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Crazy Dead Trees | Dead Vlei Namibia

June 19th, 2009 2 comments

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If Salavador Dali had stumbled upon this place, he might have found fodder for another interpretation of his masterpiece “The Persistence of Memory”. Dead Vlei is a flat clay pan embraced on all sides by large red sand dunes. It is one of the landmark features of the Sossusvlei in the Namib-Naukluft park of southern Namibia. Many centuries ago, the Tsauchab river flooded this area, pushing deep into the dunes during a heavy rain year. The remaining water collected in the pan, and provided nourishment for numerous Camel Thorn trees. As the climate changed, and drought fell upon the area, the dunes moved in and isolated the pan from the river. The trees eventually died, and as a result of the extremely arid climate, have not yet fully decomposed. Instead they have assumed a rich, dark, and almost black patina resulting from the intense heat of the sun. The estimated age of these trees is almost 1000 years old.

A few remaining plants are able to eek out a living in this harsh climate. Small bushes grow on the surrounding dunes, creating a unique backdrop for this setting and challenging the mind to comprehend the juxtaposition of colors, textures and shapes. I could spend a week photographing all the nuances of this single place. It is truly one of the most unusual places I have ever visited.

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As this pan is completely surrounded by dunes, the early morning light takes a bit of time to reach the floor of the pan. All of the above shots were taken mid morning, after the sun had risen high in the sky. The perspective is what really makes this place unique, and although some of the trees are very small, others are quite big.

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Small tree or giant guy?

Often the only way to get a good composition is to lay down flat on the pan. Thankfully the pan is quite firm, and the dirt closely matched the color of my pants!

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The following morning, we got out early to visit Dead Vlei one more time to reach the pan before the sun had completely illuminated the trees.

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The folowing day, we boarded a small Cessna 210 for the 4 hour flight to the north. As we flew up the valley, we flew directly over the Dead Vlei. When viewed from the air, the scale of this place can be truly appreciated. Note the arrow which points to the end of the pan where all of these shots were taken.

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Dead Vlei from the air


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Sossusvlei Dunes | Namibia

June 16th, 2009 2 comments

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This is part one of a series that will outline a recent trip to Namibia in southwestern Africa. This trip was actually a honeymoon for me and my new wife, Raven, but this area of Africa is also one of the best photographic destinations on the planet. Namibia is about almost 3 times the size of Germany in land mass, yet only has about 2% of its’ population. With only 2 million people to share this huge area, Namibia is second only to Mongolia in being the most sparsely populated place on the planet. A welcomed change from the high density living in the San Francisco Bay Area! We started the trip with three nights in Sossusvlei, a clay pan in the middle of the infamous Namib-Naukluft national park – Home to the largest sand dunes in the world, which reach as high as 1000 feet above the clay pan. The central Namib desert is over 55 million years old, and is second in age to only the Atacama desert in Chile. The unique nature of this park is not only the size and scope of these dunes, but also the contrast in colors. The dunes in Sossusvlei are a brilliant red as a result of iron present in the sand, which has oxidized over time. It’s interesting to observe various dunes with different shades of orange and red, as these varying shades are an indication of the age of the dune. The more red the dune, the longer the iron has been oxidizing.

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Dune 48

Dune 48

A very interesting and as yet unexplained geographical feature of the Namib desert is the presence of numerous barren circles that litter the landscape. These features, known as “Fairy Circles,” are barren patches of earth where no vegetation grows. These circles gradually expand with the passing of time before they finally submit to the intrusion of grasses. Local beliefs suggest that these areas were formed as a result of gods, spirits, and/or natural divinities. See the image below which was taken from a small plane near Sesriem. They look like raindrops into still water.

Climbing on the dunes is quite a workout. The sheer size of the dunes presents a formidable challenge against gravity, and the silky smoothness of the sand makes each step feel like 1 step forward, and a 1/2 a step back. Dune 45 is the popular destination in the morning, and is best to visit early before all the vehicles show up with caffeine-fueled occupants looking to charge up the dunes. We arrived shortly after sunrise, and headed out with only 4 other people on the dune. After the first steep section, the gradient relaxes a bit, and the views of the surrounding valley really open up.

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As a photographer, you have to be careful with your gear in this place. The blowing sand can easily find its way into your gear bag and into your lenses resulting in a costly return trip to Canon for servicing. I had no problems on this trip, but the wind was not blowing as ferociously as it could be in this area, and I was very diligent to keep my gear off the ground which is where most of the sand is transported by the wind.

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As the summit approaches, the topography of the valley becomes more revealing with textures and rolling features that must be seen to be truly appreciated. This is especially true at sunrise where the low-angle light really helps to reveal all the nuances and character of the flowing dunes. 55 million years of massaging by the wind have created a landscape that seems more appropriate for another planet than for part of our world.

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The best part of reaching the summit has to be the mode by which you get back down – Running! The gradient of the dunes is so steep, that it is not uncommon to leap 20-30 feet with each bound. What might take 40 minutes to climb, is descended in a matter of seconds. All who take this path down the dunes can be heard yelling in bliss… it’s like returning to a time when we were 10 years old and invincible… if you make a mistake running down the sand, the only penalty is a bunch of sand down your pants, and a bruised ego from the humiliation of crashing in front of a bunch of people.

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Removing sand after a run down the dunes

Removing sand after a run down the dunes

Finally, a sunset illuminates the sky over Dune 48 as we crack a bottle of wine and cheers to another amazing African day…

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Tomorrow, we take a trip to Dead Vlei where ancient Camelthorn trees stand guard over a white clay pan in the midst of giant red dunes.

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