Africa – A first journey into a beautiful continent. Part 2: Driving through Namibia

One of the top 250 reasons why I’m not a successful blogger might be the frequency I’m posting stories on here. But here we go, continuing the trip through Africa.

Crossing into Namibia

After a mosquito infested night in Lambert’s Bay, we continued to the Namibian border and I went through my first experience with African borders. You pass one border, drive through no man’s land and cross another border. But you also get thoroughly searched, at least our bus received that treatment. We had to unload all bags and open them, while some grim looking border policemen went through our underwear. If you’re a smart ass, you might even get some special attention in “the room”, where first our tour guide was searched for carrying too much cash and then a quite uncomfortable young officer was searching me. Only wearing some light shorts and a t-shirt, there wasn’t much to discover and common spaces where you would actually hide diamonds or drugs, like my shoes or socks, where not checked. Not that I’d carry any.

Our start into Namibia was also the theme for the coming days. The bus had to fight the gravel roads quite hard and our driver never took the foot of the gas. Tip for all you planning a trip with a group, try to not sit in the back. It gets really bouncy and even I (I’m a big guy) was airborne in my seat a few times.

A very hot day ended in a nice way though. We stayed at a very nice resort, right next to the Orange River. Norotshama River Resort is like an oasis in the desert, literally speaking, and the friendly staff greeted us with some cognac and juice to cool down. As a special treat after a hot and dusty drive, the pool was just amazing. Little funny side note though, group travel might not always be best for the little bungalows you sleep in. The bathroom had no door or separator really and my roommate and I had to invent a ‘shut your ears and turn around’ policy, every time somebody needed to go to the bathroom. You were able to have a face to face conversation while sitting on the toilet.

Alright, I know, what does that have to do with photography so far? Nothing much, but that was coming up right after. Just before the sun was setting, I was able to shoot a beautiful panorama of the river. I really like the pic, as (for me) it really shows the nice and calm atmosphere and the peaceful state of mind I was in.

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This was actually shot without a tripod and stitched together out of 5 single pics in Lightroom, while I shot the sunset as a bracketed HDR. Still using the Fujifilm X-T1, I’m missing the bracketing functions of my old Nikon, as the model after (X-T2) seems to be the first Fuji camera carrying decent settings for it.

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The little village

As Norothshama is located next to a big river, water is not really a premium and that has developed the area into a huge table grape plantation. I had to smile a few times as the land was bought and is now owned by a man, commonly only known as “The Serbian” and I bet there are thousands of rumors and stories about the guy. Most of it he’s just renting out to plantation owners though. The workers for all the plantations live close by. It is a tin hut village called Ausenkehr, which reminded me a bit of the townships I’ve seen in South Africa, but certainly not really comparable. Most workers live in these tiny tin houses with one room while grape picking season is on, but we seemed to have missed the busy times. Most ‘shops’ were closed and only parts of the village seemed to be busy with people living there all year long.

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I would have loved to take a look into the barber shops, or into the several photo studios we saw there. Not to make fun of how simple they’d be, but just to communicate with the owners and get the story about what they’re doing and how they’re getting it done. I’m a big fun of barber shops anywhere I go!

As in most places, the kids are the most curious. They seemed to follow us around, always peeking around corners and sneaking in behind us. They never asked for money, but I guess it is easy to confuse curiosity with begging if you don’t keep an open mind. Some of them especially liked one woman in our group, Lise, who seems to have perfected communication with kids in her career as a teacher. I offered to take a photo of them and it was so nice to see all of them enjoy the pic and get quite excited!

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Fish River Canyon

We had to leave Ausenkehr way too quickly and it was sad to not see a fully packed place, but there was way more to come and we were headed to Fish River Canyon next.

Lucky enough, the second most visited attraction in Namibia was not busy that day. We were able to get really close to the edges and enjoy the160 km long, up to 27 km wide and 550 meter deep canyon in it’s full beauty. The bush you see in the picture is poisonous though, so don’t touch it (not even your monitor now!) and be careful if you go there.

