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Beautiful and Surreal Sossusvlei, Namibia

Posted on Aug 6, 2017 | 0 comments

Sossusvlei in Namibia

I have been fortunate to travel to many of the world’s major deserts such as the Sahara and the Arabian Desert. All of them beautiful in their own way. But far the most scenic desert that I have experienced is the Namib desert in Namibia, South Africa. Of the over 31,000 square miles of the Namib Desert, I have only seen a small portion, but perhaps the visually striking. The area known as the Sossusvlei is a salt and clay pan, surrounded by some of the biggest dunes in the world. Due to the level of oxidized iron deposits in the dunes, they present in a strong orange or red color.

Origins of the Vlei

The term Sossusvlei is of Afrikaans/Nama origin. The term “vlei” (pronounced flay) refers to a shallow lake or marsh. Sossus means “no return”, hence the English translation is “Dead-end lake” or dead-end vlei. When you travel there it is evident why, although you won’t find any water. You travel down a dry valley that starts out wide and becomes increasingly narrow. Imposing sand dunes, in v formation, bound the valley. At the end of the valley is the area, pictured above, called Deadvlei – sometimes referred to as Dead-End Vlei. Getting to this part requires a four wheel drive vehicle, but there is a shuttle service provided from the car park to the vlei if you don’t happen to have a four-wheeler.

Deadvlei is an incredibly fascinating geographical phenomenon. The floor of the vlei (which is occasionally flooded in the rare years when there is substantial rain) is made of white, salty deposits that are like concrete under the feet. Trapped in this rock-solid base layer are petrified Acacia trees that form haunting silhouettes against the orange backdrop of the towering dunes.

How to Get There

Sossusvlei is definitely a destination. Getting there is not like traveling on the autobahn’s of Germany or the highways of the North America. The easiest is by light aircraft to one of the many small landing strips. But that is only practical if you are staying at a hotel or lodge that provides package tours to the vlei. Otherwise, you drive – over miles of dirt road, some very, very bumpy.

Where We Stayed

We stayed at the Sossusvlei Desert Lodge part of the &Beyond Group of luxury lodges. I have been fortunate to stay at quite a few of these in South Africa, Kenya and now Namibia. This ranks as one of my favorites. It is small and the level of intimate service is amazing. We will do a complete post on this lodge, so watch for that. As part of our package costs, they organized the trip the Dead Vlei, including breakfast, Out of Africa style, among the dunes. If you are a hardcore photographer, you may consider staying at the Sossus Dune Lodge or the Sesriem Camp Site for at least one night. These give you early morning and late afternoon access to the area before the park gates are opened to the public.

This place is a desert, so we recommend not going in the heat of summer!

On a personal note, this trip was special to me because my father was born in Namibia (South-West Africa at the time). Despite growing up in Southern Africa, I had never been to Namibia. The ranger allocated to us by the Sossusvlei Desert Lodge pointed out to me that in some respects I had come home. He welcomed me as a fellow Namibian.

Sossusvlei in Namibia

5 Days in Cape Town: Day 4 Robben Island

Posted on Jul 13, 2017 | 1 comment

5 days in Cape Town Day 4 Robben Island

If you missed my earlier posts, be sure to read about Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3.

Robben Island

Monday morning was spent on a tour to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. I had done this years ago with our oldest daughter and it had been very memorable but after reading many negative reviews on Tripadvisor I was worried it wouldn’t be as good this time.

However, I didn’t feel we could miss out on the experience with my youngest daughter and her friend (both 17), so I went ahead and booked tickets about a month earlier. Tickets sell out so it isn’t advisable to wait until you are there to buy them. You can buy them online. Tickets cost about $25 for adults and $15 for children.

The boat to the island leaves from the Waterfront and we arrived about 30 minutes early (you have to go through security). The boat trip is included in the price of the ticket. Try to sit (or stand) outside as your view from inside is rather limited. The boat ride is about 30 minutes each way and you spend about 3 hours on the island ie the whole tour is around 4 hours. If you are lucky you will see seals – we weren’t! But you do have a great view of Table Mountain and the Harbor.

Boat trip to Robben Island

Boat trip to Robben Island. Photo by Amy van der Merwe

Once you reach the island, you are divided into smaller groups and you get on a bus with a guide. Our guide was very funny, but his accent made it difficult for foreigners to follow what he was saying. He told us about those who tried to escape and showed us various landmarks and places of interest. You get out of the bus at one point and can buy snacks, take photos etc.

View from Robben Island.

View from Robben Island. Photo by Amy van der Merwe

Once the bus tour was done, we were handed off to another guide – who had been a prisoner here – and he took us inside the prison. He explained what the life of a prisoner was like – everything from their arrival, to what meals were like and getting visitors. We then got to walk past Nelson Mandela’s cell.

