Category Archives: Namibia Travel Blog

Testing, Testing

Kolmanskoppe Single Shot
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 25-11-2018 15:49 | Resolution: 4080 x 4080 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/200s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | State/Province: Kolmanskop, Karas | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

I’ve been having a few problems with my RSS feed, hopefully now fixed. If you view my blog via the feed and don’t see a picture from my trip to the Kolmanskoppe diamond mining town, please let me know.

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The World’s Worst Panorama 2018

The World's Worst Panorama 2018
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 28-11-2018 19:48 | Resolution: 25535 x 3194 | ISO: 3200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/30s | Aperture: 3.2 | Focal Length: 13.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Here’s my traditional end of trip contribution to the world of fine art photography. Peter Lik watch out!

From the left: Alison, Yours Truly, Nigel, Keith, Paul, John L, John B, Ann, Lee

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Namibia – What Worked and What Didn’t

Colourful rest stop somewhere in the Kalahari!
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 28-11-2018 12:08 | Resolution: 12935 x 2067 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/640s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 14.0mm | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Here are some facts ands figures about our trip, and some guidance for prospective travellers and photographers.

Cameras and Shot Count

I took around 2900 shots (broken down to 2788 on the Panasonic G9, 78 on the GX8, and a handful each on my phone, the Sony Rx100 and the infrared GX7). A fair proportion of these were for "multishot" images of various sorts, including 3D, focus blends, panoramas (especially at Wolwedans), HDR / exposure brackets (essential at Kolmanskoppe), and high-speed sequences (the bushmen demonstrations, and a few wildlife events). I’m on target for my usual pattern: about a third to half the raw images will be discarded quickly, and from the rest I should end up with around 200 final images worth sharing.

The G9 was the workhorse of the trip, and behaved well, although it did have a slight blip mid-trip when the eye sensor got clogged and needed to be cleaned. It’s battery life is excellent, frequently needing only one change even in a heavy day’s shooting, and the two SD card slots meant I never had to change a memory card during the day! The GX8 did its job as a backup and for when I wanted two bodies with different lenses easily to hand (the helicopter trip and a couple of the game drives). However it is annoying that two cameras which share so much technically have such different control layouts. If I was a "two cameras around the neck" shooter I would have to choose one or the other and get two of the same model. As I’ve noted before, my Panasonic cameras and the Olympus equivalents proved more usable  on the helicopter trip than the "big guns", and if you’re planning such a flight then make sure you have a physically small option.

As notable as what I shot was what I didn’t. This trip generated no video, and the Ricoh Theta 360-degree camera which was always in my bag never came out of its cover. Under the baking African sun the infrared images just look like lower resolution black and white versions of the colour ones, and after a couple of attempts I didn’t bother with those, either.

This was the first trip in a while where I didn’t need to either fall back to my backup kit, or loan it out to another member of the group. One of the group did start off with a DOA Nikon body, somehow damaged in the flight out, but his other body worked fine. There was an incident where someone knocked his tripod over and broke a couple of filters, but the camera and lens were fine. Otherwise all equipment worked well. Maybe these things are getting tougher.

Namibia is absolutely full of sand, and there’s a constant fine dust in the air which is readily visible if you go out in the dark with a torch. This gets all over your kit especially if you go trekking through the dunes (tick), spend all afternoon bouncing through the savannah in an open jeep (tick), encounter a sandstorm (tick), or spend half a day in a ghost town world famous for its shifting sands (BINGO!!!). The ideal solution to remove the dust is a can of compressed air, but they really don’t like you taking one on a plane. On previous trips to dusty environments I’ve managed to get to a hardware store early on and buy a can, but that wasn’t possible this time. Squeezy rubber bulbs are worse than useless. In the end I just wiped everything down with wet wipes, but it’s not ideal. I’ve now found a powerful little USB blower (like a tiny hair drier) which may work, but I won’t be able to really test it until the next trip.

It’s a good practice to check your sensor at the end of every day, especially if like me you use a mirrorless camera usually with an electronic shutter (meaning the physical shutter is often open when you change lenses). I recently purchased a "Lenspen Sensor Klear" which is an updated version of the old "sensor scope" but with proper support for APS-C and MFT lens mounts. That was invaluable for the daily check, but in practice I didn’t find sensor dust to be a significant problem.

The subject matter is very much landscape and wildlife. Others may have different experiences, but I suggest for art, architecture, action and people you should look elsewhere.

Travel

Setting aside my complaints about the Virgin food service and the Boeing 787, the travel all worked well. The air travel got us to and from Windhoek without incident. Wild Dog Safaris provided the land transportation, with Tuhafenny an excellent, patient, driver/guide, and a behind the scenes team managing the logistics and local arrangements. The latter were mainly seamless and without issue, although there was a bit of juggling regarding some of the transport at Sossusvlei, and some of the departure airport transfers. I would certainly recommend Wild Dog Safaris.

If you want to cover anything like the sort of ground we did on a Namibia adventure, then you will spend a lot of time on the road. I reckon that on at least 7 days we spent 5 or more hours travelling, and on most of the others we probably managed 2+ on shorter hops or travelling to specific locations. According to Tuhafenny’s odometer we racked up 3218 km, or about 2000 miles, and that excludes the mileage in open 4x4s provided by the various resorts. The roads were at least empty and usually fairly straight and smooth, even those without tarmac, although the odd jolt and bump was inevitable. However we all managed to get some decent sleep while on the road, and I could dead-reckon our ETAs fairly accurately at 50mph, which is a far cry from the 10mph average I worked out for the Bhutan trip!

