Purros, Namibia 2015
Manifestly, the desert elephants of North West Namibia are defined by their surrounding habitat. An image of one of these rare animals without contextual narrative risks telling only half the story – there must surely be a palpable sense of place. I almost always want my pictures to tell stories and this is perhaps a prerequisite in Namibia – a vast, but sparsely populated piece of Africa’s cultural and geological jigsaw.
The barren lunar landscape to the east of its fabled skeleton Coast makes for a visceral and halting contrast to verdant East Africa and offers an elemental and raw canvas on which to work. Amboseli at the end of the dry season has similarities, but in this part of Namibia, there is no real wet season and the dry canyons and desert sands are a year round feature. It is a truly spectacular wilderness that is perhaps without aesthetic equal in the world.
It is then a location made all the more remarkable by the presence of both the lion and the elephant that have adapted to the arid environment and have settled in the river beds of this formidable desert. Capturing transcending imagery of both these threatened species in Namibia has long been a goal not just of mine, but of just about every senior wildlife filmmaker with a passion for Africa. Many fail simply because of logistics and time. Namibia is not a destination for those with time pressures or the need for a constant porn feed of big wildlife moments.
The 20 or so elephants that can be found on the Huarosib River bed near Purros are unpredictable and can be dangerous if they feel invaded. They are not to be gambled with. This does not suit my preference for proximity and affection for wide angle lenses, but it is my firm conviction that there are always opportunities for overcoming basic safety issues – observe at first and then employ common sense afterwards.
The sun strength rises and falls quickly in North Namibia’s winter and peak light is really only between 7 and 8 am and between 4 and 5 pm. That leaves 90% of ones time in the location to deliberate upon how best to tell the story when the light indeed allows it to be told.
It was my instinct that to be true to the local topography, the image must convey the overwhelming alchemy of sand and rock that shapes the terrain. Furthermore, this is a land of canyons and hills, not a desert plain like Death Valley and if possible this should be portrayed.
Given that Namibia is characterised by endless miles of untouched wilderness, it seemed counter intuitive to compress distance – which is, of course, what a telephoto lens achieves. So we had to think smart and place remotes very quickly or approach the elephants on foot with extreme caution and immediate driver decoy support in case I was charged.
The most important asset when on assignment in the Huarosib Valley is a good and quick driver and, as my friends will testify, this clearly rules me out. After some false starts, I was fortunate to secure the services of Peter De Wet who owns the nearby elephant camp and knows the region intimately. The success that I eventually had in North West Namibia owes much to his verve and tolerance for my default position -which is to break rules. In the two aforementioned golden hours, there can be no pedantry or poor execution in getting from A to B as quickly and as safely as possible. We all had to be at our absolute best and think quickly.