Nelson Mandela's Cell, Robben Island

Nelson Mandela’s Cell. Photo by Amy van der Merwe

We also walked at our own pace through a number of other cells which had artifacts made by prisoners in them. On the walls, there were short written articles about the prisoners.

I was so glad we did do the tour – and so were the girls. It is a very moving experience which was made even more poignant by the quiet dignity of our guide. It was hard imagining him going through what he did.

Lunch at San Marcos

Back at the Waterfront, we met my ex-boss from many many years ago when I worked as a programmer at Shell in Cape Town. We chose to eat at San Marco as they have outside seating and we could enjoy the view and our sandwiches at the same time.

After lunch, the girls did some shopping at the Waterfront stores (Lush in particular) and then we spent a few hours back at the apartment resting/sleeping.

Supper at Nando’s

Before supper, we stopped at Pick n Pay supermarket in Seapoint to stock up on South African foods to bring home. We had left plenty of space in our bags as we knew we needed to buy for gifts – and for ourselves!
Nandos chicken

For 4 days my daughter had been waiting for a taste of her favorite South African “fast food” – Nando’s. It is Portuguese-inspired peri peri chicken. You can get lemon and herb if you aren’t a fan of “hot food – or you can get “very hot” if you are. Nando’s has become so popular that you can now find them in many major cities around the world and you can buy their sauces on Amazon.

Then it was time to head back to our beautiful apartment at the Waterfront.

Table Bay

** Please note: Some of the links in the above post are affiliate links. You don’t pay more but we make a small amount if you purchase through the link.

5 Days in Cape Town Day 4 Robben Island

Photographing Washington DC

Posted on Jul 4, 2017 |

Continuing on my series of posts from major sites to photograph …

I arrived in Falls Church (just outside DC) last night.  Falls Church is where I could find a reasonable hotel room but be on the DC Metro for easy access.  Finding parking in DC is obviously an issue.

Lessons learned about photographing Washington D.C..

1.  The distance between the key attractions is actually much larger than you first expect.  This means that you need more time than you think if you are going to maximize light conditions.  You really can only do one monument properly at the magic hour.

2. Tripods.  A problem.  They are prohibited in any of the memorials or near the Capitol/White House. So for example, when you photograph the Vietnam Memorial, you may not a tripod in the walkway.  You may not use a tripod above the line of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.   Some websites say that you can get a permit from the National Parks Service to be able to use a tripod.  Even the official who stopped me at the Vietnam Memorial said I needed a permit. The NPS permit only permits commercial shots in the park area, but officially these shots cannot use tripods in the restricted areas anyway.  It would appear that not all the officials on the ground understand that.  A commercial permit costs $50 a day and takes several days to obtain. Go here for more info  Around the Capitol and other key buildings, the police will stop you.  You can get permits from the Capitol Police (Permits for the Capitol) 202-224-8891.

3. You may want to do research before you go on to see if repairs are being done on any of the memorials. For example, in 2012/13 the Washington Monument was being repaired after the earthquake a while back.

4. I suggest you give at least half day to recon the area before you begin.

Here is the photo I squeezed off on the tripod of the Vietnam Memorial before I got stopped.

Sunrise through the reflection of the Vietnam Mem.



Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

Posted on Jun 30, 2017 |

The Sheik Zayed Mosque Grand Mosque Abu Dhabi

For a long time I have wanted to take this shot at the Sheik Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi. The mosque is typically referred to as the Grand Mosque. I have been to the UAE many times and have been to the Grand Mosque several times, but always with other people. Photography (of this sort) and groups don’t really mix. Earlier this year I was back in the UAE and managed to sneak away on the night I was leaving to take this image. Planes tend to leave at strange hours from Dubai, which meant I had the whole evening to do this.

Sheik Zayed’s full name or title is Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. He was the architect of the UAE. His father was the ruler of Abu Dhabi until he was assassinated in 1926. Together with one of his brothers, he led the people of the region, firstly in opposition to Saudi (who wanted to influence, if not control the region) and then in forming a federation of trucial rulers, that ultimately formed the State known as the UAE. Oil was discovered in 1958. (The Trucial States were those on the coastal region of the southeastern Persian Gulf).

The architect of the Grand Mosque is a Syrian called Yousef Abdelky. It is the biggest and most important mosque in the UAE. More than 3000 workers and 38 contractors were employed in the building of the mosque. The principal contractor was an Italian company.

The mosque is beautiful in a simple way. The extensive use of white (lot’s of marble) makes for an elegant appearance, somewhat reminiscent of the Taj Mahal in India.