Although most locations have airstrips, there doesn’t seem to be any equivalent of the air shuttles which move people between centres in Myanmar, at least not unless you have vast funds for private charters. Just make sure you have a soft bottom and something to keep you entertained on the journeys.

Practicalities

I was advised beforehand travel to carry cash (Sterling) and change it in Namibia, on the same sort of basis as my Cuba, Bhutan and Myanmar trips. That was complete nonsense. In Namibia all the larger merchants happily take cards and there are ATMs in every town. Changing £200 at the airport was painless enough, but my attempt to change £90 in Lüderitz turned into one of the most annoying and convoluted financial transactions I have been involved in, and I’m tempted to include buying cars and houses in the list! Namibia hasn’t quite got to the point where you can just wave your phone at the till to buy an ice-cream, but it’s getting there quickly.

Another bit of complete nonsense is "it’s cold in the desert". Yes, it may be a bit chilly first thing some mornings, but I needed a second layer over my T-shirt for precisely two short pre-dawn periods. Obviously if you’re the sort of person who gets a chill watching a documentary about penguins, then YMMV, but I was clearly heavy a sweatshirt, a couple of pairs of long trousers and one raincoat. In addition to shorts and T-shirts one fleece, plus the jacket and trousers for the trip home, would be adequate.

On a related subject, there’s one thing that almost all the hotels got wrong. Apart from right at the coast daytime temperatures are up well into the 30s if not the 40s, and the temperature inside most of the lodgings at bed-time was in the high 20s, dropping to the low 20s by the end of the night (all temperatures in Celsius). In those temperatures I do NOT need a 50 Tog quilt designed for a Siberian Winter. One sheet would be plenty, with maybe the option of a second blanket if absolutely necessary. The government-run lodge at Sossusvlei got this right, no-one else did.

It may be dusty, and there are little piles of dung everywhere from the local wildlife, but beyond this Namibia is basically clean. You can drink the tap water pretty much everywhere, and it’s not a game of Russian Roulette having a salad. It made a welcome change from the experience of Morocco and my Asian trips not having to manage our journey around tummy upsets, which is just as well when we had at least two stretches of over 150 miles without an official stop. Obviously sensible precautions like regular hand cleansing apply, but Namibia really presents less of a challenge in this area.

The larger challenge of the Namibian diet is that there’s a lot of it. Portions tend to be large, and there’s a lot of red meat, frequently close relatives of the animals you have just been photographing. I was fine with this, but I suspect vegans should not apply. Between the food, the beer and snacks in the bus I definitely put on about half a stone, which I’m desperately trying to lose again before Christmas…

Communications are good in the larger towns, but elsewhere you may struggle for a mobile signal and the roaming costs for calls, texts and particularly data are very high. WiFi worked well at the town locations, but at the more remote sites service was intermittent and almost unusably slow. On the other hand, we were in the middle of Africa! This is one of those cases where you wonder not that a thing is done well, but that it is done at all. (The odd exception, again, was Sossusvlei, where they charged about £3 a day, but the bandwidth was excellent.) However Namibia is a country where practical problems get fixed, and I suspect in 5 years this will be a non-issue. In the meantime if you want to do anything more than check the news headlines (say, just for the sake or argument, update a photo blog :)) then plan ahead and batch updates ready for when you’re somewhere more central.

I did suffer one related annoyance. On a couple of occasions an Android app I was using to entertain myself on the long drives just stopped working pending a licensing check, which couldn’t be completed until I got connectivity at the end of the day. There’s not much to be done about this, apart from a post-incident moan to the app developer to make the check more forgiving. It’s worth having a Plan B for anything absolutely vital.

Do carry a small torch. It’s great to get away from light pollution, but the flipside is that it’s dark (shock, horror!!) As well as for night photography we often had to walk quite long distances between our accommodation and the resorts’ central areas, with minimal lighting, and you really don’t want to trip over a sleeping warthog or tread in a pile of oryx poo. I have a tiny, powerful cyclists’ head torch which is ideal. It’s also rechargeable via USB, although as far as I can remember it’s still on its first charge from when I bought it in 2015, so I’m not quite sure how that works.

Finally, retail therapy. Surprisingly for a country trying to optimise the income from high-value eco-tourism, there was almost nothing to buy until we got back to Windhoek and visited a craft market. Most resorts had a shop, but I wasn’t impressed by the merchandising, and when I did find something I liked it was usually not available in my size (clothing), or language (books). It’s not the purpose of the trip, but I do like the odd bit of retail therapy. There’s an opportunity for some enterprising young Namibians.

In summary, Namibia is a very civilised way to see the wild. Some of the wild is not quite as wild as it might be, but that’s part of the trade-off which makes it so accessible, and this certainly worked for me.

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Normal Service Will Be Resumed After Completion Of This Rant

Sleepy Cheetah!
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 16-11-2018 17:29 | Resolution: 3345 x 3345 | ISO: 800 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/500s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 193.0mm | Location: Okonjima | State/Province: Okonjati, Otjozondjupa | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

The last day of any trip is always a bit sad, and hard work with the travel. However this year three separate organisations covered themselves in something which is not glory, and I have to get this out of my system before I write the traditional tail piece for my blog…

As a bit of compensation, here’s a nice picture of a cheetah, feeling about like I did at 1am on Friday.

Thanks.