At the right time of the year, you can walk down and hike the canyon, but it wasn’t the right season for it.

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While the view from the main view point offers the best camera angle, I thought that the panorama from the side gave me a better perspective. It made me move the Grand Canyon higher up on my ‘To Do’ list again!

Not far from the canyon is the Canon Roadhouse, where you can eat, sleep and spend hours on the quite huge number of old cars and other funky things displayed in and around the restaurant. We just stayed for lunch, but beside eating a quite nice sweet chili chicken wrap, I was able to take a few nice pics with me.

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Seeheim Hotel

After driving a few more hours on bumpy roads, we arrived to Seeheim hotel, 45km west of Keetmanshoop. It looks a bit like a haunted house and maybe is, but has quite some history. Build in 1896 to house German forces in Namibia, it was turned into a hotel 30 years later and has been hosting travelers ever since. There isn’t much to do there, but you can still take a stroll around the railways and find all kinds of weird things. It is in the wild though, as the decomposing zebra body was telling us, but the wildest thing we saw was one of the cows feeling quite hot and drinking water out of the pool, while people were swimming in it. I was a bit jealous of the cow at night, as AC was not available and we had to live through a very hot and sweaty night. I missed taking a good picture of the house though. In retrospect, I should have done that of course, but go and take a look at their website!

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Sossusvlei

The tour was early nights and very early mornings almost every day. Leaving Seeheim Hotel at 7 a.m. was the start of another long driving day. You will have several stops on the way, but don’t really count on having a bathroom available everywhere in the middle of nowhere. The drive to Sossusvlei was about 6 hours and after picking up a trailer with equipment, we spent our first two nights in a tent. I wasn’t really afraid of the scorpions, but they seem to make a lot of people very nervous!

The sky that night was maybe the best we had all trip long. I was waiting for that, as I planned on shooting pics of the Milky Way, but that really didn’t work out. Being only equipped with my light travel tripod, I had no chance fighting the winds that night. I took a couple of long exposures, but they only looked decent on the display of the camera, not really in a bigger size. Too bad really, as it was cloudy the day after and later on in the national parks, we never had a clear sky like that again.

Another early morning brought us into the Sossusvlei area, as we camped outside and waited at sunrise for the Sesriem gate to open. You and everybody else will then drive into the park and mostly everybody will stop after 45 kilometers in to see and climb up a big dune, which they called Dune 45. You can make the connection why it is called that I bet…The sand is actually around 5 million years old and comes from the Kalahari desert, which gives the dunes its unusual red color. Walking up that thing was not really my thing and I gave up 2/3rds of the way up, but at least I got a cool shot out of it!

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After collecting everybody, we went further on to the Sossusvlei Pan and Deadvlei, which is famous for its dead trees. There you can find the highest dunes in the world, some reaching almost 400m. They gave them funny names, like Big Daddy, big Mama or just Crazy Dune. A lot of people actually climbed up Big Daddy and I was quite happy that this was not on our agenda.

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Deadvlei is famous for its dead camel thorn trees, which died 600-700 years ago, when the dunes cut off the river supplying them with water. Every serious (and not so serious) photographer will come back with a few nice pics after a visit. You almost can’t do anything wrong there, as the combination of the salt pan ground, the dead trees and the high red dunes are a certain winner. The next picture is actually printed and featured on my wall already.

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The tree was separated from the pan where everybody ran right away, so I called it “my tree” and ran off like so often, just to get a different view and shot to what everybody else is doing. Jaco, our guide found another one that I really liked, also a bit away from the others. You can actually see “my tree” just behind it as well.

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As it happens quite often when traveling in a group, time for these things is limited. I had to rush, but believe I still got a few good memories and photos out of it. The sun was brutal and I’d really like to get back there again, maybe very early after sunrise or just before sunset. The shadows of the trees must be amazing then.

