To Shoot Or Not To Shoot

30 06 2009

Kutima Mulilo mw 


If I had a dollar for every great photo I’ve missed because my camera was inaccessible, I’d be travelling the world right this moment instead of sitting at my computer! After a few too many ‘ones that got away’, I bought a small point-and-shoot camera. Sometimes, however, knowing what not to photograph is even more important than knowing what to capture!


Katima Mulilo is a town in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip: a panhandle of land in the country’s north-east corner that slices between Botswana, Zambia and Angola. We had stopped for supplies during the long drive from Etosha to Chobe National Park. While our truck went for gas, the rest of us headed for the supermarket. The shopping done, we stepped outside and sat on the curb in the shade with a cold bottle of Coke and watched every day life in this sleepy, dusty corner of Africa.


Within moments, the silence was split by shouts and roaring engines and a Casspir came tearing around the corner. It slammed to a halt in front of us and police armed with sjambok whips tumbled out and ran in every direction while more vehicles arrived. The Casspir is familiar to anyone who grew up watching news coverage of the Apartheid struggle in neighbouring South Africa. These high-wheeled high-sided armoured personnel carriers raced into Townships during demonstrations, firing teargas and high-powered water from cannons or dispersing police or army riot squads. It suddenly felt as though I was in one of those news reels.


The police ran down the side streets and into stores and businesses, knocking over stalls, dragging people out and throwing them in the Casspir or other trucks. Some fled, chased by the police as they thrashed the air with their long whips, others obediently surrendered. A police officer stood atop the armoured vehicle shouting into a radio and directing his men.


Amid all the pandemonium, we remained quietly sat on the curb. We didn’t know what was going on, but thought it best to sit still and not draw attention to ourselves. Instead of attempting to walk away or even stand up, we simply slid ourselves further against the wall in an effort to remain inanimate and invisible while all hell let loose.


On my belt was my small point-and-shoot camera. I could feel it burning into my side, screaming to be unleashed and record the turmoil surrounding us. While this may not quite have been Pulitzer stuff, it certainly beat sunsets and picnic tables. I told it to be quiet…while I attempted to dissolve into the shadows.


People continued to be pushed and dragged to the vehicles and thrown inside. Some of the detainees shouted instructions to others before they were hauled away. Army-booted feet thundered past just metres away. With great relief our truck returned and stopped on the opposite side of the road. An officer strode over and had a word with our driver before leaving again. Our driver gestured for us to quickly bring the shopping and start loading it into our truck, cautioning us not to get in the way. With everyone back on board, we left the mayhem behind and headed out of town.


Our driver explained that it was a police raid for illegal immigrants or anyone without ID papers. Not only did relatively-prosperous Namibia have a problem with illegal workers from neighbouring war-ravaged Angola, but at the time there was also a very odd Caprivi secessionist movement seeking independence for the 400 x 35 kilometre sliver of land and which had attacked remote police outposts and other infrastructure. The police weren’t interested in us, he added…unless one of us had tried taking photographs.


“That wouldn’t have been good at all” he added.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009


Travel Words of Wisdom: No. 13

8 05 2009


“Graffiti is still graffiti young man…now clean it off and go to your room!” (Bushman rock art, Namibia)



“We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.”


John Hope Franklin



Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2009

The Horror of Petrified Forests

23 03 2009


                          “Absolutely terrifying!”                          (Namibia)



There have been several occasions in my life when I was petrified. You know, when your blood literally runs cold, your throat dries to a sand-like texture, your stomach drops out of your knees and you just want to curl into the fetal position and melt into the ground. One came when face to face with a cape buffalo, another when caught between a mother mountain gorilla and her inquisitive infant…and a third when trapped at a women’s shoe sale. But the fear of one person is nothing compared to an entire Petrified Forest.


If I may be permitted to anthropomorphise for a bit, I would suspect that trees get very nervous during maple syrup season much the same way that most of us don’t enjoy giving blood. I would also guess they aren’t thrilled by the sight of hungry woodpeckers, lumberjacks or termites, but it must take something pretty serious to petrify an entire forest like one in northern Namibia.


In the wilds of south-west Africa, there’s a spot missed by many travellers more interested in the wildlife of Etosha or the rolling dunes of Sossusvlei. In fact, although declared a national monument in 1950, the Petrified Forest is easy to miss even if you know it’s there.


Although I had long heard of such phenomena, I’d never really given much thought to precisely what a petrified forest was…until I found myself in one. Somewhat disappointingly it was neither a forest in the traditional standing-up sense, or a collection of really scary trees from some twisted 17th century nursery rhyme written solely to torment small children. For those who don’t know, they’re trees that have turned to stone – and no gorgons were involved.


