadvlei, and even when we upped our speed to 100 km/h we kept being overtaken. In our (and the other drivers’) defence it should be noted that the point of the speed limit is to protect the country’s wildlife from being run over, which was really not a likely outcome in this situation. In contrast to Etosha’s dust tracks the road leading into the Namib was tarmac and in perfect condition, and the area on either side perfectly flat, offering unobstructed views all the way to the dunes. You could spot a lone oryx from miles away, and we frequently did.
After a 45 min. drive we arrived at a car park, essentially just a flat area of dust shaded by some trees. Here the tarmac road ended and a sandy track began that was only suitable for 4WD vehicles. A German couple we had met in Damaraland had warned us not to drive it with our own car – we explained that we drove a 4WD and had experience driving on the deep sand of Fraser Island, Australia, but they insisted that Fraser Island was nothing compared to this. So we parked the car next to the two dozen other vehicles that had overtaken us on the way there and queued for a ticket for one of the 4WD coaches to take us the last kilometres to Deadvlei. A little distance away one of the open buses was already filled to the brim with a group of Asian tourists, all armed to the teeth with full frame DSLRs and all the big guns. One of them, probably out of boredom, kept snapping away at us with a 70-200 f/2.8 as we were waiting in line, and after about a minute I raised my own camera and took a picture of him. He immediately dropped the camera and stared at me bewildered.
The ride on the 4WD coach was short, and when we saw the track conditions we cursed our decision to not take our own car. The track seemed beyond easy to do with a 4WD, not even requiring deflating the tyres, and we had no idea what that couple who had cautioned us had been on about. Fraser Island is definitely on another level. Anyway, we arrived safely, albeit later than preferred. From the drop-off point we headed south into the desert. As we followed dozens of other people, it quickly turned out that most had no clue where they were going. With the dunes obscuring the views, we did not really know where exactly Deadvlei was supposed to be, so we decided to head up a massive dune right ahead to get a better view of the surroundings. Walking up the ridge for hundreds of metres in soft sand turned out to be quite strenuous, but it must have been even harder for an Asian guy I came across roughly halfway up. Rather than taking the ridge he was heading up the flank of the dune towards were I was walking, but the hilarious thing was that he was seriously pulling up his photographic equipment behind him in a wheeled suitcase. I stopped for a bit and yelled whether he needed help, but he was just smiling politely, said that he was fine and struggled on. Others around me looked at him too, most of them appeared quite amused. As we approached the summit we realised that Deadvlei was just to our right, so we started walking down the flank of the dune until we realised that jumping was much more efficient. Making our way down leap after leap and rolling around the soft sand was both quicker and a lot more fun, and when we reached the dune’s base we had to remove about a pound of sand each from our shoes.
And this is where the fun began. Due to the delays at the gate and the wait for a shuttle we had arrived quite a bit later than I had hoped, and the golden hour was all but over, but the light was still rather good. Deadvlei is a white clay pan that formed when after heavy rainfall the ephemeral Tsauchab river flooded the area. Camel thorn trees (Vachellia eriobala) grew, but the climate changed and the area dried out permanently. About 600 to 700 years ago the trees died, but because of the extremely low humidity they never decayed. Instead the scorching sun slowly turned their skeletons darker and darker until they almost appeared black. And here’s one little secret about these trees that you will not find in any travel guide: they smell amazing. Call me weird, but for a reason I do not remember I actually smelled one, and their scent is pretty indescribable – very sweet, and at the same time ‘old’, if that makes sense.
The photographic beauty of Deadvlei lies in the simplicity of contrast and colour. You have the beige/white scales of the clay ground, the orange of the dunes, the dark brown of the trees and the blue of the sky, and this can be reduced even further by taking the sky out of the equation through choosing the right angle. So I immediately headed out to find compositions, snapping away in all directions, wide-angle, normal, tele … Surprisingly, my most used lens was the 55-300 which really helped in isolating the trees from the background and picking up on all the details. It was almost surreal walking through the desert in bright sunshine, wearing a jumper and jacket because even without a cloud in the sky the temperatures were in the lower single-digit range.
As I saw the crowds rushing in I initially feared that the pan would be overrun with people taking selfies in front of every tree (something that had very much annoyed me in the Singapore Aquarium as I hardly managed to see any fishes beyond a wall of people staring in the opposite direction while taking selfies), blocking me and my camera, but surprisingly most people seemed to stay at the edge of the pan, too lazy to venture out further, so I enjoyed mostly unobstructed views. On the other hand I was disappointed by the behaviour of some of the other visitors. Despite a general ban of drones in all Namibian national parks, a Chinese guy flew his all over the place. The humming of its rotors was in the air for well over an hour and made me wonder whether in ten years time this will be the universal background sound of every natural attraction. Meanwhile a German guy took his tripod all around the place, put it in front of a tree, engaged the self-timer, then jumped and dangled off the lower branches. Damaging nature is stupid as it is, but these trees are ancient and unique and do not regrow. You damage it, and it will stay that way – forever. I was about to ask him what the heck he thought he was doing when he suddenly stopped and left. Maybe he had realised how obnoxious he had been acting, but I somehow doubt it …
Another thing that stood out, yet not in a negative way this time, was the kind of photographic gear people hauled up the dunes. Throughout most of the country the travellers I encountered branded mostly entry- or mid-level DSLRs, with a good portion of higher end models and very few DSLMs thrown into the mix. Deadvlei, however, was decidedly high-end. I already mentioned the coach full of Chinese armed to the teeth with full frame bodies and f/2.8 zooms, but in general the vast majority of those who carried a DSLR was using Nikon D810s and Canon 5D Mk IIIs, or even 1Dx and D4s. With my APS-C K3 and the 18-55 and 55-300 I felt like a toddler on a bobby car that had accidentally ventured onto a race track. The funny thing was that some people appeared to have little clue at how to use their gear, with one guy in particular holding his D810 with 70-200 f/2.8 attached like a compact camera, grabbing it at the left and right side of the body and composing via the screen rather than the viewfinder despite holding the camera at eye level. Call me judgemental, but I cringed a little seeing people apparently spending close to €10,000 on gear they hardly know how to use. I even saw three guys with PhaseOne medium format cameras, the first time I encountered such beasts in the wild. But at least they appeared to know what they were doing.
After about an hour or so we headed back to the car where we had a sumptuous picnic, then returned to Sesriem. We checked out the canyon, which was nice but provided little photographic opportunity, then sat down next to the restaurant at the gate. I was eager to shoot the dunes as close to the sunset as possible, but my family was not too enthusiastic about the thought of spending most of the day lazing around, so we compromised and agreed on some late afternoon shots. After several hours of writing postcards, chatting with other travellers and watching the Premier League on one of the screens we headed back into the valley. With the sun low in the sky the light was improving again, and I shot a couple of the towering dunes as well as groups of Oryx.
Overall I was very satisfied with the images I got this day. Despite our late arrival the light was still good, and the black and white shot of the sun rays illuminating the trees, the close-up of the dune with the trees at the base and the group of Oryx are amongst my favourite images from Namibia. I got incredibly lucky with the black and white shot, and was later asked whether I added the light rays in post-processing. I did not, of course. I did not notice them while shooting either, only when I fired up Lightroom and had a look at the RAW did I discover them. They are clearly visible without any editing, but I did of course take steps to bring them out a bit more.
Should I ever return to the Namib, the first thing I would do is book a space in the campground though instead of staying in an outside lodge to be able to shoot closer to sunrise and sunset.