Rant 1: Designing Hotel Bedrooms

The recurring dysfunctional ingenuity of hotel designers never ceases to amaze me, and provides an endless supply of material for this blog. On our way back through Windhoek, we stayed at Galton House, which while still quite smart overall and in the communal areas, was probably half a notch down from the Pension Thule, where we stayed outbound. My room was a bit poky and had a couple of major challenges, including very noisy air conditioning, and an Iceland-class duvet (in Windhoek, in the summer!). However the worst fail was that it had one accessible power socket, to the right of the bathroom door, while the desk, the only place I could rest laptop and things on charge, was to the left of the same doorway. I therefore had to spend my stay with a power cable stretched right across the bathroom doorway, limbo dancing under it when I needed to use the facilities.

One wonders what sort of hotel designer comes up with a room with a desk, and no power socket on the appropriate side of the room. That’s up to the standard of the Calais hotel I once stayed in where the lift worked but the stairs were out of order (due to a 10 ft gap half way down.) Admittedly about 20 years ago I did stay in a hotel in England where the only place you could get simultaneous power and modem connectivity was in the hot tub in the middle of the room, but that was an adapted medieval abbey, and plain weird. Galton House is a smart new purpose-built venue. Not a clue…

And to add actual injury to potential injury, most of us had got the whole way around Namibia without many bites, and several of us, including myself, woke up covered in nasty little red marks. Blast.

Rant 2: Midnight Food Service

I’m fully in favour of Virgin holding onto the "full service airline" concept when BA and others have abandoned it. However, if you are running a night flight which leaves Johannesburg at 21.00 local time, and arrives in London at 06.00 local time, I would suggest that your highest priority is to try and enable your passengers to get as much of a decent night’s sleep as airline seating and turbulence allow. This is not promoted by serving, slowly, drinks, followed by a rubbish collection, followed by tepid towels (they were probably hot when they left the galley, but I was at the front of Economy), followed by a rubbish collection, followed by "supper", at about 00.30, followed by hot drinks, and finally followed by another rubbish collection at gone 1 in the morning!

…Followed by inedible breakfast, at about 05.00…

Would it really not be better to just give everyone some booze and turn the lights off?

Rant 3: The 787 Nightmare Liner

I wasn’t impressed by the 787 on the flight out, but my assessment reduced a further notch on the way back. That plane revealed a number of areas where the new technology has aged very badly. One example: the window dimming switch on my window had obviously been jabbed so frequently and hard that  the rubber cover had completely failed and peeled away. Worse, the toilet is supposed to retain the seat upright via some magnetic mechanism, with a nearby "non contact" switch operating the flush. In the loo nearest my seat the seat retainer had completely failed, meaning that I had to sit holding the seat upright with one hand, and every time I moved, the flush mechanism triggered randomly.

This was all on a "nearly new" plane which has by definition only been in service for a couple of years. How that plane will look after 10 or more years use I shudder to think.

I suspect that the 787-200 or whatever they call the "2.0" version will be a good plane, but I’d hate to be in charge of maintaining the oldest versions.

 

</Rant>

In fairness to Galton House, Virgin and Boeing, I arrived back at Heathrow at 06.00 safe, sound and slightly ahead of schedule. In the words of Old Blue Eyes:

It’s very nice to go trav’ling
To Paris, London and Rome
It’s oh so nice to go trav’ling
But it’s so much nicer, yes it’s so much nicer, to come home…

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The Andrew Johnston Iceland Camouflage Masterclass

The Andrew Johnston Iceland Camouflage Masterclass
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM | Date: 26-08-2011 15:19 | ISO: 100 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/125s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 28.0mm (~45.4mm) | Location: Kirkjufell | State/Province: South | See map | Lens: Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-5.6 IS USM

The trouble is, there’s a recurring theme here…

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The Andrew Johnston Namib Desert Camouflage Masterclass

The Andrew Johnston Namib Desert camouflage masterclass
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Typically Tropical!

The 2018 Photo Adventures Namibia Tour crosses the line
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 28-11-2018 13:19 | Resolution: 3767 x 3767 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/500s | Aperture: 5.0 | Focal Length: 28.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Well, a line, anyway. We’ll all be back over the line sometime tomorrow, when we fly back. That’s sad.

From the left: Lee (group leader and owner of Photo Adventures), Ann, John B, Paul, Alison, Keith, Nigel, Tuhafenny (our excellent guide and driver from Wild Dog Safaris), John L, and yours truly.

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The Twin-Lens Reflex :)

Shooting with twin Canons
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 28-11-2018 08:52 | Resolution: 5184 x 2920 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/800s | Aperture: 5.0 | Focal Length: 16.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

I noticed while gathering for the bushman walk that five of our group were "packing" a pair of Canons. This shot was inevitable.

Thanks to John B for the title – excellent photographer’s joke. I am happy to explain if required.

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Into the Kalahari

Kalahari Bushmen
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 28-11-2018 07:26 | Resolution: 3046 x 3046 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/1000s | Aperture: 5.5 | Focal Length: 59.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

Having been out until gone 11pm doing the night photography, I boycotted the dawn shoot back in the quiver tree forest, had a bit of a lie in, and joined the party at breakfast. We then moved off north. On maps the B1 looks like a major road: Namibia’s main north-south artery. In practice it’s a fairly narrow single-carriageway road with a surface which has seen batter days, and our average speed was even lower than on the good road from Lüderitz. This adds insult to the potential injury that from where we joined the road to the next major town at Mariental is over 220km without even a gas station or loo stop!

Anyway, we did the trip without incident and only one emergency stop (just as well, as trees are also in short supply), and after Mariental turned east into the edge of the Kalahari Desert, ending up at another game reserve, Bagatelle. I have to say that for a "desert", that edge of the Kalahari is currently looking a lot greener than I expected, but apparently the rains this year were a bit later this year, and that region got more than usual.