The ones in Namibia are estimated to be 250 million years old and were deposited in the area by a flood. From afar and to the uninitiated, they simply appear to be crumbling stone cylinders, but upon closer inspection they really do look like trees with rough bark, knots and age-rings. It’s impossible not to touch them and be surprised by the hardness of stone rather than the warmth of wood. A sign explained that the trees had sunk into a silica-rich soil that was completely devoid of oxygen and which had consequently prevented the wood from decaying. Instead, over the course of time tiny molecules of silica penetrated the wood, replaced its molecules and perfectly preserved the trees…as stone.


Sadly, much of the petrified wood has been pilfered by light-fingered locals and visitors, although what remains is still very impressive. Today, there are guides and parks officials patrolling the site ensuring that Namibia’s natural heritage of ancient fossils aren’t stolen and signs that warn of severe repercussions for anyone tempted to try. Penalties range from considerable fines to lengthy prison sentences – punishment that some would say is positively petrifying.



Photo and post by:     Simon Vaughan

Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 12

22 12 2008



                        “Okay guys, let’s fill her in.”   (Fish River Canyon, Namibia)


Never let your drinking problem interfere with your sightseeing.


Namibia’s Fish River Canyon is the second largest canyon in the world and reached only after a long drive through the southwest African country’s arid and sun-baked landscape. Apart from the odd quiver tree and occasional one-tumbleweed town, there’s not much to see…other than perhaps a solitary ostrich or antelope.


We had arrived in the late afternoon and gazed across the rugged fissure that wound before us as though the earth had just violently split apart in a mighty and meandering crack. Hundreds of metres below, we could see the canyon floor and watched as the lengthening shadows slowly swallowed the enormous crevasse.


We were the only ones on the isolated rim and sat in contemplative silence. There were no souvenir shops, no expensive lodges or restaurants perched on the edge, no paved roads and no barriers to compromise the sense of unspoiled wilderness. As the sun finally disappeared and took the canyon with it, there was also no electric light to interfere with a breathtaking vista of stars.


Even the most amateur of astronomers could easily identify planets and constellations. We stood in the darkness gazing awestruck at an incredible celestial display and watched intently for shooting stars and satellites. Being a city slicker, a great view of the heavens is rare and shooting stars are particularly coveted. That evening I stared skyward until my neck locked, desperate for a glimpse of a meteorite. As we headed back to the campsite over the bumpy and dusty dirt road, my vigilance didn’t wane for even an instant as I continued to survey the sky like a man demented. My eyes hurt from the effort and my throat grew parched from concentration. I reached down and grabbed my water bottle, carefully undoing the top without my eyes ever straying from their cosmic duty.  I hoisted the bottle to my mouth and took a generous swig of the warm liquid, the bottle obscuring my view for just an instant.


“Look,” someone shouted. “There’s one!!”


I dropped the bottle and followed the outstretched arm while my companions oohed and aahed but alas, the show was over and its star had already disappeared. While all around me excited exclamations of “magnificent”, “best ever”, “superb tail” and “fantastic” filled the air, I could only stare malevolently at my water bottle.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 37

25 11 2008

Never ignore a guinea fowl.


The Okaukuejo campsite in Namibia’s Etosha National Park is unique in that the visitors are fenced in and the wildlife runs free. Trenches, walls and high fences surround the campsite on all sides with benches and mini-grandstands lining the perimeter allowing campers to view the floodlit waterholes and arid wilderness beyond.


Late one afternoon we had strolled to the benches for a few hours of game-viewing at the neighbouring waterhole. There was no shade and we sheltered beneath the inadequate brims of our hats and jealously guarded our water bottles. A steady parade of zebras and giraffe, elephant and antelope sauntered to the hole for a quick drink before wandering back onto the sun-parched plains. After a short while, the parade petered out and apart from two turtles half-submerged in the murky green water and a few guinea fowl hastily trotting past in the background, there was nothing in sight.


Despite the unrelenting heat, we continued our stakeout. The turtles remained motionless while more guinea fowl raced past. Initially in ones and twos, the fat little flightless birds were now racing past in packs like water-balloons rolling down a slope. In little clusters they sped past on short legs, wobbling as they speed-waddled in a mass fowl exodus.


We watched the display with bemused smirks. We half expected to see a herd of marauding elephants suddenly materialise from the scrub, or even Wile E Coyote with acme anvil in hand. The feathery stampede provided excellent entertainment for ages…until the reason for their mass migration became apparent.


With a mighty gust, the hot wind suddenly roared and carried with it half of Etosha’s sand. The air boiled with the browns and ambers of the stinging grit and we soon found ourselves hunched against the mightiest of mighty dust storms. It was the sort of apocalypse that had besieged Lawrence and from which the Tasmanian Devil had emerged. We turned our backs to the onslaught, but the particles whipped around and blasted our faces. We pulled our mouths and noses deep inside the collars of our t-shirts, pushed our sunglasses closer to our eyes, pulled our hats down as low as possible and attempted our escape.


