The world knows me for my work on old cars or planes. What people don’t know about me is that I have a passionate love of Africa, its fauna and flora, its many different countries and cultures. This time, I am heading for the south of this fantastic continent. To Namibia.
After several hours’ flying, with two stopovers (Africa is worth it, and Namibia even more so), the Airbus A330 flew low over the Namibian savannah. No matter how well I know this country, it is always new and unbelievably surprising. That’s why I always ask for a window seat on the plane. Even before my foot touches the fertile soil of Southern Africa, the view is already magnificent…
Today as ever, as the plane makes its final approach, it is accompanied by herds of gnu and springbok running below through the tall grasses of the southern savannah, as summer comes to an end.
Welcome to Windhoek, the charming and peaceful capital of one of the most beautiful countries in the world: Namibia.
A warm farewell for our pleasant Dutch aircrew, one form to fill in, a smile in immigration and here we are with a chatty customs officer, ecstatic at the sight of a brand-new GH5, for good reason as it is not yet properly on the market!
The customs officer wonders if I’m a professional… I smile. Always the same thought process. Unless you have a lot of heavy, bulky equipment, you’re not a professional! I point out to him that I am indeed a professional photographer, rather than a professional equipment carrier. We have a laugh and we move away to collect my 4×4 camper van to set off on our adventure! I am talking about us because this time I am accompanied by Romain Sarret, film-maker and director, an expert in video using the GH range.
The roads around the capital are beautiful, blue sky and warm air, families of baboons watching the traffic from the shadow of the trees bordering the roads. But storm clouds are gathering in the distance. It’s that time of year. I know that once we leave the tarmac roads to set out along the bush tracks, a storm can transform the trip into a real test across this endless landscape, even though it may be a truly photogenic experience.
But that’s what Africa is like, always unpredictable.
That’s why I don’t have a fixed itinerary. I travel in Africa the way people live there: at the rhythm of Mother Nature. So for now I am heading north, towards Etosha, one of the most amazing national parks in the world. Nightfall has come already and we need to find a campsite urgently where we can stop the 4×4 and raise the tent roof. This rushed moment at the end of the afternoon will become a kind of ritual. It is actually inadvisable to drive at night in Africa, not because you risk attack by bandits (although in some countries nothing is impossible), but with dust and vegetation, it’s very difficult to detect animals before they are in your headlights. An accident at night could have dramatic consequences. But put 2 professional cameramen together in a car in the middle of Africa, and you can be sure they will run out of time at the end of the day! So every evening, at twilight, we will be looking for somewhere to sleep… Sometimes without success… That’s why we are fortunate to have a 4-wheel drive camper van!
But Namibia being what it is, we never have to worry about nasty surprises!
We are up and about long before the sun rises after our first night in the centre of Namibia. In the early morning, and as the sun goes down in the evening, that’s when the savannah is at its best!
So here we are, travelling along a rough track, looking for our next subjects to photograph. The first volunteers soon appear. Above the trees, the giraffes, gossips of the savannah, are anxiously looking to see who is encroaching on their territory. They stretch out their swaying necks curiously over the treetops.
As soon as you leave the main roads for the bush tracks, Namibia is transformed into a real Garden of Eden for animals. You can understand why it’s difficult to put away the camera when evening comes to return to the camp. Following animal tracks along the rough roads, intuitive signs of the largest land mammals on our small planet, the days are never long enough. And you’re overjoyed to find them at last. Hidden in the tall grass, curled up under a tree or stretched out in the sunshine… Elephants, rhinoceros, cheetahs, leopards… We have immortalised almost all of them. I say, almost all, because some of them will only sneak into the picture… Some of the cats are more timid than others. We’ll meet them next time. That’s one of the great things about animal photography! In the natural environment, not in the zoo.
Immortalised… This word takes on its full meaning today. So wonderful, handsome, majestic and necessary to the survival of our own species as they are, these animals are today threatened with extinction. That’s where my work as a photographer starts. That’s where everyone like me, who has a camera, also has a responsibility. The responsibility to immortalise. What a tremendous privilege we photographers have. To be able to take a picture, a testimony, and bring it back so that no-one can ever say, I did not know. So it’s with a very strange feeling that I love being back in Africa. A mixture of happiness, at seeing these animals at home there, alive and marvellously beautiful, and of sadness at thinking that it may be the last time, since nothing seem to stop the course of human folly. That’s what I try and record in my photos, happiness and sorrow. In the hope of touching some hearts.
