Classic jewels and hidden gems. Grand-scale scenics and intimate, low-angle close-ups. Our newly-launched ‘Planet Namibia’ safari is about both extremes – and what lies between. Of course, it’s about photographing the sweeping and sinuous vistas of endless sand, and the big game of the thirstland pans as you’d expect from a trip like this, but it’s also about scratching the surface, and going that extra mile, to capture the hidden, offbeat wildlife that, just as photogenic, makes this leading African photo-destination so unique.
Take the amazing, specially-adapted little critters of the desert dunes. On this trip we’re as interested in photographing the unique behavior of the desert-dwelling micro-fauna as we are the world-renowned, sand-blown scenery in which it resides. So many photographic tours to the destination concentrate solely on the stunning dune landscapes; neglecting the secret world of wildlife, and its untapped photographic potential, right at their very feet.
Our aim with this trip is to have the best of both worlds – taking in the bigger picture, but wallowing in the finer detail too. It’s about getting to right into the heart of a wilderness so alien it could well be another planet altogether.
Some days, for example, we’ll be photographing the jaw-dropping scenery; our cameras trained on the towering dunes and shifting landscapes of the Namib, one of the world’s oldest deserts, other days we’ll focus right in on the smaller stuff; going out with a specialist guide we’ve worked with several times who has the inside track on the desert’s harder to find, but no less visually compelling, inhabitants.
Namibia’s iconic landscapes have long attracted photographers and perhaps little need introduction, but less well known is the desert’s potential as a wildlife safari destination: a secret world of weird and wonderful, arid-adapted creatures that have carved out an ecological niche in some of the earth’s most extreme environments.
It’s the stuff of Attenborough TV documentaries: the pop-eyed chameleon that regulates its temperature by changing colour and unfurls an unthinkably long tongue to catch its prey; the beetle that collects life-giving water by doing headstands on the top of a dune; the gecko that licks water condensed on its own eyes; the spider that weaves a silken burrow in the sand; the snake that has found a way to traverse the shifting sands of the dune slip face.
These are Namibia’s ‘Little Five’ and on our ‘Planet Namibia’ tour – scheduled for May 2019, but open for bookings now, we’ll be setting out to photograph them up close and at eye level on the sand. We’ll go out looking for them across a beautiful, seemingly barren dunescape etched with a myriad, mysterious little tracks. Finding the owners of these small footprints might be an impossible task were it not for our special, secret weapon – an experienced, expert guide who knows the dunes better than the back of his own hands. And once located, our subjects will generally be surprisingly relaxed in front of our camera as you’ll find out. Let’s meet some of them…
Sidewinder snake (Peringuey’s adder)
It’s characteristic side-winding movement allows it to keep most of its body off hot sand, to avoid overheating. These snakes leave a distinctive track in the sand, best photographed when the sun is low. The snakes move pretty fast, so a reasonably high shutter speed is required, and you need to fire off a good few shots to capture a decent shape. The sidewinder has eyes on the top of its flattened head, which allows it to burrow into the sand, leaving only the eyes and occasionally the tip of the tail, above ground.
These large, characterful ground-dwelling chameleons usually tolerate a close approach. A Namaqua chameleon’s eyes move independently, allowing it to see in both directions at the same time when hunting insects. When it spots prey both eyes fix on the target, allowing it to judge the distance to fire out its long tongue. You need quick reflexes and a high shutter rate to stand a good chance of capturing the tongue at full extension.
Palmato (web-footed) gecko
These ice-cream coloured geckos have huge, fixed lens eyes and no eyelids. To get moisture they famously allow fog to condense on their eyes and then lick off the water drops with their long tongues, which helps keep their eyes clean. To photograph these in the wild you really need the assistance of an expert guide who can track down their burrows in the sandy dunes, invisible to the untrained eye. They should be returned to the sand after a few minutes, before they overheat, so photographing in the relative cool of early morning is best. Spraying them with water keeps them cool and can stimulate the characteristic eye-licking response.
Several species of these tenebrionid beetles have a unique method of collecting water: by standing on their heads in the early morning and allowing the fog to condense on their back and run down to their mouths! This is so effective that a single beetle can drink up to 40 per cent of its own body weight in a morning. Once you find a beetle, it can be carefully picked up and placed on the lip of a dune, and sprayed with water to simulate the condensation of fog. If you’ve got a fog-basking beetle (and not some other type – here’s where the experts come in handy!), there’s a fair chance it will do a headstand.
Dancing white lady spider
One of the two species of dancing white lady spider endemic to the Namib, this cunning and ghostly white spider cleverly builds a silk-lined burrow in the sand that looks for all the world like a cleverly crafted, knitted purse. It then closes the burrow with a silken trap door forming a hidden flap in the sand. Because it’s nocturnal, you really do need a guide to find one of these amazing creatures. Unearthing the spider is also expert work – they have a nasty venomous bite – and they should be returned to the sand quickly and gently covered over. So you need to photograph quickly. The spider will sometimes raise its forelegs in a threat gesture (the ‘dancing’ part of its name).