The suffocating dust had turned day to night and we groped our way back across the compound in what we assumed was the direction of our camp, tripping over tent pegs and rock-lined pathways with each step. Although confident we were headed in the right direction, we instead reached the perimeter on the far side and had to double-back. The dust was now choking and the wind stronger than ever. The sand bit at all exposed skin while we attempted to protect our eyes and breathe through the filter of our shirts. Eventually, like wayward desert nomads, we stumbled back to our camp and clambered into the kitchen block, quickly closing the door behind us.


The storm banged at the windows and sent a tide of sand slithering across the tiled floor. It continued for perhaps an hour as we remained entranced by the menacing blast that buffeted the windows.  Though my ears remained clogged by the sand, over the roar of the merciless elements I detected another sound…a rising and ebbing song…a taunting melody…a high-pitched warble…as though several hundred porkie little guinea fowl were mocking those of us who had earlier laughed at their migration.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Lessons Learned The Hard Way – No. 8

20 11 2008

“Okay now, everybody take a deep breath…then blow….”  (Sossussvlei, Namibia)

Some balloon flights are full of hot air.


We watched the enormous glowing beacon of colour take shape and slowly rise from the desert floor in the pre-dawn darkness. The balloon flight was to take us over the ancient Namib desert and the mighty Sossussvlei dunes that tower hundreds of metres into the arid sky.  We were to coast silently over the flowing sands and experience a new perspective of the dramatic landscape we had previously only explored on foot and by vehicle. Barring coastal fog, we might also see the Skeleton Coast and Atlantic Ocean beyond.


With the sun splintering along the horizon, we climbed into the enormous basket. The burner roared, the lines connecting us to terra firma were severed and we lifted into the still air. We soon reached our optimal altitude and, opening a flap in the canopy to release some of the hot air, we levelled off and sat silently well above the desert.


As far as our eyes could see stretched the ambers, ochres and tans of the Namib. There was little evidence of humanity beyond the few park service buildings, our campsite and a road or two all directly beneath us. Those apart, there was nothing but endless desert. The peaks of the mighty dunes we had struggled to climb the previous evening rose from the floor into a rolling tide of sand that seemed to threaten to engulf all in its path. I snapped a few shots and eagerly longed for us to drift directly over their majesty.


Alas, there was no drifting. In fact, there was no movement at all. The air was as perfectly still as the night had been a short while earlier. There wasn’t so much as a whisper of a breeze and consequently not so much as a sway of movement. The pilot leaned over the side of the basket as if to see if we were still anchored.


“Let’s climb and find a current” he said hopefully.  Donning his protective gloves he opened the burner, singeing our scalps and deafening us.  Up we rose in a perfectly vertical trajectory gaining not so much as an inch in any other direction.


“Not much wind today” he said unnecessarily as we all gazed at him desperately. “We’ll try descending.” With that, he opened one of the flaps and we slowly lost altitude, again perfectly vertically as if sliding down a pole.


The support vehicle that was to follow and collect us at the end of our flight was still parked directly below. The engine was turned off, the doors were open, the driver looked asleep.


The view was impressive, but gently rotating above a 4WD in a barren patch of sand when towering sand dunes were but a heavy-breath away was more than a little frustrating. Our cameras were by now idle. Once the basket had done its first 360-degree turn, there was not a lot left to capture. The sun was climbing higher in the sky and it was getting warmer and warmer. In the close confines of the basket the pilot attempted to avoid our glares.


Eventually, after the promised minimum flight time, we slid back down the pole to the ground beneath, significantly less exhilarated than any of us had anticipated.  We despondently stepped from the basket and strolled over to the luxury breakfast table that had been set up just to the side. The same breakfast table that should have been in the middle of nowhere, hidden amongst the dunes, accessible only by valiant 4WD and romantic balloon. Instead, we sat near the shade of a shower block and a few telegraph wires and watched the occasional vehicle drive past.


We cracked the champagne and half-heartedly cheered our pogo-flight while digging into our gourmet mini sausages and scrambled eggs.


“Hmmm”, the pilot muttered as the corner of his napkin fluttered, “…a breeze.”



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Photography 101 13/18

12 09 2008

 Confessions, musings and tips from a snap-happy wanderer.

A feet of photographic genius                           (Sossussvlei, Namibia)


All the greatest artists completed self-portraits.

We all like to have photographs of ourselves during our travels, but for those of us who often travel alone, we generally end up with only a couple of self-portraits taken at arm’s length and which distort your face and leave you with a bleached and flattened nose! If you don’t trust strangers with your camera and can’t be bothered to set yours up properly with a timer, with a bit of creativity you can still get good photos of yourself even when alone.  Try snapping a well-focused reflection of yourself in a mirror, shop window or a reflective surface. Photograph only your shadow or perhaps your feet against a unique or distinct background. Think outside the box…you may just like the view.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan