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Shooting Africa; Award-winning wildlife photographer Andrew Parkinson spent six weeks in Namibia, one of the least touristy parts of the world.

Byline: Andrew Parkinson

This is why I hate flying,'' I remember thinking as the intercom crackled slowly into life. As the plane lurched one way and then the other we strained to hear as our pilot's pronounced Afrikaans-German accent mumbled something about a bumpy landing.

Thousands of feet below us a vast, almost lunar landscape of sand and rock stretched unbroken between horizons, its monotony intersected only occasionally by arrow-straight dirt tracks, strangely conspicuous as they fragmented the sprawling wilderness. As we began our descent, thermals rising rapidly from the desert and a strong northerly wind buffeted and shook the plane causing it to creak alarmingly, its engines surging and then idling as it struggled to compensate. Counting the minutes to landing I kept reminding myself that experiences such as these were an inevitable consequence of my desire to journey to less touristy parts of the world.

We were in the final turbulent approaches of our connecting flight from Johannesburg to Windhoek in Namibia, a country that lies on the south west coast of Africa. Five months earlier I had left my job as a photographer on The Western Mail to try to carve out a career as a wildlife photographer and this was my first overseas trip since doing so and it was made possible by Virgin Atlantic Airways, Fuji UK and Nikon UK. For many years I had wanted to travel to Africa and on this my first visit I was accompanied by my uncle, Richard Packwood, already a veteran of some 10-plus Africa trips cumulatively contributing to over five years of invaluable experience.

Rick is himself an already well-established semiprofessional wildlife photographer based in Mid Wales and someone I had previously travelled extensively with, to places such as Bolivia, Alaska and Brazil.

Our first stop was to be Mahango, a 250sq kilometre game reserve near the Angola/Botswana border and an arduous two-day drive from Windhoek. Logistically our only option was to hire a 4x4 vehicle, not only because of the amount of camera equipment and supplies that we would need, but also because of the road conditions. Incomparison with the vast majority of its African neighbours the Namibian road network is excellent and has tarred roads running the length of the country. However these tarred roads are few and far between and the majority of the places we wanted to visit often lay tens or even hundreds of kilometres off the beaten trackon routes that an ordinary car simply couldn't negoti Travelling to Mahango also meant that we would hav travel along 250 kilometres of the Angolan borde country which in recent years has been torn apart by c war and which has occasionally led to some cross-bo raids into northern Namibia. Although UN tra restrictions were lifted several years ago we still t advice from the Foreign Office which suggested cau and daytime travel only.

This advice was playing on my mind as approached the Angolan border just before dusk on first night.

Having driven all day through the intense Afri temperatures, we had failed to find any of the camps listed in our guidebook. With suitable optionsrunning out, the thought of just pulling off the road camp rough in an area as potentially unstable as was making me a little uneasy.

Our only other alternative was a camp and lodge called N'Kwazi which supposedly lay some kilometres off the main road on the banks of Kavango river overlooking Angola. Leaving the main road, and with the light failing, we began to weave our way through dense scrub thickets, the low ratio gears of our 4x4 clawing their way along the deeply rutted sand tracks making progress frustratingly slow. With the last light of the day quickly fading we finally arrived at N'Kwazi, a green oasis of manicured lawns and palm trees commanding spectacular views over the river to Angola.

I still had a certain unease about being so close to a country in the midst of civil war, a feeling that was compounded at breakfast the next day when two heavily armed Angolan government soldiers appeared patrolling the opposite river bank.

Leaving N'Kwazi behind we would rejoin the Kavango some 300 kilometres downstream where, as it meanders gently through Mahango, it provides home to two of Africa's most impressive, and potentially dangerous, animals, the crocodile and hippopotamus. As the north-east is the only area of Namibia where they can be found they were our major motivation for making the 1,000-kilometre journey.

Unfortunately, on realising the extent of the photographic possibilities we quickly wished we hadn't bothered. In recent years the park has suffered heavily from indiscriminate poaching taking not only a heavytoll on animal numbers but leaving the remainder with an understandably acute suspicion and wariness of humans. After two days of watching the rear ends of elephants, warthogs and various species of antelope disappear at speed into the bush we decided to cut our losses and head to Etosha.