We had a relaxed lunch, entertained by some meerkats, but unfortunately I didn’t have my camera. Towards sundown we set off for another game drive. This started well, with good views of kudu, springbok and giraffes as well as various birds. It was spoilt slightly when our driver panicked thinking he had lost his bird-recognition crib sheet, and insisted on turning round and driving back at break-neck speed along the route we had already covered, ignoring our instructions to calm down. (The missing sheet turned out to be behind his seat…). However after a couple of beers watching the sun go down I was reasonably mollified, and I’m quite pleased with the bird photos.


Lilac breasted roller

In the morning we joined a couple of Kalahari bushmen who walked us through the reserve to their camp, pointing out various tracks and giving us a demonstration of traditional hunting and trapping techniques. At the camp we met the wider family and got a chance, unique so far on this trip, to do some portraiture.

It was a little sad when we learned on the way back they actually live in a nice house attached to the lodge and carry the camp around in a Hilux, but I guess that’s progress…

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The Quiver Tree Forest

Quiver Trees
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 26-11-2018 18:40 | Resolution: 3888 x 3888 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/125s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Sadly we’re into the last few days of the trip and have to spend most of the next few days hacking back from the extreme south west of Namibia to Windhoek which is well to the north.

Monday started with a short walk around the very colourful town of Lüderitz, which is a Bavarian seaside town, if that’s not a massive conflict of metaphors… The short walk was then followed by one of the longest and most frustrating financial transactions I have experienced – trying to change £100 in the Standard Bank. This involved all sorts of ID checks, the young teller had obviously never seen British money before, and their counting machine refused to recognise one of my £20 notes, so I actually managed to change £90. In 20 minutes. Grr…

The long drive east was straightforward but surprisingly slow, with our driver obviously obeying some size-related limit which hadn’t been an issue on the unsurfaced roads. It’s more comfortable on tarmac, but not necessarily quicker.

By mid afternoon we reached our overnight destination, the Quiver Tree Forest. These "trees" (they are actually giant succulents like cacti or aloes) are found in ones and twos all over Namibia but only grow in significant numbers in a few places. As well as the forest there are other attractions: we were just in time for feeding the rescued cheetahs, which I had expected to be caged in a compound but turned out to be wandering around with the farm’s dogs and toddlers. I got to stroke a cheetah, another personal first.


Go on, pull!

Sunset photographing the quiver trees was very enjoyable and generated some great images, and after dinner a few of us went back to try and capture the night sky with the trees as foreground. I’m not yet 100% convinced about my images, but it was an enjoyable experience nonetheless.


Night sky over the quiver tree forest

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Ghost Towns

Obelixa the brown hyena
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 25-11-2018 11:48 | Resolution: 5184 x 3456 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/200s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 300.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

Today we visited two ghost towns based around diamond mines. In the morning we visited Elizabeth Bay, which is about half an hour from Lüderitz behind a substantial security screen as it shares its location and access road with an active diamond mine.

Elizabeth Bay is quite obviously an industrial site supported by worker accommodation and facilities, even though it is right next to the sea. The location is because diamond-rich sand was dropped as rivers reached the sea, and diamonds could be collected simply by washing and sieving the right seams of sand.

The town is in an advanced state of decay despite only having been abandoned in 1951 because the seaward bricks of each building are simply disintegrating under the onslaught of wind and salt spray, and then buildings collapse in turn.

The highlight for me was an encounter with a brown hyena. These shy and almost (by hyena standards, anyway) cute animals are endangered, and only about 2500 live on the Namibian coast. Some live near Elizabeth Bay, and when we arrived we met a BBC team who are making a documentary about them, using camera traps in the buildings.

Anyway, during my explorations I came face to face, on three occasions, with one hyena, who was completely unfazed and quite happy to be photographed. Our guide confirmed she is an elderly female known as Obelixa, who is habituated to humans, but it was still a fascinating encounter with a quiet, rare creature.

In the afternoon we explored Kolmanskoppe, which is much closer to Lüderitz, and a more straightforward tourist location. This is the source of another set of iconic Namibian images, abandoned mining buildings filled with sand. We had several hours to just wander and photograph at will. However it was quite hard work due to the constant strong wind and biting sand. At one point the eye sensor of my camera got so clogged it stopped working.


Image from Kolmanskoppe

While the fabric of most buildings at Kolmanskoppe is in better condition than at Elizabeth Bay, what seems to happen is any which is not actively maintained eventually loses a window or part of the roof to the onslaught, and then the sand rapidly pours in.

The sands around Kolmanskoppe may be a bit worse, but generally sand is a recurring theme of this trip. Just outside Kolmanskoppe there’s a road sign which says "sand". Without any loss of accuracy the Namibians could just put this outside the airport and have done with it.

Hopefully we will shortly be back at the hotel for a shower. Tomorrow I want to photograph Lüderitz, which is a pretty town, and not completely full of sand!

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Empty

Ostrich and oryx at Wolwedans
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 24-11-2018 09:48 | Resolution: 3386 x 3386 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/640s | Aperture: 4.5 | Focal Length: 150.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

Lee agreed that we could all have a lie-in, so of course I woke up at 4, and was just getting back to sleep at 6 when the sun rose over the mountains and shone straight into my room. Bugger…

Today we moved on from Wolwedans to Lüderitz, a "Bavarian" town on the coast, which meant most of the day on the road. Southern Namibia is staggeringly empty: it’s over 300km of well-graded road from Wolwedans to Aus, at the South-East corner of the Naukluft National Park, during which we passed two graders working on the road, but we think no other vehicles at all.

