Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Exploring the diamond towns of Kolmanskop and Elizabeth Bay

Namibia is famous for the production of diamonds along its extensive coastline.  Silt (and diamonds) have been washed down the Orange river from Witwatersrand into the ocean at the mouth of the Orange river  for millions of years.  The Benguela current which flows northwards,  takes the silt up the coast, depositing diamonds all along the Namib coast.  The sand is blown inland forming the massive dunes that Namibia is so famous for.
The first diamonds were discovered near Luderitz in 1908 and, once mining became a reality, two mining towns sprang up in the desolate sands about ten kilometres east of Luderitz; One at Kolmanskop and a second at Elizabeth Bay, 15 kilometres south down on the coast.  Mining ceased at both sites in the 30s - although since new extraction techniques have been developed, it mining has started again at Elizabeth Bay.
Today Kolmanskop is a ghost town.  Part of the sizeable township has actually been restored - the casino, gymnasium and a few other buildings - but the rest of the community consisting of dozens of houses is slowly being swallowed up by the continuously driving sand.  It's a great place for photographers, especially if you are into HDR shooting - some of the houses are now too dangerous to get into - while others are relatively well preserved because the climate is so dry.

Kolmanskop is easy to get to a few hundred metres off of the main Aus to Luderitz highway.  But because Elizabeth Bay is now back in an active mining area you must hire a guide who has the concession to take visitors to the ghost town - the process of getting through security takes 20 or 30 mins, including a breathalyser test.  The houses in Elizabeth Bay were fashioned out of sand and cement - and not very well - so now the wind is actively sand-blasting the bricks and mortar out of existence.  Many of the buildings have collapsed - although we did get into the casino to shoot a few frames.  Kolmanskop is in better shape and proved to be a lot more colourful.

Part of the original casino at Elizabeth Bay

Part of the original casino at Elizabeth Bay
A timber house overlooking the South Atlantic ocean at Elizabeth Bay
A couple of the renovated buildings at Kolmanskop with abandoned houses off in the distance
A low angles gives you a good idea of the harshness of the environment.
Airborne sand acts like a powerful sand-blaster

Kolmanskop interior detail

Kolmanskop interior detail

One of the larger houses at Kolmanskop - probably a manager's house displaying strong German architectural influences

Fairy CIrcles in the Namibian desert

It’s not a phenomena you’d expect to encounter in the wilds of Namibia but fairy circles, perfectly circular bare patches in the grassland, have been appearing in certain geophysical places throughout the Namib Naukluft park for years. Some attribute these highly visible bare earth circles to Martians. Others call them Bushmen golf courses. However these odd-looking circles of bare earth are really created by harvester termites nesting underneath the site. The termites create a nest at a shallow depth underneath the surface where they store their food – grasses and other vegetable matter. This is broken down using bacteria that develop from the moisture seeping into the colony. The bacteria, or perhaps the fermentation itself, changes the chemical make up in the nest and this filters into the soil, inhibiting the development of grasses growing on the surface. Hence the curious bald patches that develop on the surface. These can be from about a metre wide up to eight metres. 

Animal photography: Sometimes you just can't get it right...

There are times when the inability of a camera to handle extreme lighting becomes painfully obvious.
I was having dinner on the terrace of Sossus Dune Lodge, the only resort inside the Namib Naukluft park at Sesriem (Sossusvlei) one evening when someone spotted a black-backed jackal sloping though the half light towards the resort.
He ran up to the terrace and sat about ten feet away staring up at the figures tucking into a kudu steak in the restaurant eight foot above him. As the ground below was unlit and rocky, even spotting this critter in the gloom was difficult. Eventually I could make out a pair of ears poking out of the gloom.
Recording this seemingly semi-tame jackal was another matter – even at 12,800 ISO there wasn’t enough light to see the animal other than it’s ears which were catching light off of the terrace (I wasn't going to use flash on a nocturnal animal because, at close range, this might damage its night vision permanently).
Digital cameras simply cannot record extreme contrast like this so the resulting image was hilariously bad – a pair of ears floating in darkness.  I tried adjusting the shadows – with some success, but even so, without the right light, it remains a disaster! 

The Wild Horses of Aus...

Drive through the town of Aus in southern Namibia and you’ll see a sign for ‘wild horses’ a few kilometres along the road in the direction of Luderitz.   A few hundred metres down a rocky track you’ll find a waterhole and, if lucky groups of wild horses feeding and sheltering in the small viewing hide put there by the government.  There are around 400 of these beautiful creatures roaming the park - on our first visit we saw about 50 but on the second, only around 20, and these were mooching several hundred metres off.  How they got there is open to some guesswork but the most plausible theory is that they were left there sometime in 1914 or 1915 by the retreating  Schutztruppe (army)s when the South Africans overthrew the Germans in what was then South West Africa.  Whatever the reason, they make a welcome diversion on the sandy drive down to the coastal town of Luderitz.

