Photos taken during a single shoot at the sand dunes of Mesquite Flats, in Death Valley National Park shortly after dawn.
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Photos taken during a single shoot at the sand dunes of Mesquite Flats, in Death Valley National Park shortly after dawn.
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The Sahara Desert is a spectacular place. I’ve commented elsewhere (and repeatedly) just how much I love deserts, and how much I love wild places. I won’t go into that again, but that goes a long way to explaining just how special the Sahara is.
I’ve got a number of memories from the Sahara. It is, of course, a vast terrain. The largest tropical desert in the world (Antarctica, a cold desert, being the largest, and a place I have yet to visit), in fact only a small portion of it is covered in the sand-dunes which we so frequently associate with it. Most of it is bare gravel plains- on the one hand a barren, dull and numbing landscape, but somehow too all the more brutish and hostile- and therefore exciting- for it.
The boundary between Sahara and Sahel (that vast biome larger still than the desert, a semi-arid savannah landscape of mixed brush, grassland and thin forest that stretches into Africa south of the Sahara proper) is a blurred one, so it’s sometimes hard to know where Sahel ends and the Sahara begins. I think of rutted sandy tracks through the mixed woodland of south Darfur, of gravelly volcanic plains spotted with tufts of sun-bleached grasses in Kenya’s Turkana district, and of the single roadway snaking west to east across the empty expanse that is southern Niger, lifeless dusty plains mixed with scrawny millet fields and ephemeral stream-beds lined with trees that grow verdant with brief, sporadic rains.
The Sahara itself is more obvious. I recall watching the sandy ridgeline on the horizon that seemed to follow us for hours on the road northwards to Gao, in eastern Mali. The dunes that rose on the north bank of the Niger River as we drifted slowly by on a wooden canoe for several days. The white dune sea that covers the land north of Tomboctou’s outskirts beneath a sky equally white with heat-haze. Vast gravel plains pocked by violent, distorted outcrops of rock in central Mauritania, bulging in a lens of shimmering hot air.
But it was my first experience of the Saharan dunes that really took my breath away. Four-wheel driving north of Agadez, an area now off-limits to tourism due to the threat of rebel activity and landmines, we drove first to Iferouane, where we spent a night or two, and then onwards up sandy wadis as the landscape grew more and more devoid of the signs of human existence. Rocky outcrops, the edges of the Air Mountains, stuck up from plains of dust like broken towers. The sky was crystaline blue and the air clear and sharp, dust blowing in our wake. We saw camels and thorn bushes, the only signs of life.
In the late afternoon we reached the dunes. Stopping the vehicles, we piled out onto the golden sand, leaving our sandals within paces of the car doors. Like children at the beach we raced each other up the dunes. I remember sand between my toes, hot on the surface and cooler beneath. I remember a sense of awe at the sight of the sea of dunes that spanned out before us, walled on one side by the spectacular ferocity of the mountains. In the low afternoon sunlight the faces of the dunes were turning a golden yellow colour. Their ridges were traced in dark contrast, the beautiful contours of windswept shadow.
I took photos. Ad nauseum. I hadn’t yet- and haven’t again- been to a landscape so intense in wild beauty, so photogenic, and so unspoilt. Within hours of our departure the next day, wind would have erased all trace of our footprints and tyre tracks, and the grumble of our diesel engines would be replaced by the murmuring of a warm, restless desert wind.
The dunes at Tizirzak were my baptism into the Sahara desert, the fulfillment of all my Lawrencian hopes and expectations (T.E., not D.H.). Few times have landscapes exceeded the vision I had for them in my mind’s eye, and indeed the beauty of the Sahara itself can be an elusive one- many days of emptiness for a few short hours of revealing beauty. Without a doubt, however, the beauty carried in the great sand dunes of the Sahara is the match of almost any scenery on earth. I continue my plotting to return to that corner of the world once more and soak in the wild beauty of that harsh, arid yet ever enticing desert.
I visited Death Valley on a whim, as it were. On the way back from a trip to Haiti and Central America, I had a layover in LA which I turned into a 5-day break. I hired a car and just started driving. Mojave Desert, Death Valley, Mono Lake, Yosemite National Park, and eventually Fresno and Santa Barbara all made it onto the loop before returning to LA to hang out with friends for a day before my flight back to Australia.
I have always loved deserts. Most of my favourite photographs involve deserts. Visually, dunes are hugely appealing in late and early light. Spiritually, however, deserts are far more formidable. Vast expanses of empty, barren terrain that speak of terrible secrets and great desolation, but somehow have a draw that calls to the adventurer and gives room for the soul to wander.
I drove through Death Valley coming from the south, in the middle of May, with the windows down and the aircon off. Spending several hours stopping along the way and taking photographs (surprise surprise), I eventually found myself at Furnace Creek just before sunset. I had drunk nearly a gallon of water but could still feel my head throbbing between pulsating veins in my temples, and could not stop sweating. I felt faint. I tried to get a room, but at that late notice everything was booked up. I was marginally heatstruck and unable to cool down, no matter what I drank. I ended up sleeping on a park bench in the nearby campground, frightened that snakes might slip into my sleeping bag, and my body didn’t really cool down until some time in the early hours of the morning.