Storms. We wanted to visit the Himba, a tribe of people in the north who still live as their ancestors did. They are a fascinating people, with ancient practices and rituals. But the storms… In human memory, Namibia has never seen anything like it…impossible to describe.
Etosha was considerable impractical, many of the northern roads were not at their best. So we decided to go back to Windhoek to move down further south. Towards the Atlantic coast, Walvis Bay and its colonies of pink flamingos, then the burning roads of the red Namib desert.
The further south we travelled, the higher the temperature. Exponential rise! The landscapes are arid, savannah changes to desert. Once at the Atlantic coast, the ocean atmosphere is refreshing. The temperature seems ideal for the thousands of pink flamingos that were waiting for us there. But it’s cool, and while my assistant seems to appreciate the climate, I am delighted to be able to grab a few moments with the wading birds. I am longing to encounter the challenge of the Dante-esque desert of the Namib for longer, however.
My wishes are fulfilled the next day. We start off in our 4×4 on the interminable dusty tracks across the sand leading to the very heart of Namibia. The landscape is now only arid rock and dust. The heat is stifling.
Never having encountered these road conditions we had no idea whether we would have enough fuel to reach the next service station, and it was out of the question to run the air-con. As long as we are running on 2 drive wheels, fuel consumption, while not very eco-friendly, is reasonable. But a storm and a road that suddenly turned to mud means we have to switch to 4×4 and our fuel consumption rises accordingly. It’s all a matter of anticipating these kinds of conditions.
We were right to expect an incredible storm. We had taken every risk to move faster than the storm, but to no avail. We were right not to use the air-conditioning.
After a hot and humid night, here we are at the foot of the red dunes. There are really no words to express how it feels to be here. The rising sun is an indescribable sight against the background of the stormy sky. Then the storm gains the upper hand.
The desert has the particular quality of silence. An anguished silence or an especially soothing quiet, depending on the state of one’s inner being. The desert can reveal more about you than any therapy can.
As a somewhat anti-social and solitary being, I find the silence reassuring. It cradles me and wraps me in a deliciously protected feeling.
I start to hear everything. A thread of sand, tumbling down the dune, a beetle, the distant rumbling of a gigantic storm… The acoustics of the deserts and dunes are amazing…. First one drop, then another, as it starts to rain… The rumbling of the storm echoes from dune to dune. As the drops fall on the fine sand, they make little craters, turning the red sand grains scarlet. It’s at times like this that we love photography. Today, I take some truly rare photographs of one of the driest deserts in the world, in the rain. It’s also at a time like this that we are fortunate in having a camera with the very latest technical innovations for tropicalisation. On the trek back to the car, a few kilometres away, tropicalisation saves my equipment and photos from the rain and a very unpleasant sand-laden wind.
It is always a wrench to leave such a paradise. But leaving is necessary, in order to have the joy of returning. Namibia is a jewel, a natural reserve the size of a country. It feels as though we’d only arrived yesterday when we board the Dutch plane to return home, and I realise that Namibia has bewitched me once more.
This visit was the first time I had worked on the animal life and landscape of Namibia with anything other than my reflex cameras. I have already adopted the M4/3 for journalism and for 90% of my work. I only had to try it out in this field. I am still wondering why I loaded myself up so much before, without being any more effective. Despite the several changes of plane needed to get there, it was no problem to board taking with me just my 2 GH5s, and the full range of excellent Leica lenses including above all the 100-400, which for the first time let me shoot animals at an equivalent of 800mm. Crazy! and all without tripods and with my hands free!! All this equipment, together with my computer, hard drives and everything we needed to start shooting, even the “just in case” bag which as usual travels along without ever being used. And never exceeding baggage limits, no getting annoyed with staff, or having to pay a surcharge or breaking sweat! The photos are technically very fine, and I hope you’ll find them artistically relevant as well. It goes without saying that I won’t bother to load myself up with the reflex cameras any more when going to Africa. I am soon off to Bénin, then South Africa, and I will go with Lumix only!