The new game to entertain myself is to build up playlists for our intended destination or attractions. We were promised a view of the wild horses at Aus, so I had to work to a "wild horse" theme. Obviously I started with Ride A Wild Horse by Dee Clark and Wild Horses by the Rolling Stones. I have two versions of Horse With No Name, by America and Paul Hardcastle / Direct Drive, both good and quite different, so they both got added. A search for "Wild" was fruitful, including Born to be Wild, Walk on the Wild Side and Wild Thing (I have the Trogg’s original, but sadly not the Hendrix version at Monterrey), and then several on a theme: Reap the Wild Wind, Ride the Wild Wind, Wild is the Wind (two versions, Bowie, but also Nina Simone which doesn’t really work in this playlist). Some of the others don’t quite work, but I never miss a chance to listen to Play That Funky Music (Wild Cherry), even if it’s cheating and slightly out of place.

Tomorrow it’s a "Diamonds and Ghosts" playlist, as we’re exploring the abandoned mining towns near Lüderitz.

We did get to see an ostrich on the way out of Wolwedans, but badly the horses at Aus were a bit of an anti-climax. We’ll have another look on the way back on Monday.

Predictably as we got nearer the coast the African sun disappeared and the weather got a lot colder and greyer. I’m now sitting in my hotel room in Lüderitz, with major breakers rolling straight off the Atlantic and breaking on rocks a few feet from my bedroom window. What this presages for sleep tonight I’m not quite sure: it may be quite restful, or it may be bloody annoying. Time will tell.

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The Wolwedans Game Drive

Oryx and zebra at the watering hole
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 23-11-2018 15:10 | Resolution: 4515 x 2822 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/640s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 300.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

We’ve been a bit spoiled by the game drives at Okonjima, where it was almost a challenge not to see a great variety of game. The Wolwedans equivalent was less productive: after 4 hours in the jeeps under a blazing sun we saw a lot of oryx, one solitary zebra, fleeting glances of a jackal and a fox (they really don’t like being anywhere near humans), and a dot on the hillside which my longest lens just about resolved to something ostrich-shaped.

On the way back the sun was steadily on the back of my neck and I was lucky not to get sunburnt. I can really recommend Coppertone Sport.

However, I really mustn’t grumble. The scenery is magnificent, the oryx are fun, and I’m still privileged to be here. Please enjoy another picture of an oryx:


Oryx sheltering from the sun. I could usefully have done the same thing!

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And Another Dead Tree…

Dead tree at Wolwedans, Namib-Rand Game Reserve
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 22-11-2018 18:58 | Resolution: 3888 x 3888 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/125s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 46.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

There’s a long-running joke between Frances and myself that I like to use a dead tree as foreground interest in my photos. In Namibia, it’s often the only viable target, and I’ve found that I’m in very good company. We all had a couple of goes at this one, first in poorer light, and then when the sun appeared from behind a cloud we got the Land Rover to reverse back down the track to have another go. I think it works…

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Into Wolwedans

Sunset in Wolwedans, Namib-Rand Game Reserve
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 22-11-2018 19:32 | Resolution: 5593 x 3495 | ISO: 640 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

My cunning plan to have a lie-in worked, and I had a great night’s sleep, sorted myself out, and had a leisurely breakfast. Those who had chosen the "third 4.15 start in a row" option got back looking distinctly frazzled.

The drive to our next location was mercifully quite short, as we were getting onto progressively more tricky unsurfaced roads. We’ve come to a private game reserve called Wolwedans (Vol-Ver-Dance). This is one of about half a dozen private owned reserves which together make up the Namib-Rand Game Reserve, a privately owned game preservation area over 2,000 km2 in area, or a bit bigger than the area inside the M25. Wolwedans has a total of 20-30 rooms split over 3 or 4 camps, and is usually frequented by the likes of Brad and Angelina, although I suspect they fly/flew in rather than taking the long road route. I’m not quite sure how we’ve managed to get here for a reasonable fee, but very grateful that someone’s made it work.

The topography is quite different to anything we’ve seen before, with a combination of large savannah areas, dunes, and quite substantial mountains particularly along the western edge where the reserve adjoins the Namib Desert National Park. While the terrain is obviously African, the "big skies" also put me in mind of Montana. So far we have had a very dramatic sunset and sunrise, and we’re off to try and track some game down later.

The drive back after sunset last night was interesting, with the drivers of the two Land Rovers opting to drive with lights off, relying on their night sight. It was quite peaceful, and probably avoided spooking the game (which seems to be a guiding rule here), but I suspect I would have used more light.

The Namibian diet (or at least the tourist version) is taking its toll on my waistline. Last night we only got to dinner at 9 and then had 5 courses (although the first three were only a couple of mouthfuls each).  I couldn’t get into my green shorts today, so I just hope the other ones come back safely from the laundry… I suspect it’s going to be the apple and coffee diet for me when I get back.

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Deadvlei

Tree at Deadvlei
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 21-11-2018 07:06 | Resolution: 5224 x 2939 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/400s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 38.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

Deadvlei is the home of the iconic Namibian desert image: a dead tree on a salt plain with an orange dune in the background. Despite the ubiquity of such images, in practice it’s a single relatively small location, a bowl in the dunes maybe 500m x 200m. Hundreds of years ago it was a small oasis with fairly healthy vegetation, but the shifting dunes cut off its water supply, and the trees died. However in the dry, sterile conditions they have only decomposed very slowly, and are effectively now petrified. The other thing which is surprising is the salt pan – I was expecting a fairly thin even crust like you see in pictures of Bonneville, but instead it’s a rocky, lumpy and very solid arrangement.

