Lessons from the Namib

If there is an upside to the human condition and our continued march down the path of mortality, it is that the closer we get to our ultimate demise, the better we are able to ‘appreciate’. Time is always a good example of this; there is something about having less and less of it left that makes us value smaller and smaller quantities of it. Moments that would have been less than significant before now become hugely so, and the beauty of photography is that it gives us the opportunity to relive such moments.

This past weekend, while trawling through my archive of photographs, I stumbled upon two separate sets of images that I had overlooked during the post-Namibia debriefs. To my mind, the photos are good, and yet I somehow missed them during the flurry of work that went into developing what I considered ‘the best’ images from the expedition. It also occurred to me – as a sort of epiphany if you will – that I was looking at scenes that represent real personal highlights from our journey, and what made this flash of enlightenment poignant was the realisation that I had visited both locations before, some twenty-odd years earlier. Typically, I believe that familiarity is dull and boring and escaping it is a large part of why I choose to travel. For this reason, the idea that the two destinations fall into this very category is curious to me and it may surprise you to hear that the first of them was Sossusvlei.

Now, the name Sossusvlei has become somewhat synonymous with an entire area of the Namib-Naukluft National Park; a region encompassing Sossusvlei itself, as well as various other vleis, including, most notably, Deadvlei. In fact, some even extend the area to incorporate Sesriem, a small village situated 60 km away from the pan and the departure point for every Sossusvlei excursion.

The two dawn images photographed from the top of the Big Mamma dune.

Oddly, since I first visited Sossusvlei itself in the early nineties, the appeal of the pan has dwindled somewhat. It used to be that everyone visiting the park would make an extra effort to watch the sunrise from the top of Big Mamma, a dune which flanks the north-eastern side of the pan. Achieving this goal – which at face value appears rather modest – is not easy even today. The poor condition of the road leading to the area means an awfully early wake-up call for any would-be view-finders, and that is to say nothing of the physical effort required to scale the dune itself. Inexplicably, it seems to me that the focus has shifted over the past 20 years and that this pilgrimage is no longer fashionable. Nowadays, visitors head directly to Deadvlei, which is certainly a breath-taking location and a definite must-see, but one that doesn’t offer nearly the same variety of scenes as those visible from atop Big Mamma.

For the ambitious, Big Mamma offers an entirely unique opportunity to gaze across the valley and watch the sunrise. On the 21 December 2016, as we started up the foot of this enormous dune, we were alone, and when I summited, I was treading the first footprints into the rippled sands. I quickly fired off two shots of the dawn and then we just sat. The air was cool, the sand even cooler, and with nobody around, it was silent. For all we could tell, we were the only people in the entire desert and it stayed that way for what seemed like hours.

 

An abstract sunrise image captured using a 400mm lens while sitting atop the Big Mamma dune.

 

In truth, we were not entirely by ourselves. If I looked hard enough from the top of the dune, I could see the dribble of cars funnelling into the Deadvlei parking lot. While we sat there, unencumbered by humanity, that dribble of cars became a stream, and I remember being truly appreciative of our solitude, since it was genuinely not our plan to be so alone. It seems strange to me now that the whole experience of Sossusvlei has left such a lasting impression, as I remember very little of my first visit and the only difference between the two occasions is my time on earth.

 The Fish River Canyon from the Hobas viewpoint.

The Fish River Canyon from the Hobas viewpoint.

The second set of photos that inspired my brief moment of enlightenment were those from the Fish River Canyon. Unlike Sossusvlei, which never had much of a bearing on me as a youngster, I had a rather vivid recollection of the Fish River. I remembered it as a great gorge that fell away below your feet, and that peering over the precipice down into the river was pleasing to the eye. However, what I didn’t remember was the view being stellar. Ordinarily, my travels would never have taken me back to the Canyon; the only reason that I had chosen to return was for the sake of our travel companions. They had never visited Namibia, and every introductory wander around that remarkable country has to include the Fish River Canyon; there can be no escaping it. Yet, despite my indifference toward revisiting the region, I was astonished; the Canyon is so much more than I had remembered. It is the sheer scale that beggars belief. I can count on one hand the number of times that a scene has proved better in reality than I had imagined it to be, and the Fish River Canyon now shares the company of that very select group.

So, there are a few things that I take away from this whole enlightenment episode. First, never be too worldly to revisit something; times change and with it, one’s perspective. Second, try as far as possible to include in your travels locations that are not on the tourist route. Now, I’m not for one second suggesting that you become anti-establishment and avoid tourist areas altogether; just try to look beyond them. As with Sossusvlei, it is often the small things that one discovers off the beaten track – like a little bit of solitude – that take a good experience and turn it into a memorable one.