This image from Furnace Creek I snapped in the late afternoon. It typifies the vibrantly coloured rock formations that feature along the eastern rim of the valley, but also captures something of the heat, desolation and death that the landscape harks to. Having been there, with all the water I needed and a vehicle to speed me through, and still taking a physical side-swipe from the natural ferocity of the place, was humbling. This image will always remind me of the giddy, nauseous sensation that I felt throughout that evening, courtesy of not taking the desert seriously enough as I passed through.
The second post in a series I initially wrote while living and working in the West African nation of Niger in 2005/6.
Christmas in the Sahara
Niamey just before Christmas was, in its own way, not very Christmassy. It is very hard to get excited about trees draped with shiny plastic and fat men in red suits when perched on the edge of the biggest sandpit in the world (though then again the Aussies seem to manage it okay I suppose…) And yet it did have its own charm. The fairy lights strung up on the Total gas station glowed Bonne Annee 2006 in mishapen curves, and in the smokey, dust-filled air, car headlights and streetlamps cast an ethereal glow, like a cold winter’s fog in south-east England. If you stand still and concentrate hard, it almost feels atmospheric, and for a brief moment, you get a little nostalgic. Then you realise that it’s getting hard to breath, and it’s still 30 degrees at 8pm, and the muzzazin starts yelling his call to prayer down a nearby microphone, and Christmas flees.
We went to Agadez, because really there was nothing else to do over Christmas in Niger.
Life is complicated. Tax returns, the InterWeb, the expectation of immediacy, and the ever-encroaching pace of modernity into the space of what little free time we still have to ourselves. At these times, I long to be back in the desert. Here, life is simple. Survive, and revel in the sheer magnitude of a vast, silent creation that is Wilderness.
Photo: Sand dune in the southern Sahara Desert near Tizirzak, in Northern Niger, not far from the Algerian border.
A few more images capturing a snapshot of some of the journeys I’ve been privileged enough to take over the last couple of years…
Gilded sand lies in soft swathes across the southern Sahara Desert, in the north of this landlocked and critically-impoverished nation. Stuck in Niger over Christmas during a field posting, I joined friends for a 5-day trip through the wild north of the country, and it proved to be one of the most dramatic and satisfying travel experiences of my life to date. An absolute highlight by any standard was the time we spent among the dunes of Tizirzak, where wind-blown features among fair sand-dunes were the foreground to the dramatic backdrop of the barren and jagged Aïr Mountains. One of the most inhospitible landscapes on the planet, it was memorable for its stark, fierce beauty and isolation. We barely saw another group of travellers in five days of driving. To this day, I have seen few scenes that compare with the drama and allure of the dunes of the Sahara.
I spent a long weekend at a resort not far from the Sunshine Coast mecca of Noosa. I’m not much of a beach-vacation type most of the time, and this was no exception- I found myself generally bored and listless. I did however manage to find a bit of time to photograph the sun going down over the Noosa Lakes, close to where I was staying. The light was fantastic throughout. After falling in the estuary, I took this shot of the light after the sun had vanished. The water has taken on the texture of burnished gold. I shot with a neutral density filter, which is in effect a piece of darkened but colourless glass, and which in essence allows the shutter to be left open for longer without overexposing the frame. Here, I left the shutter open for a good half minute or so, with the result that the blemishes in the water have smoothed themselves out, and the golden clouds have blurred themselves in the passage through the sky. When it works, using ND filters are one of my favourite photographic techniques.
New Zealand (2007)
I’m a Kiwi. Sometimes I feel a bit of a fraud identifying myself with Aotearoa. I’ve lived there for less than six years, or somewhat under one fifth of my total existence. Growing up a Global Nomad, or Third Culture Kid (TCK), I’ve been a little bit free to pick and choose where I want to belong. Really, I’ve chosen not to belong anywhere, and my defacto home becomes wherever I open my backpack. However, the one nation I do identify with consistently, and with considerable pride, is New Zealand. (I’d like to point out that I do in fact hold a Kiwi passport, and spent the early years of my childhood there, so my claim to NZ citizenship isn’t entirely fabricated). I too this shot of a rocky outcrop in the Hauraki Gulf north of Auckland during an all-too-brief trip home with some friends. We spent a week or so driving around the northern half of the North Island, and enjoyed pretty good weather for the most part, as well. New Zealand is another country where I really just want to spend a good block of time with a car, a good pair of walking shoes, and my camera. One of these days…
A dear childhood friend of mine lives in Arizona with his wife, where they happily enjoy a far more geographically-stable existence than I do with their burgeoning clan of three children. I went and visited them for a few days over the Independence Day weekend in 2005, where they were staying with relatives near Sedona. Although we’re in irregular contact, our paths haven’t directly crossed since- although I know that they will before too long. It’s tough being apart from people you care about, but equally it’s nice having friends scattered globally with whom you can touch base when you travel. Such is the way of the nomad.