Interestingly Aus was also the place where some 1,500 German soldiers were imprisoned after hostilities stopped in July 1915.  It was an inhospitable location, being very hot in summer and very cold in winter.  Influenza, climate and disease killed more than 120 men - from both sides.  The Germans built mud brick houses to protect themselves from the elements, the foundations of which are still vaguely visible.  The camp was finally dismantled in 1919.

One horse scrapes rocks out of the wallow before the other one had a  roll in the muddy water (below)

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Roadhouse Roadsters

The Canon Roadhouse has an amazing collection of car parts, signs, old tools and even restored vehicles sitting around the property.
Impressive succulent planter in the shape of an old Ford saloon car...
During our trip through Namibia, we stayed in an extraordinary hotel/motel 20 mins drive from Fish River Canyon called the Canon Roadhouse (that's not a typo).  The owners are obviously car nuts - they have collected vehicles from all over and have planted them in the grounds and even in the buildings.  When you check in the receptionist is serving you from the tray of a flatbed truck. The dining room is dominated by a fully renovated 1930s ambulance - and there's a scarlet Morris Minor parked int he bar area. In fact the whole motel is a motor museum - every wall is plastered with number plates, garage signs, mechanic's posters and souvenirs scrounged from workshops, offices and garages all over the country, and even the world.  Some of the less salvagable motors have been used as planters for succulents while others serve as containers for quiver trees. It's a most interesting combination of historical artifacts and landscape design ingenuity. And the food is also great.  Here are some HDR shots of the cars 'planted' in the gardens and the house...

Lost in the succulents.
The Canon Roadhouse is an oasis of weird cars and succulents surrounded by some of the most arid desert scenery in Namibia
100-year-old quiver tree growing out of an old truck chassis
Sunrise over the petrol pumps at the Canon Roadhouse. 
(Seven-frame HDR image).
Water drilling rig that has seen better days...
Even dining is fun at the Canon Roadhouse as most of the tables are pushed up against one or other parked car!
Morris Minor parked in the bar area...
This is the reason for staying at the Canon Roadhouse: Fish River Canyon

Wildlife and Wilderness in South Africa and Namibia with Academy travel

Here are a few selected shots taken from our first slide night - held last night at the Nest Hotel in windy Luderitz in Southern Namibia.  Some great shots from our trip so far.

Group on the rim of the Fish River Canyon, the second largest canyon in the world.
From left: Richard, Mary, Pat, Juliet, Antonia, Winnie and our wonderful driver, Elvis!

The penguins were a great hit, as were the quiver trees, rock formations at the Devil's Playground - but we all also loved the Roadhouse at Fish River Canyon.   The owners are mad keen car collectors and have decorated their property with old vehicles, some in great condition, some not so great - in fact the check in desk is made from a converted flat bed truck (see next post...).

African penguins at Boulders in Simonstown, Cape Town
Pic By Mary Barnes
Cape fur seal, Hout Bay, Cape Town
Pic By Mary Barnes
Penguin in need of a caption.
Pic By Mary Barnes
Thunderstorm, quiver tree forest, Keetsmanshoop.
Pic By Mary Barnes
Devils Playgound, Keetmanshoop sunset.
Pic By Mary Barnes
Groot Constantia winery in the rain.
Pic by Antonia Begbie
Well worth heeding the danger baboons signs in the Cape
Pic by Antonia Begbie
Pinwheel protea, Kirstenbioosch gardens, Cape Town
Pic by Antonia Begbie
Unique view of an African penguin.
Pic by Antonia Begbie
Mosque in Bo Kaap, Cape Town.
Pic by Antonia Begbie
Musicians quayside, Haut Bay, Cape Town
Pic by Richard Muhs
Baboon surveying the car park for food.
Pic by Richard Muhs
Excellent view of a typical fynbos landscape, Kagga kamma, Western Cape
Pic by Richard Muhs
Rescue cheetah at the Devils Playgound, Keetmanshoop
Pic by Richard Muhs
Fabulous original manor house interior at Boschendal estate, Stellenbosch, Cape Town
Pic by Winnie Larsen
Hout Bay in the mist.
Pic by Winnie Larsen
Bad penguin!
Pic by Winnie Larsen
Rescued cheetah at the quiver tree reserve, Keetmanshoop.
Pic by Winnie Larsen