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Solitaire

Dried out and probably burned from a few days in the desert, we left the next morning and made our way to Swakopmund. The drive there was an exciting one for photographers, as we first stopped in a town called Solitaire, a little settlement founded in 1848 and nowadays around 90 people call it their home. There’s a few things you can find there, which you might not expect. Gas for your car, cold drinks, a bakery with great coffee and one of the best apple strudels I’ve ever had, but also a junkyard full of old American cars. I have no idea how they got there, but they really take you on a time travel and you think you’ve just landed in 1950’s Texas.

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Swakopmund

We continued on and stopped again 30 km east of Swakopmund. The area there is called the Moon Landscape and looking at the picture, you might be able to find out why. We stopped at one spot, but I believe this is also an area where you can stop many times and take quite a few nice landscape shots.

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When you drive through Swakopmund as a German, you don’t know what to think. You see German names and signs everywhere, while the town looks a bit like an American beach town in Florida. You will find the odd German architecture though, as our Hotel Europa Hof was a timber frame building, that you could find at every corner in a small Bavarian or Black Forest village. I took a picture of another very interesting building just around the corner the next evening, when I bypassed it on the way to the beach.

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Hotel Princess Rupprecht was built in 1902 by the German army and served as a military hospital. The house was plundered during World War I but became a home and facility for healing and to help different groups of people in need ever since. Nowadays half of it is a hotel and the other half a retirement home. I found the building very interesting when walking by and I like the old Volkswagen Golf Model 1 in front of it as well!

Swakopmund has a nice oceanfront area, including a jetty (pier) that is well worth photographing. I first went down to the beach and was at water level to take long exposures, but that got dicey really fast, as the high tide was coming in and the waves got quite close to my tripod. I ended up a level higher on the path along the beach, but was able to get a few nice shots in. The photo you see here is actually three long exposures in one, as I first worked on the single shots and they just didn’t look cool enough, so I tried to create an HDR and that did the trick!

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Make sure to clean your lens and ND filter before you do these though, as I had to delete a high number of black dots out of the merged image! Thank you Photoshop!

I’m going in wrong order here, as some of us went on a tour through the desert in the morning. The tour was named ‘Living Desert’ and went after little animals in the desert, which were nicknamed the ‘small five’. It took a bit of searching by the guides, but in the end we found them all. A gecko, a trapdoor spider, a shovel head lizard, a little sidewinder snake and a chameleon, that was just climbing a rock and changed it’s color to grey therefore. I really like these five pictures and I’m quite happy that I was able to take them, but if you google ‘gecko’, you’ll see how many people have taken these pics and why they are probably not so special after all!

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The fun part actually came at the end, when the guides got some worms out of a can and started feeding the chameleon with it. I tried a few times to get the fully extended tongue snapping the worm out of the guides hand, but either my camera wasn’t fast enough on continues shooting mode, or I just started in the wrong millisecond! Still a great picture though!

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Etosha National Park

Another long day in the bus brought us to the outskirts of Etosha National Park. The tension got a lot higher, as everybody was scanning the area for animals. This might be one of the reasons why this trip in general was so special and I can’t really imagine this being different the next 15 times I’ll travel to Africa. The special warm feeling you get when spotting a wild animal on the side of the road. It was difficult, as Namibia was so green, that you sometimes thought you’d confuse it with Ireland, so the animals could hide pretty well behind thick trees and bushes, or wouldn’t need to come to dedicated watering holes, as the rain had created them everywhere.

As we were getting close to Etosha, the first animals were spotted by several people on our tour. Springboks and other types of antelopes ate and ran along the road and while most people would use the time in the bus to read, write, listen to music or just sleep, you were now almost able to grab the attention out of the air.

After entering the park through one of the main gates, we started on a game drive. While you’d now picture a jeep with a guide in an olive green or beige uniform, it was done right there in our bus. As weird as this sounds, it wasn’t actually that bad. Well, beside one incident where I spotted a rhino on the right side of the road, but before I could yell it to the front of the bus, we went past and couldn’t return. It was devastating, especially because it remained the only rhino sighting we had all trip long. But there it was, my first animal of the legendary ‘Big Five’.