Our tour bus took us the 70km down the Sossusvlei valley to the end of the surfaced road, and we then took a 4×4 shuttle 4km through the sands to the jumping off point for several walks. It’s about 1.1km to Deadvlei, a distance which I would normally knock off in about 12 minutes, but walking on the sand proves very difficult, and it took me over half an hour. My combination of small feet and, er, large frame means I just sink into the sand with every step, and it’s suspiciously like wading through treacle.

Regardless, our timing was good and the walk fully justified by the scene. We had timed our arrival to be there just as the sun was reaching into the bowl, and we got great shots of both trees just emerging from the shadows, and in full light against the orange dunes and cloudless blue sky.

We were just packing up to go back when we got the first hint of what was coming, some lines of sand being whipped across the salt, which stung the legs as they hit them. We had a brief respite as we walked back, but by the time we arrived at the car park we were in the middle of a full-blown dust storm, so bad at times other vehicles were invisible except for their lights. We had a 4km drive in an open 4×4 through this, which was not pleasant. I’m not sure that it was ever actually on my list, but "sandstorm" can now be ticked off.

We had a relaxing middle of the day, but I was starting to feel a bit weary and couldn’t face the walk into Deadvlei twice in one day, so at the end of the day while the rest of the group went back to Deadvlei John and I commandeered the 4×4 and went photographing dunes off the sand road. We got some decent shots, but it’s a challenge as the salty ground and scrub vegetation make getting a neat foreground a real challenge. I made a few "rookie errors", including shots out of focus and then trapping my finger in the car door, and decided that I really need to not do three 4.15 starts in a row. Tomorrow I’m going to boycott the dawn start and have a lie in…

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Oryx from the air

Oryx from the air
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 20-11-2018 07:06 | Resolution: 3174 x 1984 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/1000s | Aperture: 3.2 | Focal Length: 100.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

‘Nuff said.

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Nice Chopper (Ride)

Namibian dunes from the air
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 20-11-2018 06:45 | Resolution: 5391 x 3370 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/500s | Aperture: 4.5 | Focal Length: 35.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

Up at 4.14, but in a very worth cause, our helicopter flight over the Namibian dunes. We had to take it in turns, as the company only have one helicopter with three passenger seats flying at this time of year, so I volunteered to go first along with Alison and John. We were met at the park gates by the pilot, a big South African called Pierre. After the usual necessity of signing one’s life away, he drove us out to the chopper, which turned out to be dramatically smaller than the last one I flew in, many years ago in Barbados.

Called a Raven II, this is a great sight-seeing device, with a clear bubble canopy, plus in honour of the photographic trip they had removed the doors, giving us each a wide view to the side, plus I could also shoot through the canopy to the front. It was fitted with harnesses very similar to standard car seat belts, but at least Frances’ fear that I would be left with two odd ends like Sam Neill in Jurassic Park was unfounded.

I have to confess that the first minute or so of the flight was a bit disconcerting, in that such a small craft has to tilt down quite sharply to build up speed, when you are still fairly low to the ground. However things quickly stabilised and we were humming along down the Sossusvlei Valley. We were initially battling poor light, but our luck held and the sun came out exactly when required, when we were turning over Deadvlei and Sossusvlei. However the slow appearance of the sun meant I got some very rare shots of the hills behind the dunes wreathed in cloud and mist – Pierre reckons he only sees anything other than straight sunshine about 8 days a year.

We then flew deeper into the dunes, and back to the airfield via some meadows with oryx, ostriches and jackals. These were trickier to photograph, but I did get one great shot of the oryx.

We were back at the hotel by 8am, just in time for breakfast, and had a great lazy morning before the rest of the group arrived back.

For the afternoon shoot we were meant to all go back to Deadvlei, but there was a problem with the booking for the 4×4 required to take us through the last 4km of sand track from the bus stop, and we had to re-plan. We spent the rest of the afternoon shooting dunes and trees along the road back to the hotel.

Another early start tomorrow – our turn to go to Deadvlei.

Addendum – Size Matters

If you’re going to do a “doors off” helicopter flight then the physical size of your equipment matters (ooh er missus :) ). Smaller is definitely better. I got great results with my Panasonic G9 and the 35-100mm lens (70-200mm equivalent). Another group member shooting with the equivalent Olympus kit was also fine. However those shooting with the big Canons and Nikons and 70-200 or 70-300 lenses were finding great difficulty getting sharp images. The dual stabilisation of the Micro Four Thirds cameras helps, but the biggest contributor seems to be the fact that the big lenses project out of the cockpit into the slipstream, and the wind-shear on them makes them very difficult to hold still.

I also had the Panasonic GX8 with the 12-35mm lens for wider shots, and I was able to have both on the floor in front of me and switch between them. That arrangement also worked well, but would be tricky with physically larger cameras.