I took this shot at dusk as I arrived in Sedona. The outcrop is known as the Courthouse, and it stands like a monolith over this picturesque south-western town. Visually, Sedona is far and away one of the most beautiful settlements I’ve visited. Nestled among striking ochre sedimentary rock formations, it seems to burn with fire as the sun goes down, while during the day it sits beneath a flawless blue sky. I took this shot during my early days of investigating digital photography. The image itself is of no real technical merit, but the subject never ceases to bore me to look at. Creation at its finest.
Periodically my home, Melbourne remains in my opinion one of the most understated travel destinations in Australia- and by inference, the world. Although I’ve lived here perhaps four of the last six years, I rate it as easily the most livable place I’ve spent time, echoing the international surveys that generally score Melbourne in top spot alongside Canada’s Vancouver, also a desirable place to spend time. Sydney tends to get the attention as a tourist destination, with its Harbour Bridge, Opera House, and a handful of azure-watered beaches. Move away from the waterfront, however, and in my opinion Sydney looses its charm.
Melbourne, by contrast, has a little of everything to suite everybody. A range of great millieu’s throughout the city provide great cafés, restaurants and even shopping [shudder]. It has a vibrant and built-up Central Business District with all manner of services and conveniences, not to mention a hip and varied nightlife. Among my favourite features of Melbourne are the quirky little pubs and clubs dotted around its backalleys, so that I rarely seem to end up at the same place twice when I go out. Within minutes of the city are long stretches of sand that wrap right around the eastern arm of Port Phillip Bay, while to the West lead to the world-renowned surfing spots near Torquay. Sweeping views of the Bass Straights offer themselves from the Great Ocean Road, while to the north of Melbourne, the gentle country of the Yarra Valley’s wine region open up into great expanses of open plains to the north and west, while the Great Dividing Range provides dramatic country for hiking, climbing, horseback riding, and at a pinch, skiing (although as a sworn affecionado of the Canadian Rockies, I have to say Mt. Buller is a bit of a let-down).
This shot is of one of the more quirky Melbourne attractions, and one for which I have little time myself, except for the grotesque vibrance of the colours. Luna Park is a time-honored fairground metres from the waterfront at St. Kilda. This shot is about as close as I ever plan to get to it, but I did like the angle and the ferocious contrast of lines and tones.
Tomboctou (Timbuktu) is synonymous with the concept of the nomad. For travellers, it represents a destination as far-flung as it’s possible to go, the proverbial ends of the earth. In fact, so proverbial is its connotation that when I mention it in conversation, more than once people have asked me, “is Timbuktu real then?”
Not only real, but once a vibrant hub in the life of the original nomads of the Sahara. Tuareg caravans gave the city its wealth towards the beginning of the second millenium, when salt dug from pits in the desert was brought here on vast camel trains featuring hundreds of the beasts, and where slabs of salt the size of table-tops would be traded weight-for-weight with gold. It became a centre for Islamic scholarship, with one of the great ancient libraries once stored here (the city is now home to an audacious project to identify and restore ancient Islamic manuscripts being funded by Libya’s Moammar Ghadaffi), and is considered to be the third holiest city in Islaam, after Mecca and Medina. Its fame spread throughout the African continent, until the Moors heard of its fame in the fourteenth century and sent an army south from Marrakech. The invaders seized the northern half of Mali, and it has bourne the scars of the conquest ever since. The door pictured above is of a style unique to the area, but bears the visual influence of the Moroccan architecture which can be seen throughout Tomboctou on its mosques and classical buildings.
Tomboctou is a hot dusty town in the middle of nowhere. Perched on the southern edge of the Sahara, abandoned by an arm of the Niger River that has since filled in and left it stranded far from a water course, it is one of Francophone West Africa’s best-known tourist destinations, but it is still well off the beaten track in every sense imaginable. I visited in the peak of the hot season, and I can safely say that even after a year of living in Niger, I have never been consistently hotter, nor consistently more dehydrated, than during my time there. However it is a mystical and exciting place, with narrow side-streets filled with blowing sand, and exotic, otherworldly architecture that stimulates the imagination. A traveller in Africa should ensure that northern Mali is high up on their list of must-see places.
I took this shot among the sands of the central Sahara, in northern Niger. The combination of warm rippled sand and blue sky, the wisps of cloud, and the low afternoon sun conspired to give me two hours of the best photoshoot I’ve ever had the joy of playing in. The location itself was out of this world- we were two four-by-fours in the middle of nowhere, tracked right up onto the dunes themselves, half a day’s drive from the nearest permanent settlement.
Today, nearly three years from when I took this photo, a low-key civil war between Taureg nomads and the Nigerien government means that these desert sands are all but inaccessible to travellers. The few passages that cut through the network of wadis and allow vehicle access have been mined by both parties to the conflict, and the government restricts any access to the region. It’s a tragedy of monumental proportions that such a stunning locations should be once more off-limits to the rest of the world. Much as I would dearly love to return- this time with more than just a point-and-click- I have to realise that it may be a generation before it’s safe to once more drive these sands, and I can only count it a privilege that I was able to visit while I could.