Landscape photographers and travellers all over the world have probably seen an image taken from Deadvlei. Most without knowing where on earth it is. Well, it’s in Namibia. Stuck 60km from the closest campsite or lodge, down a road going into the desert . It’s so much of an iconic site people come from all over the world just to visit it and Sossusvlei.
But, if you are a photographer, you know the best light is at sunrise and sunset. The ‘Golden Hour’. When the sun is at an angle in the sky so that its light creates golden, orange light and long shadows.
Now, the first timing issue is that the park to Deadvlei opens at sunrise and closes at sunset. The gate is 60km from the site and the road has a 60 km/h speed limit. Hmm, my maths says that is an hour drive. That doesn’t include the 1.5km uphill sand climb by foot. And you have to do that to get into the Pan from the 4×4 carpark. So, let’s say that’s 1hr and 20 minutes, which is past the golden hour and therefore not workable.
Getting to Deadvlei: Let’s cut some corners
So, how can we get around this dilemma? Firstly, there are a number of places to stay just inside the camp gates. We chose the campsite which was more to our budget as the lodges closest to Deadvlei are extremely expensive because of their prime location. However, there is a second issue, Gate Number 2! If it wasn’t bad enough that the park gates open at sunrise. They went and added a second gate for those staying inside the park. This opens 1 hour before sunrise (for lodges and campsite), and it’s only 1km from the main gate. Bummer.
I set my alarm based on a ‘recce’ I did the previous day when I climbed up to Deadvlei.
I got into our tent and went to sleep. Next thing I was being awakened by engines starting and people talking. I had set my alarm for the wrong time. Fail! Get Up Quick! Pack the tent! Get in the Van! Only to find a queue of 30 plus vehicles lined up like a race start line, we reached gate number 2. The guard at the gate opened it at 6am, I’ve already lost 2 minutes as sunrise is at 6:58am.
Now I’ve got thirty Deadvlei ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ drivers in front of me, this is not happening! After about 3 minutes of the usual start, stop, concertina, bumper to bumper driving, I shouted out loud, “Ok, I’ve had enough of this” (Or a derivative thereof 😲). I indicated right, I changed down a gear, put my foot down and started on the worlds longest overtaking procedure. Needless to say, after a while I no longer saw any red lights in front of me.
Where on earth am I going!
After 60 km there is a car park for those who have 2 wheel drive cars. Then another 4km off-road sand driving gets you to the 4×4 car park. Now, it’s still kind of dark. I checked my watch and it was 6:30. I can still get to Deadvlei on time I thought. Then, just when you think all is well, there are 20 wheel tracks in the sand. They are all going in different directions, which one do you take? It turns out that all roads might lead to Rome, but all sand tracks do lead to the 4×4 car park.
Running to Deadvlei
Great, park the car, get my backpack on (with too much gear) and then something from my Army days said, right, start running. That lasted about 50 metres. As anyone will tell you, running uphill in sand with a backpack on is not something you can keep up for a long time. I changed to a fast walking pace, because I’m in my late forties!
Having walked this the previous day, I knew there were no signposts and only some tracks after you get at least 800 metres up the dunes. I just kept faith in my memory of the direction and kept going. In my rush, I had forgotten to put my jacket on. In the desert at night, or until the sun comes up, its quite cold, in fact it’s freezing. As I was exercising, I didn’t realise how cold it was until I reached the pan, alone at 6:58, right on time! I thought…
Well, it is good to be punctual!
It turns out that sunrise was at 6:58 and I could see the sky starting to light up as I chose the tree I had picked the previous day. However, Deadvlei is surrounded by dunes, one of them aptly named, Big Daddy. It stands 350m high. The sun has to come up quite a bit before it starts to light up the opposite dunes. It was now 7:20am, I am still here alone, where is everyone else? The sun is reaching the point where I wanted it to be to take my image. The first two other photographers came over the dune into the pan, one forgot his camera batteries, what a nightmare! I’d claimed my spot, don’t even think of coming into my line of sight. I think that’s the look I now had permanently on my face.
I got the image I wanted, timing? The shot took 1/3 of a second. I packed up my gear and started downhill back to the van, still absolutely freezing cold.
Then the masses came, passing me as I was on the way down, a hoard of tourists and photographers on their way to Deadvlei.
On their way up they looked at me as if to say
“How can he be coming back down?”.
Well, people, it’s all about timing, I said to myself.