One of the species I was hoping to see in Africa this spring was the pale chanting goshawk. I got lucky in that I not only saw a few of them, but was also rewarded with a beautiful sighting of a dark chanting goshawk as well.
The chanting goshawks get their name due to their tune-like “whistling” calls primarily during breeding season. At this time the males are rather vocal, and their calls resemble a kind of chant.
Dark chanting goshawks prefer a habitat of open woodlands, while the pale species frequent open grasslands and more arid climates. Dark chanting goshawks have a sub-Saharan range, but are replaced by pale chanting goshawks in the south. Parts of Namibia fall in both species distributions, where you can see both in a single day.
Each pale chanting goshawk I saw was perched rather high up, either near the top of a tree of in one case a power pole. However, I lucked out with the dark chanting goshawk because it was perched on a low bush, putting it directly at lens height.
I was very lucky to see and photograph both Asian and African wild elephants in a single year. My Asian elephant experience was in the thick forests of northern Tamil Nadu, India, while I got to get up close and personal with the larger African cousins on the plains of Etosha National Park in Namibia.
And these guys were certainly huge! They are physically larger than Asian elephants, with larger ears and tusks. I saw a few drinking and having a mud bath next to a waterhole.
This elephant would suck up large amounts of mud and water with its trunk and alternate flinging it up and over its head, and blasting its underside. The grayish white on the elephant’s skin is mud dried by the hot midday sun.
At one point we were watching a large adult snacking on some leaves of a low bush. After finishing its meal, it starting wandering in our direction, getting closer and closer. The beast soon filled my camera frame at 70mm, and yet it came closer still, making me nervous. My mind’s eye was playing out a scenario which involved this guy getting upset and flipping our van. Luckily, our driver was prepared and when the elephant got within 20 feet, he threw the van into gear and got out of there.
It was a joy to just sit and watch these mammoth creatures. Similar to watching primates, you can see the intelligence and intention in their movements. Their amazing multipurpose trunks that they use to grab, smell, drink, touch, carry, and sometimes break is endless enjoyment to see.
Welcome to Deadvlei, one of those mystical places on earth that simply takes your breath away. There are a few places in the world that have spoken to me this way – whether it’s 5,000 year old Bristlecone Pines clinging to life on a windswept mountain slope, or morning sea fog rolling through a quiet stand of old growth California coastal redwoods (why do these special places always seem to involve trees?). Deadvlei is certainly one of those places.
Deadvlei is a dry and dusty river bed, located in the heart of Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia. Deadvlei translates to “dead marsh”, taking the Afrikaans word vlei, meaning a seasonal pond or marsh. This area once lined the banks of the Tsauchab river, flooding at times of abundant rainfall. Around 600 to 700 years ago, a great drought hit the region, drying up the river. Blowing sand encroached upon the flood plain, blocking the river’s path and forming the massive dunes that cover the land today. The camel thorn trees that grew in this marsh died, but due to the extremely dry climate, none of the wood decomposed, leaving skeletal husks still standing for hundreds of years. Centuries spent in the hot African sun have scorched the remains into blackened ghosts.
In order to do an on-sight scout and be ready for the light, I arrived before dawn. This involved rising about 4 AM, hopping in a hired safari vehicle (with giant tires) and taking the 45 minute ride among the largest dunes in the world. The asphalt road soon turned to dirt, which turned to sand. Low tire pressure, 4-wheel drive, and high clearance are all musts in this area – no sedans allowed.
From the drop off, it was a 15 minute hike into the dunes before I topped a rise and saw Deadvlei down below me, surrounded on three sides by immense walls of blood red sand. The tallest point is south east of the clay pan, nicknamed Big Daddy. Standing over 1,000 feet tall, it towers above everything else in the area.
I did a quick scan from my vantage point before descending to a stand of trees. I set up a composition, and waited for the light.
Based on my trip research, I knew much of my shooting at this location would be a study of form and separation. Before I set up for any particular shot, I spent a lot of time looking for the right composition. I needed to avoid unnecessary converging lines, and try to separately my subjects from each other. I would walk around clusters of trees, trying to discern how I would render three dimensions onto a flat, two-dimensional plane.
I imagined the trees in silhouette, reduced to graphical elements of lines and shapes. I moved forward and backward, up and down, trying to find the angles that would convey the subjects in a compositionally elegant manner.
This is a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. As I was standing in that dusty, dry, ancient river bed, I could hardly believe I was there. I was half a world away from home, and my surroundings could not have been more alien. I truly relish these experiences. Being able to capture an area photographically and share it with others is rewarding, but there is nothing that could replace being there in person.