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We’re On The Road To Nowhere

Old vehicles at Solitaire, Namibia
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 19-11-2018 14:40 | Resolution: 5098 x 2867 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/400s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 28.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Playlist for today:

  • On The Road Again : Canned Heat
  • Highway Star : Deep Purple
  • Bright Side of the Road : Van Morrison
  • Call Me The Breeze (I keep blowin’ down the road) : Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • Goin’ Down The Road (A Scottish Reggae Song) : Roy Wood
  • King of the Road : Roger Miller
  • Rockin’ Down The Highway : Doobie Brothers
  • Roll On Down The Highway : Bachman Turner Overdrive
  • Rollin’ and Tumblin’ : Canned Heat
  • Davy’s On The Road Again : Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
  • The Long and Winding Road : The Beatles
  • Crossroads : Eric Clapton / Cream
  • Rollin’ On : Uriah Heep
  • Road to Nowhere : Talking Heads
  • Road to Hell : Chris Rea
  • Highway to HellI : AC/DC

Did I mention it was going to be a long drive?

The south western quadrant of Namibia, an area comparable with Northern England, consists of the Namib Desert, and apart from a narrow corridor about 2/3 of the way down, plus a short stretch of coast, is all in one of two national parks. These are not crossed by road, and the few tracks into them are strictly controlled. The problem is that we start the day just north of the north western corner, and we need to get about halfway down the eastern edge. Therefore we have to circumnavigate the park on a Namibian "C" road. These are mainly unsurfaced, but wide and well graded. However speeds are inevitably slower than on tarmac, and there are periods where the ride is very rough, or it gets very dusty, or both.

We left civilisation at Walvis Bay, just south of Swapokmund, and the next habitation and services are over 200km away, at Solitaire, which appears to exist to service weary travellers at a key road junction. They do so in style, with a great collection of photogenic wrecked old cars, and their special, an excellent apple pie.

Another hour or so of driving brings us to Sesriem, gateway to the Sossusvlei area, and our base for the next few days. More than one night in one place? Luxury.

The Sossusvlei Dune Lodge is inside the park, which is good news for our forthcoming dawn starts. It’s run on a surprisingly Germanic basis, with more rules and constraints than we’ve experienced elsewhere. Quite a few of the rules seem to relate to keeping pests out of the rooms: mosquitoes (fair enough, although it is the middle of the desert), and baboons (I wasn’t expecting that).

Another early night: up just after 4 for the helicopter flight!

Addendum: 4am

Well, that blokes’ baboon repellent seems to have worked. The mosquito net also proved an effective barrier, locking a single mosquito in bed with me all night. Bugger.

Sleep was OK for quality…

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Hot Dry Desert, Cold Damp Desert

Yous truly under the rock arch in Spitzkoppe Park
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 18-11-2018 11:05 | Resolution: 5184 x 2920 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: 0.33 EV | Exp. Time: 1/800s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 64.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 35-100/F2.8

Despite the distractions of the chalet’s canvas roof I eventually got an OK night’s sleep, and woke up ready for action. With the sun just rising we had a great pre-breakfast shoot at Spitzkoppe, with the rock formations beautifully lit by low sun, and just a few whispy white clouds breaking a clear blue sky.

The Spitzkoppe Lodge is quite new. The unresolved issues with the roofs are one challenge, breakfast turns out to be another. Lukewarm coffee is a recognisable drink. Lukewarm tea is a waste of ingredients and a challenge to the nausea response.

After breakfast we drove to the other side of the park and made a short climb up to a rock arch. I scrambled up to the arch itself and had my picture captured, just in time before the group of about 15 Germans arrived via a much gentler path from the other side…

We then headed for the coast, along an absolutely straight, flat and empty road. At the start we were at about 1000m, in baking sun with the sand punctuated by occasional clumps of scrubby grass. At the end we were at sea level, under a grey sky, much cooler, with the sand punctuated by occasional small mossy mounds.

Lunch was taken at our driver’s favourite cafe in Hentis Bay, which appears to be a sort of African Clacton-on-Sea. The cafe is also recognised by another member of the group and clearly a known target. The food is tasty and the portions more than generous: I have something called a terrazini, a large flatbread stuffed with chicken, bacon and cheese and then toasted. Nigel goes for a burger, which turns out to be about the size of a discus.

After lunch we spend an interesting but surprisingly cold half hour photographing a shipwreck using very long exposures. It’s very good practice for me to remember how to drive a camera in manual mode, something I rarely do.

It’s a short drive down the coast to Swapokmund, a rather larger city, somewhat reminiscent of a European seaside town. This looks prosperous, but somewhat dead on a cold Sunday evening.

You can tell when a Namibian town developed by the signage and street names: somewhere which has developed since independence will be almost entirely English. Those which developed in the mid 20th century will use English and quite a lot of Afrikaans. Swapokmund obviously dates back to the 19th century and there’s a lot of German – our hotel is just off Kaiser Willhelm Strasse.

Early night. Long drive tomorrow.

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Thrills and Disappointments

Granite formations, Spitzkoppe
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 18-11-2018 07:10 | Resolution: 3888 x 3888 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/400s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

5am call, quick cup of coffee and back in the big FWD for "leopard tracking". This was a dawn game drive with a tracker for the radio collars fitted to the park’s other leopards. On the way we stopped to photograph more diverse ungulates (including wildebeest this time), baboons and some colourful birds.

We eventually tracked the other female down to a thicket about 100m in each direction, but she seemed to be moving. We drove back to the main track and I suddenly spotted a shadow moving at the thicket’s edge. We positioned ourselves in time for her to cross the track just ahead of us. Another gorgeous animal, and this time we were definitely not the prey.

It’s a six hour drive, including lunch, to Spitzkoppe. At least this allows me to variously catch up on sleep, writing this blog, and Angry Birds. Namibia’s roads are well surfaced, empty, straight and very boring.

