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Namibia is the African country for beginners to Africa tourism. It is
mostly too dry for malaria. The spaces are wide open. The cities are
uncrowded and safe. The roads are good and you can drive yourself
from place to place rather than being shepherded.
Expect a lot of open space; Namibia is the size of Texas and Oklahoma
combined, yet home to only 2 million people. If you've been
photographing the crowded urbanized environments of Europe and the
American Northeast, Namibia will seem awesome. Folks from Arizona or
New Mexico will ask "Why did I sit on a plane for 25 hours?"
Namibia's unique attraction is the Namib Desert, perhaps the world's
oldest and home to some of the world's highest sand dunes.
Namibia has a handful of places to see the charismatic megafauna more
closely associated with Botswana and South Africa. Etosha National
Park in the north-central portion of the country is an easy place to
see big animals such as elephant, especially in the "very very dry
season" (April-October) when they congregate around waterholes (the
rest of the year in Namibia would be considered "very dry season" by
folks from most other parts of the planet).
Southern Namibia is home to the Fish River Canyon, Africa's deepest.
Non-photographers will appreciate the range of adventure sports that
are popular along the windy cold-water beaches. Namibia is popular
for windsurfing, snowboarding down sand dunes, riding dirt bikes and
four-wheelers, and skydiving.
When to Go
The best time of year is winter: April through October. The animals
congregate more at water holes during this season, but mostly you're
trying to avoid the brutal heat of summer.
Diamonds are formed deep in the Earth, where temperatures and
pressures are high. Many of these diamonds were shot towards the
surface by "Kimberlite Pipes"
in Kimberly, South Africa. Over millions of years, the Orange River
carried many these diamonds out into the sands of southern Namibia.
In the 1800s it was possible to walk out in the desert, look for
glints in the sand, and pick diamonds up off the ground (today you
need to go offshore a bit and dredge up some sand to filter).
What do you call a country with minimal population, an important port,
and lots of diamonds? An ideal colony! That's what Namibia was for
Germany until 1919 and then for South Africa until 1990. The core of
Namibia is not the place to see a vibrant native African culture. On
the plus side, the German influence means that a lot of folks here
learned how to run a clean hotel.
Compared to the more densely populated African countries, Namibians
are well educated (85 percent literacy) and wealthy ($7,600 GDP per
capita in purchasing power equivalent to an American). Religion is
not a source of conflict, with most of the population adhering to some
form of Christianity. It sounds great and it is if you are one of the
handful of guys who own a diamond mine. It is pretty good if you are
one of the 3 percent of the population working in a diamond mine. It
isn't good at all if you're among the 50 percent of the population
scratching out a living trying to grow crops or feed animals on some
of the world's driest land.
If you have more than two weeks, rent a car and drive everywhere. The
scenery from the highways is beautiful and the roads are always
reasonably good. Unless you enjoy being beaten up for hours on
washboard surfaces, splurge on a big heavy Toyota Land Cruiser. Many
of the larger vehicles will come with a rooftop pop-up tent, very
useful for sleeping under the stars or when a hotel is fully
booked and you don't want to drive 40 miles to the next one.
If you're tight on time, there are Cessna air taxis serving most of
the better hotels. You are picked up at the international airport in
Windhoek, get into a 4- or 6-seat Cessna, and arrive at your hotel one
hour later. When it is time to go to the next hotel, the Cessna
returns to pick you up and take you directly to the next sightseeing
spot. With two people, expect to pay $500-1000 per leg. Charter
flights become very practical for a group of 4-8 people.
If you have basic VFR skills, flying yourself around Namibia is a
reasonable option. Convert your U.S. license to a South African one,
rent a plane in South Africa, work your way through some bureaucracy
to get permission to enter Namibia, and enjoy severe clear weather
just about all day every day. Airstrips at lodges are usually more
than 3000' long and well maintained. Remember that the commercial air
taxi pilots often start with only 200 hours of experience; this is not
Alaskan bush flying where you dodge clouds and land on gravel bars.
Namibia has some of the world's loneliest terrain, so it is safest to
follow roads in the event that are you forced to land. Make sure that
you have a personal locator beacon and a satellite phone.
If you want to see or climb a big sand dune, Sossusvlei is the right
place. The dunes are mostly within a big national park, accessible by
a paved road, so all that you need to enjoy these are a rental car, a
tent or a credit card for a nearby hotel or lodge.
Wildlife is scarce in this region that was cleared for ranching, but
desert-adapted elephants can be seen depending on the season and
various kinds of antelope may be photographed, but prepare to work at
600mm or longer as they are shy.
Welwitschia, Namibia's national plant:
Namibia has some game parks and some animals. The recommendations for
long lenses and animal photography from photo.net's general safari tips will
therefore apply to a portion of your photography. For the scenery,
however, you will want to bring landscape photography gear:
quick-release plate system
highest quality camera body, regardless of weight
wide focal length lenses, starting at 14-16mm on a full-frame 35mm format camera
hood for each lens to maximize contrast in an environment with lots of bright reflections
Arranging a Trip
You can get a guidebook, rent a car, and poke around. The hotels can
be sparse and fully booked during the European summer vacation season;
a tent is an important backup option if you don't want to stick to a
rigidly planned schedule.
Painless and luxurious: contact James Weis at Eyes on Africa and let him book
the entire trip (what I did). He is an experienced wildlife
photographer and knows the lodges, the seasons, and the animals.