Exploring Damaraland with Mariëtte du Toit

Hi there! I am Mariëtte du Toit and I live in a dusty town called Otjiwarongo smack bang in the middle of Namibia. I am the mother of a 4-year-old boy, am expecting boy no. 2, and have been married to my best friend for 8 years. Together, we share a passion for the outdoors... We love camping and photographing landscapes and wildlife and when we still have energy after our day jobs and parenting, we like to mountain bike and teach our son all about the great outdoors.

Like New Zealand, we are also in the southern hemisphere and technically have winter from May to August but it is actually only two days long sometime in July. The rest of the year we have summer ~ Spring and Autumn are foreign terms to Namibians!

Namibia is a semi-desert country with the Namib Desert, the oldest desert in the world, covering our western borders and the Kalahari Desert covering most of our eastern border. In between we have the Fish River Canyon down south, the central highlands where our capital Windhoek is located, and an incredibly green arm on the north east which we call the Caprivi. All the empty spaces are filled with bush, stunning landscapes and the quite famous Etosha National Park.

This provides ample opportunity for those inclined to spend time in the outdoors with mountain biking, camping (the rough way) and trail running really booming in Namibia. Along with the sports and camping, Namibia has always been a top destination for wildlife photographers and for the discerned traveller.

Living in Namibia thus has a huge advantage, namely that we don’t have to drive very far to reach a photo hotspot without all that many people. The downside of living in Namibia is our exchange rate and for a photographer that means paying the same amount of money for a car in Namibia as for a descent camera and lens. This means that most photographers have a day job and follow their passion over weekends. I myself market a lodge in one of these photo hot spots called Epupa Falls and have a wedding and family photography business whilst I quietly dream of becoming a full-time landscape/wildlife photographer.

Epupa Falls at Sunrise

My journey as a budding photographer started when I was a teen and I'd bought my first film Pentax SLR with a 300mm lens. I have always been fascinated by birds but soon discovered that I would need something a bit longer than a 300mm for my feathered friends. I settled for landscape photography and though I love it, I still dream about that 600mm lens.

Giraffes in the middle of nowhere!

After school I went to South Africa to study languages at the University of Stellenbosch. While there, my love for photography really blossomed and I took a part-time course at SIPS (Stellenbosch Institute of Photography & Multimedia Studies).

I bought my second film SLR camera, my first of many Canon cameras. Life took me to England where I landed a job in the marketing department of a ski company and whilst there, I really got into photography. Not having enough cash to really travel around, I started walking the streets of London and got into a bit of street photography and architecture. At the camera shop closest to my work, I bought my first Canon DSLR... I was in love and I have not stopped shooting since then!

Today I have a Canon 6D Mark III and a Canon 6D. I shoot primarily with my Canon 50mm lens, but love to haul out my Canon 300mm when out and about. Also in my bag is a Sigma 70mm lens, a Canon flash and two Manfrotto tripods.

In terms of my style, I gravitate towards light. I will always try and find the best angles to make my subject look softer or to show off some contrast. Golden Hour is by far my favourite time to shoot in and though, as a mother, I find early mornings really tough, every time that I have braved the dark, I have absolutely loved the results.

I love capturing abstract angles and light

Recently I had the opportunity to join a group of travellers on a tour through Damaraland. The operator wanted to try out a new route and needed some people to follow along. Of course, when an opportunity like this arises at a special deal, one jumps at the chance and since my husband was unfamiliar with Damaraland, he immediately agreed, and we tagged along.

Spitzkoppe at sunset

The 10 day journey started at Spitzkoppe, the southern point of Damaraland. Spitzkoppe is a photographer’s haven - Massive boulders that line the skies, no light pollution and very few people around. Staying the night, we then made our way through the Omararu river (these are all dry riverbeds) to Brandberg where we camped two nights. Brandberg is Namibia’s highest mountain and given the chance, I would love to explore this area for at least a week. Situated in semi-desert, the mountain is surrounded with lush vegetation which attracts Namibia’s famous desert elephants and an incredible variety of birds.

Brandberg Sunset Panorama

From Brandberg we moved closer to the Twyfelfontein area, a UNESCO sight to see some original San drawings. Here we stayed at an assortment of camps, each unique in its own right. But the camp I remember best, was Tsubes Camp.

Our camp at Tsubes

Tsubes Camp is rather small with just 4 campsites each with its own shower and toilet, barbecue area and running water. At the main house/reception area there is a pool with a lovely view as well. But it isn’t the facilities that makes it memorable, it is the location of the campsites along an escarpment of an ancient riverbank. The rock forms a natural barrier against the cold and when sitting underneath the parts that hang over, one feels like the rocks have a story to tell, that they have witnessed more than they are willing to share.

My then 3 year old made friends with another boy on the tour and together they explored the rocks until we called them for food. It was only when my son got stuck up on a ledge that I followed him and saw the stunning Welwitschia plants on the other side in a natural amphitheatre. I quickly made my calculations and realised that if I hurried, I would be able to capture the last bit of daylight over these plants so, wine in one hand, tripod in the other and camera backpack on my back, I made my way over the rocks to start shooting.

Welwitschia at Sunset

The welwitschia mirabilis only grows in certain parts of Namibia and is indigenous to the Namib Desert. The plant in itself is absolutely fascinating with a massive base stem and only two leaves that split up from the wind and weather. These plants grow to be hundreds of years old and are a protected species in Namibia. They rely on the mist coming in from the coast or early morning dew for water as the areas where they live hardly ever receive more than 10mm rain per year. There are male and female plants and they are pollinated by insects found mostly or solely on the Welwitschia.

The thing you don't know about this photo just from looking at it is that I froze my butt off! In my rush to get my gear (and wine) I forgot to grab a jacket. During the days the desert is incredibly hot, but once the sun goes down… well, it gets cold almost instantly. And with the cold comes instant darkness and with that I realised I was totally secluded and cut off from the other campers. I must be honest; I crossed that ledge in record timing back to camp. Luckily for me, my husband had a warm cup of hot chocolate and a plate of food waiting for me when I got back.

I returned really early the next morning to get the sun rising over this Welwitschia, but I had no luck. The clouds from the previous evening prevented the first golden rays from touching the Welwitschia's and I soon gave up in favour of a hot cup of coffee.

In Namibia photographers are often asked to do jobs free of charge if offered a great opportunity. The Damaraland Tour was such an opportunity and while I got some stunning photos, I have now learned that my work is more valuable than just an opportunity and I think that this is something a lot of budding photographers struggle with - They would rather undersell themselves than miss an opportunity.

Photography is an art – just like painting or playing the piano - so photographers must learn the value of their skill and then value themselves.”

You can enjoy Mariëtte's images on your phone with Excio and see more of her images at her website.

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