Packed lunch from the game reserve included an oryx wrap. There’s a pattern emerging here…

Spitzkoppe is where a bunch of dramatic granite monoliths rise out of the otherwise flat desert, not unlike an African Monument Valley. We enjoyed the long drive in, promising ourselves some great late afternoon shooting, but by the time we got to the lodge and checked in the sun had disappeared behind clouds and the light was rather disappointing. Still, we can look forward to Dawn tomorrow.

Night 4 – Addendum

Ready for a good night’s sleep?

Sensible bed-time? Check. Sensible start time tomorrow negotiated, as worst case I can just photograph the sunrise from bed? Check. Right amount of food and alcohol, not too much, not too little? Check. Room temperature wrangled from "furnace" to "comfortable"? Check. Pillow adjusted to right height with towel? Check.

Ready for a good night’s sleep.

This is when I discover the major structural flaw in the design of the Spitzkoppe chalets. The base and sides are solid, but the roof is a weird double canvas affair. If it’s meant to manage temperature it doesn’t work. What it does do in any breath of wind over Beaufort Scale level 1 is whip, creak, groan, snap and pop vigorously. Something a bit stronger and it sounds like it’s about to come off. At midnight I decide the latter would be a good thing as then I could finish the night under a clear and silent Namibian sky. Sadly it doesn’t happen. At least that explains the earplugs in the soap dish.

The sleep deprivation experience continues.

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A Long Drive, then a Great Opener

"Beautiful", the leopard
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 16-11-2018 17:44 | Resolution: 3888 x 3888 | ISO: 250 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/320s | Aperture: 5.6 | Focal Length: 150.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

It’s looking like we will spend a lot of time on the road. Once our transport arrived on day 3 we drove back out to the airport to collect the final member of the group, then back past our hotel in Windhoek, then another 3+ hours north to the Okonjima Nature Reserve. There we transferred immediately to a 14 seat open-air FWD and set out on our "game drive".

This was absolutely excellent. Within shouting distance of the lodge we had seen warthogs, giraffes, oryx, springbok, kudu and various other ungulates whose names I can’t remember. Then we went into the cat enclosure.

First up were the cheetahs, which are apparently very used to humans and had also been recently fed, so were just lying around like large spotty moggies. They are smaller than I expected, but just as beautiful. It was great being able to photograph them at a range of 20m or less with no concerns on either side.

The leopard was a different matter. Okonjima have two adult females, both rescued from elsewhere, one of whom roams the main park with her two sons, but the other is kept separately as otherwise they would fight. The captive female has been trained to come to a hide from where she can be viewed at very close range. This is an unnerving process as she prowls up and down inspecting each visitor in turn, and would obviously love to get into the hide and choose from the menu if not prevented by an electric fence and mesh.

Maybe this was an encounter with a top predator who viewed us as potential prey. Maybe, but I have another theory. I think she has become a working animal with a reliable routine. All I could hear in my head was Joanna Lumley’s voice saying "sorry darling, I have to go. I have another group of tourists to scare."

Whichever is the case, she is aptly named with the local translation of "beautiful". Well deserved.

Dinner was oryx carpaccio, followed by oryx sirloin, and a chocolate mousse. "Chocolate oryx", surely?

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Back On The Road

View of the Posh Bit of WindHoek from the Hotel Thule
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 15-11-2018 18:58 | Resolution: 5176 x 2915 | ISO: 3200 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/160s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 100.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 100-300/F4.0-5.6II

I’m off on my photographic travels again, this time to Namibia. I’m travelling with Lee Frost of Photo Adventures, as I did to Cuba and Morocco, and it promises to be an interesting mix of landscape, wildlife and general travel shooting.

As is often the case, the first two days were largely taken up with travel, although I learned my lesson from the Myanmar trip and made sure we built in some rest time as well. I can never sleep on a plane, and going straight out shooting after a long journey leaves me fit to be tied…

The main flight from Heathrow to Johannesburg was smooth, although delayed by a change of plane which significantly cut into the relatively short transfer time at the far end, and saw us almost sprinting through the terminal. However in marked contrast to recent experiences with BA, Virgin did an efficient job of boarding (by row number), and Johannesburg Airport staff did an excellent job of triaging their queues, so we got the connecting flight.

The long-haul flight was on a Boeing 787 "Dreamliner", which is a real curates egg, good in parts. The new technology like the electronically dimming windows works brilliantly, but some well established technology appears to have been sacrificed. I couldn’t on my own recline my seat, and the seat back pocket is now wholly inadequate. The tray table is a ridiculous design which slopes downwards and is made out of some shiny plastic – a young lady sitting near me got a glass of water in her lap halfway through dinner, and I’m aware she wasn’t the only one. On a single flight! How on earth did that ever get through QA? Why industrial design has to be this odd zero sum game is a complete mystery. If it ain’t broke…

Minor complaints aside the air transportation got us to Windhoek on time. It’s a surprisingly long drive from the airport to the city, I reckon at least 25 miles, and that’s another mystery, given that most of the intervening countryside is completely empty and flat as a pancake. I can only assume that the former owner of the airport land was on the "where should we put the airport" commission.

Windhoek, at least the bits visible from the main roads, is a spacious, modern city. For our first night we stayed at the Hotel Thule, which sits on a promontory overlooking the rest of the town. It’s a very pleasant place to stay and also seems to be one of the "in" places for the locals to eat. A gentle afternoon and late start next morning at least started my batteries recharging.

Dinner is an oryx steak, slightly overcooked but otherwise delicious.

So far it’s warm, but manageable during the day, but hot at night, not less than about 26°C.

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