This photo was a challenge because there were constant crowds and the variation of light made post-processing difficult. In particular, I was most irritated with a group of Chinese visitors who insisted in standing in the same position for about 25 minutes. How inconsiderate! :)

Kayaking in Knoxville

Posted on Jun 30, 2017 |

Kayaking on the Tennessee River in Knoxville
Photo by Amy van der Merwe

Last Sunday we rented kayaks and spent a pleasant hour kayaking. We rented from Billy Lush Boards which operates from Volunteer Landing in Downtown Knoxville.

At $30 per hour for a double kayak they aren’t cheap. (Check the rates for single kayaks and longer time periods.) But it was very easy to book ahead of time using their online system. You are provided with links for the waivers too so you can send those to all in your party and they are also completed online.

**Tip: They do Half Off Hump Days – so visit on a Wednesday if you want half off AND grab a punch card as your 5th rental is free!

Parking was no problem and we were quickly checked in and sent down to the river. All the staff were very friendly. We got straight into kayaks and were off up the Tennessee River. It was very peaceful on the water and we saw very few boats.

Kayaking in Downtown Knoxville

Billy Lush also rents canoes, SUPs (Stand up paddleboards), Hydro-bikes and Beach Cruiser Bikes. They are open Wednesday to Sunday.

You can also rent kayaks, canoes and SUPs at Mead’s Quarry in Ijams. They are cheaper (only $12 per boat). Our daughter has done this a few times and has enjoyed it – but paddling around a small lake isn’t quite the same as paddling on the Tennessee River. You can download and print the waiver from their website and they are open 7 days a week.

Kayaking on Mead's Quarry

Photo Credit: Liz Jones

Another option is to rent kakaks, SUPs and canoes at the Cove on Northshore Drive. Once again you will be on the Tennessee River but the drawback here is you have to rent for either a 1/2 day ($40) or a full day ($50).

You can’t book either of the last two options online – so you just have to go to the locations and take your chances. Both are operated by River Sports Outfitters.

So if you enjoy kayaking and live in Knoxville or are visiting the area, these are three options you have to enjoy the sport.

Kayaking in Knoxville

5 Days in Cape Town: Day 3 Canopy Walk, Coffee and Colored Houses

Posted on Jun 24, 2017 |

Day 3 in Cape Town itinerary

If you missed my earlier posts, be sure to read about Day 1 and Day 2.

Our third day was a Sunday. We got moving fairly early so that the photographers could take advantage of the early morning light at Kirstenbosch and so we could miss the crowds. (If you go in the afternoon the sun goes down behind the mountain).

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

Kirstenbosch is one of the most amazing botanical gardens in the world. The 36-hectare garden contains over 7000 species of plants from southern Africa. It costs R60 for adults and R15 for children (under 6 are free). You can buy tickets at the gate or online.

We parked on the street near the Rycroft Gate (Gate3) which is the gate closest to the Canopy walk. If you plan to spend a few hours in Kirstenbosch then you can park at the main entrance (be sure to go to the restaurant too – it’s great!). But if you want to go specifically for the Canopy walk as we did, then it would be a really long walk.
Canopy Walk Kirstenbosch Gardens

The Canopy Walk is not long but it is really cool to be walking in the tree tops. The photographers in our group (ie everyone but me) all got spectacular shots. I just enjoyed the feeling of nature all around me.

Truth Coffee Shop

Truth Cafe is a cool steampunk style coffee shop

Next stop was a coffee shop our younger son recommended. Truth Cafe is done in Steampunk style – not just the decor, but the waiters too! And their coffee is great so this is a stop you want to make. It isn’t a shop you will just walk past – you have to make a specific trip there, but it isn’t far from the Waterfront and the main part of Downtown, so jump in your car or call an Uber and visit!

The Bo-Kaap

Bokaap colored houses
The Bo-Kaap (previously known as the Malay quarter) is one of the oldest residential areas of Cape Town. It is known for its beautiful colored house. We parked on Wale Street and wandered around the area for about half an hour. This area became home to many freed slaves and Muslims. I would have loved to have visited the Bo-Kaap Museum but it is closed on a Sunday. It costs R20 for adults and R10 for children.

If you are there around lunch or supper, stop by Biesmiellah Restaurant. I have fond memories of their great food from when I worked Downtown in Cape Town many many years ago.

Lunch and the Rest of the Day

Back to the Waterfront for lunch at Balducci’s with old family friends, James and Kathy. This was the view from the restaurant. The food was excellent too.

View of the Waterfront in Cape Town from Balducci's restaurant

Before walking back to our apartment for an afternoon siesta, the girls took a detour to H & M for a quick shopping expedition.

Sunday evening we spent with my brother and his family again. Find out what we did on Day 4 here.

Day 3 in Cape Town: Canopy Walk, Coffee and Bo-Kaap