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The first stop was a watering hole, not too far off the main road. We got to see a family of about 50 springboks and even though we’d see plenty of them on the trip, it was still a bit special.

*NERD TALK ON* (skip this section if you’re not into camera gear and problems of a traveling photographer)

When I started planning the trip, I faced the problem of not having the right lenses or focal lengths for a safari. Fuji offers four choices to solve the problem, the 50-230 f4.5-6.7, the 55-200 f3.5-4.8, the 50-140 f2.8 and the relatively new 100-400 f4.5-5.6. They also offer a 1.4x and a 2x converter, while the 1.4x only works with the 50-140 and the 100-400 as of now. The 50-140 was disqualified early on, as it was too expensive and not really the focal length I’d need. Money wise, I faced the same issue with the 100-400, as it is around 1900 Euros in the store and about 1500 Euros on the used market. Way way above my budget to be honest. So it was between the 50-230 and the 55-200, the latter being the better lens, but also the heavier one. Budget constraints, weight considerations and a test that said they are equal in quality, made me buy a used 50-230, which in full frame, is actually a 75 – 345mm lens. If you think that is enough for a safari, think again. It wasn’t nearly enough focal length. I was lucky that we got close to a few of the animals, but the 230mm focal lengths is a joke in Africa. Quality wise, the lens didn’t keep all the promises, especially if you had to go further than 200mm. So in retrospect, I bought the cheap lens as a compromise, which was a good compromise of budget and weight, but not the best choice I’ve made in acquiring photography gear.

*NERD TALK OFF*

After setting up camp and eating around a little campfire, we were hoping to see a few animals coming to the watering hole next to the camp. Rainy season will do that to you, as none showed up. You still sit there in peace and watch the sun go down though, listening to the sounds of the animals, the bush and wilderness, which is a very special memory in itself.

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Another early morning had us go on a ‘real’ safari through Etosha. The morning tour was quite amazing. Giraffes, lots and lots of antelopes, fascinating birds and their loud and exotic chirps, ostriches running around, but last and certainly not least, a young leopard drinking out of a water puddle right in front of us on the road.

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The leopard didn’t really seem to mind the jeeps parked next to him too much, as he gracefully finished his drink and walked just next to our car back into a little grass field.

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After dropping some poo as his next act, he suddenly stopped, listened and started hunting down some little animal a few steps away. Unfortunately for us, the grass was too high to follow the whole scene, but the hunt seemed to be a success and he was having a late breakfast not too far from us.

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The rest of the morning tour was boring after the leopard experience, but you still get to see quite a few other animals and need to appreciate it. Now, a couple of months back, I’d pay money to see a wild springbok or giraffe at the side of the road.

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One thing I didn’t know about the national park before, was the existence of the Etosha Pan. At 130 km long and up to 50 km wide in places, it is comfortably the largest salt pan in Africa and is the park’s most distinctive and dramatic feature, visible even from space. In the language of the Ovambo tribe, Etosha means ‘great white place’. (Source)

There’s not much to see, but maybe that is the beauty of it. We stopped to take a picture of some ostriches, but when I saw the lonely tree, I suddenly turned from animal to landscape photographer again in a heartbeat. Still, the dancing ostriches is also a favorite.

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Our guide was a bit confused when he turned around and saw that all of his passengers suddenly turned to the tree and took photos of it. Probably not to be expected on a safari!

The afternoon was hot and lonely when it came to animals. Most where hiding in the shade and we were driving around for a few hours, without really seeing much but birds.  A highlight was definitely a baby giraffe, but I don’t really have a photo to show, as it was too far for my lens.

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On the next day, we continued our way to Windhoek, which was the last stop in Namibia. I can’t show you any photos of the place though, as we arrived in the afternoon, chilled in the room, said good bye to a few fellow travelers and continued our tour to Botswana with some new people on board. But that is another story for another day.

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