As may be apparent from the events surrounding the Octha Ferry debacle – read here for further details – my attitude towards travel planning is rather lax. Undoubtedly, my propensity for this sort of travel is an affliction more than anything else but having lived with the disease for some time now, I have come to recognise it as being of tremendous benefit. I would go as far as to say that travelling with the minimum amount of planning possible is now my actual travel ‘strategy’.
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The road between Aus and Lüderitz is extraordinary, and it has gained enormous notoriety as the result of it traversing a section of desert that is home to the Namib Wild Horses. However, the celebrity attached to the rather remote possibility of seeing a genuinely wild colt, does little to progress the region’s reputation as the seat of some of the most dramatic landscapes in Namibia.
Aus and Lüderitz both fall into the ǁKaras Region of the country, and the 125km stretch of tarmac that connects the two towns passes through the plains of the Koichab Depression. The depression itself has such a true horizon that it appears to give credence to the ideas of the Flat Earth Society. For photographers, this flatness provides a near perfect backdrop against which to capture images of the heavily mineralised peaks that break free of the yellow sands and forge their way skywards.
It is worth noting that the mountains of the Koichab Depression have a presence that deceives observers into seeing the lofty peaks as substantially closer to the road than they are. It is not the location for wide angle lenses instead you’ll need to carry your longest optic to capture the breathtaking views.
Moving west of the Koichab Depression towards Lüderitz, one begins to encounter the tail-end of the dune sea that comprises much of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. These dunes are part of the same family of dunes that famously surround Sossusvlei and yet their young age and shifting nature results in them having a yellow colouring instead of the iron-oxide-reds of their inland cousins. For most individuals whose travels take them north through Namibia, the dunes near Lüderitz represent their ‘first contact’ with the country’s famous sands. I can’t emphasise enough just how dramatic the dunes are in this area, and that they more than ‘hold their own’ against some of their more noted brethren.
A word of caution, however, Lüderitz and its surroundings are notorious for the wind, and when it blows the sand blows too. In fact, our visit was so battered by the breeze that it stripped paint from the chassis of our Land Rover and meant that we dare not take our cameras out of their bags for fear of terminal damage. It is imperative for anybody wanting to photograph these magnificent landscapes, that they set aside more than one day to do so, and in addition, that they make the most of the early morning. This approach is the only way to ensure that you get an opportunity to shoot without being subjected to an involuntary, wind-induced sloughing.
The last photographic stop on the road to Lüderitz is the ghost town of Kolmanskop. Typically, venues like Kolmanskop do not inspire me as they have been photographed by throngs of photographers from every angle. However, given that the town is world renowned and that it is a natural conclusion to any trip down Namibia’s B4, I feel that it is worth mentioning. In spite of my negative opinion of the vacated settlement, there is no arguing with the fact that Kolmanskop is a unique destination, a place where the Namib Desert has invaded the abandoned buildings of an old mining town. There is something inexplicably photogenic about a sand dune coming through the front door or making its way through an open window, and it is easy to see why the location attracts the crowds of photographers that it does.
The wind rather marred our time at Kolmanskop; we had not heeded my own advice. We only had one day to shoot this entire area, and by the time we reached the village, it certainly wasn’t early morning. Yet in addition to the wind and the excess of Kolmanskop photos that clog Google, there is a further aspect of our visit that I find even more troublesome. The custodians of the venue practice a greedy form of discrimination. They are well aware that all photographers with purpose want to shoot during the golden hours around sunrise and sunset. The operators have exploited this fact demanding that anyone wanting to shoot during the golden hours requires a special ‘photographers permit’. The catch is that the permit costs a whopping R250,00 per person or four times more than the ordinary permit which gives one access to the town between 9h00 and 11h00. It is shameful exploitation that does nothing for the conservation of the town, or for tourism.
Nevertheless, my objections to exploitation should not detract from anybody’s willingness to visit this majestic part of Namibia. If you do choose to make a stop in the area, I have two pieces of advice.
Firstly, allow yourself enough time. We did not scratch the surface of the photographic potential on offer, and the conditions were not conducive to the pursuit either. We did not allow ourselves the time to sit and wait for circumstances to improve, something that I believe is vital to returning from an expedition with Pulitzer Prize winning images. Had I had more time, I can say without question that I would have spent a greater amount of it in the Koichab Depression. Indeed there is a road on the map that loops north of the B4 cutting a crescent through the flatlands as well as the dunes and in retrospect, I regret not allocating the time to explore it.
Secondly, choose your accommodation carefully as we found ourselves in a tourist trap. We decided to stay at a Klein-Aus Vista, an entirely agreeable campsite just outside the town of Aus. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the facilities or the staff at Klein-Aus, except to say that the establishment lacks anything remarkable. It is a charmless spot that makes the most of its location and a slick website to attract guests.
When I return to Aus, I am going to make use of one of the numerous farms on the road to Helmeringhausen that advertise their accommodation by way of the more traditional ‘signboard by the road’. These places almost certainly do not have websites and are arguably not as well run as Klein-Aus but given half the chance; I would much rather experiment with a place – and be disappointed – than spend a night with other cautious tourists in the midst of ‘unexceptional’.
And this takes me back to my travel strategy. If one thing became apparent to me on this tour, it is that the best travel experiences – and the best photographs – emerge when one takes the time and has the courage to let the universe guide your next move. Ultimately, National Geographic photographers are neither walking up to a scene and getting ‘the shot’ in one day nor do they lack time to explore a location in search of that unique and compelling composition. I can say with certainty that following my fellow tourists around is not going to deliver the images that I am after.