Storm In The Desert

Pre-dawn sunlight turns rare desert storm clouds orange over the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

The crackling of distant thunder woke me from a deep sleep at 4:30 in the morning. Instantly wide awake, I looked to the floor-to-ceiling windows to see flashes of light behind the thick drapes. I made my way out of the door of my bungalow to the balcony overlooking a wide expanse of the desert valley. Suddenly a lightning bolt ignited the night sky, silhouetting the 1000 foot dunes in the distance.

It was my last morning in the middle of the Namib Desert in western Namibia. I stood on the balcony in awe of mother nature’s light show. Lightning continued to split the sky as pregnant thunder clouds rolled across the endless dune fields. A dry cool wind was whipping across the desert floor, bringing respite from the African heat. All at once, the sky opened up and I stood in one of the most impressive downpours I’ve ever witnessed. This land receives only 10 mm of rain each year, and here was buckets of water drenching everything to the horizon.

Pre-dawn sunlight turns rare desert storm clouds orange over the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

Although I was now soaked, I found that I couldn’t bring myself to go inside. After twenty minutes of intense rain, it suddenly stopped. Ten minutes after that I was dry, thanks to the return of the desert’s typical aridity.

I gathered my gear and met up with my traveling companions, who I was planning to join to do an aerial shoot at sunrise. Obviously these plans were quickly scrapped, as none of us wanted to be tossed around in a small aircraft in the middle of a thunderstorm. Instead, we headed out into the desert where we got into position to capture this marvelous sunrise over the Naukluft Mountains. Clear sky to the far east allowed the sun to light up the underside of the storm clouds, painting the sky a deep red. A couple of gemsbok oryx crossing the desert floor in front of the mountains added the icing on top.

Rain falls from a storm cloud over the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

With rain still pouring from clouds in places, we chased the light through the dunes, hoping to capture this phenomena.

A rare rainfall turns the giant dunes of the Namib Desert wet, forming patterns across the dune’s massive face, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

Although there was not enough accumulation to create pools of water (I was hoping to find a reflection opportunity), the wet sand lent a very different look to the massive dunes. The water softened the edges of sand cut by the wind, diffusing the contours into abstract patterns.

A rare rainfall turns the giant dunes of the Namib Desert wet, forming patterns across the dune’s massive face, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

After about an hour of dramatic lighting, the skies cleared up into their usual blue. I felt so fortunate to witness such drama on my last morning in the desert.

2016 Round-up – Top 100 Photos Of The Year

In years past, I’ve curated a list of my best 40 photos of the past year. However, with trips in 2016 to India and Africa, I couldn’t whittle down the set to just 40. So here is the best 100 photos of 2016, many of which are previously unpublished. As always, there is a mixture of bird, wildlife and landscape, but this year includes much more wildlife than usual.

Please enjoy the gallery below. For best viewing (especially if viewing on a mobile device), please click on the following photo:

The endangered african wild dog has a hunting success rate of 80% due to its pack hunting and ability to chase large prey to exhaustion, reaching speeds of over 40 miles per hour for 5 – 10 minutes.

To view the gallery, click here to see individual photos.

If you are interested in compilations from previous years, please see the 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 lists.

Deadvlei – A Study In Graphic Forms

The clay pan of Deadvlei contains numerous camel thorn trees that have been dead for at least 600 years.

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.

600 years ago, a drought dried up the Tsauchab river, 1000 foot dunes encroached on the dried up marsh, and the river was blocked.

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.

The wood of the dead trees does not decompose because the area is so dry.

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.

Sun spotlights the side of a dune wall behind a desiccated tree.

The sun moved higher in the sky, spotlighting parts of the landscape through lazy clouds. I looked for new patterns that the light played out across the desert surface.

Tree husks reach out of the clay pan toward the morning sky.

As the desiccated trees moved from shadow to light, their dark forms contrasted against the bright ground and red sand, emphasizing the graphical nature of the scene.

Pulling a three-dimensional stand of trees into a flat plane can be challenging.

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.

The Etosha Pan

A camel-thorn acacia grows next to the Etosha Pan, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

The Etosha Pan is a large dry lake bed in Namibia, which due to heavy mineral deposits forms a dry salt pan. The name “Etosha” comes from an Ndonga word meaning “great white place”. While the pan rarely sees water, it is surrounded by savanna and sparse forest, teeming with wildlife. The pan is 75 miles long and just shy of 3,000 square miles. Here you can see the white expanse of the pan stretching into infinity.

A blue wildebeest wanders out alone onto the Etosha Pan, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

Occasionally the wildlife that lives at the edges of the lake bed wander out onto it to gather surface minerals, making up a portion of their diet. A blue wildebeest is dwarfed by the vastness of the pan.

The lake was fed by a large river about 16,000 years ago when glacial melt caused the formation of many such rivers. At some point tectonic plate movement changed the course of the river, and the pan dried up to its current state. The only time it sees a few centimeters of water is due to heavy rains, but this is a seldom occurrence.

Herds of plains zebra and springbok visit a waterhole for a morning drink, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

The area surrounding the pan is dotted with waterholes which support a wide variety of wildlife. This area is protected within the boundaries of Etosha National Park, which completely surrounds the pan. Although I only spent one full day here, that glimpse of wildlife photographic possibilities will surely draw me back.