Supporting some 114 mammal species and 340 bird species and with protective fences running its entire perimeter, Etosha provided a stark contrast to Mahango. The animals and birds, familiar with the comings and goings of thousands of people throughout the year seemed almost oblivious to our presence.

We had timed our visit to coincide with the end of the dry season, which is generally regarded as the most productive time in which to watch wildlife. With water supplies fast running out, and the smaller remote waterholes drying up altogether, the animals are forced to congregate near the few remaining larger waterholes, the majority of which have vehicular access.

The days in Etosha were to follow a pattern. With the camp gates opening at 6.20am we would usually arrive a speculative 20 minutes early as, depending on the gateman's mood, they might occasionally open earlier. With only a few precious hours of good light in the mornings and evenings it was essential that we gleaned as much from this time as possible. In the hours between 10am and 4pm the high position of the sun creates a light that is both too harsh and contrasting and with the formidable heat all the animals simply sit it out with whatever meagre shade they could find.

One of the most unique and magical aspects of life in Etosha is that when the sun has set and the camp gates are securely fastened, (everyone must be back in camp for sundown) the day's wildlife watching does not have to come to an end. All three camps have floodlit waterholes just outside the perimeter fences where the likes of elephants, rhinos, giraffe and zebra come to drink . . . and lion, leopard and hyena come to hunt.

After five days we left the relative luxury and security of Etosha with its shower blocks, flush toilets and protective fences. Our journey would now take us west through the vast and remote mountainous regions of Damaraland, Kaokoveld and on to Namibia s coast. On these desolate shores where the Namib Desert meets the Atlantic Ocean is to be found one of Africa's unique and pristine wilderness areas. Aptly named the Skeleton Coast, this treacherous stretch of coastline derived its macabre name from the bleached remains of countless ill-fated mariners who ran aground here only to perish among As Areias do Inferno (Portuguese for The Sands of Hell).

In dramatic contrast to the searing heat of a desert in which only a few creatures eke out a scant existence, the icy waters of the Atlantic, chilled by Antarctica's Benguela current teem with a rich marine life. Thriving on these abundant waters, Namibia's coast is home to some 200,000 Cape fur seals. Most of them were to be found at our next destination, Cape Cross. From here we again headed back inland and into the heart of the Namib. If the trip up until now had been geared toward wildlife photography then this detour into the oldest desert on earth was to provide us with an opportunity for some quite breathtaking landscape photography.

We were heading to the Dune Sea, to Sossusvlei, where the wind-sculpted dunes tower some 250 metres above the valley floor, their colours as dynamic as their ever-changing shapes. From ivory white to a deep red these shifting sands are the country's top attraction.

During the six weeks that we explored the length and breadth of Namibia we witnessed some truly spectacular sights and yet my single most evocative memory is not of something I saw butinstead something I heard occurred at around 4am Okaukeujo campsite, Eto We had spent many

hours photographing f tratingly sleepy lions but often the case they bec most active at ni Suddenly, from nowhe shattering roar filled th and reverberated thro the ground. Its sh power meant it wa adult male and it ha be close. I lay th half-paralysed with and fear.

Rick, amused by reaction, decided should investig Making our tentatively through darkness toward the flo waterhole we could just m out the crouched outline two adult male lions drink With just a three-foot high w between us we crept closer until we c see their bloodstained faces, the obv result of a successful hunt. Sensing presence they both suddenly stop drinking, looked up and stared imperio straight at us. At that moment only knowledge that they had just eaten s between me and the top of the nearest but after what seemed like an eternity eventually got up, turned ro and casually sauntered the night.

CAPTION(S):

CLOCKWISE: A steenbok, a lion yawns, a baby elephant follows its mother, and giraffe; CLOCKWISE: Quiver trees, a Cape ground squirrel and warthogs
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Title Annotation:Features
Comment:Shooting Africa; Award-winning wildlife photographer Andrew Parkinson spent six weeks in Namibia, one of the least touristy parts of the world.(Features)
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:6NAMI
Date:Aug 3, 2002
Words:1610
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