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Discovering the Skeleton Coast

Words by Online Writer, Kim Grové You hear many stories about Namibia before you go; that it is a land of extremes – the culture, weather and landscape – and that it is unlike any other in its challenge for you to embrace nature and all its raw elements.  It isn’t until you first step off the plane that you begin to understand the truly unique nature of this country. The ever-protracting flight delay at Cape Town International could very well have been a signal of the slow pace that awaited us. It is as though time literally stands still. We immediately encountered a crisp evening breeze that would be sharply contrasted by the sweltering heat of the following morning. Our arrival at our destination was hazy as we felt the effects of the long drive up to Cape Cross. This would be our home for the next two days; beautiful, modern lodging that was extremely homely and comfortable. We were soon whisked off to view the opening of Paul van Schalkwyk’s photographic exhibition – the real reason for our visit – followed by a mouth-watering homemade seafood paella, a lovely glass of red and chocolate cake to finish. But the real show-stopper of the night was Paul’s work. We stood in awe as Paul talked us through the display, describing how he flies all over Namibia, photographing the distinct landscapes from above. His aerial photography is already world-renowned, having exhibited his work in Greece, Shanghai and Cape Town. The first thing you notice about Paul’s photographs is the burst of colour – bright, intoxicating and often unbelievable. The other is the fact that each print is so vastly unique, a reminder of the many terrains making up Namibia. The best part about arriving at night, particularly when there is minimal light, is that you get to take in the magnificent view of the crystal clear stars surrounding you, a sight not commonly seen back home. One of our hosts was happy to point out the Milky Way, Southern Cross and Scorpio, which were all clearly distinct in the night sky. The other perk was that we were in for a fabulous surprise with all the new and exciting views when we awoke the next morning.  And what a view it was… I awoke at the crack of dawn – much like kids do on Christmas Day – to a magnificent view of the beach just a few metres outside my door. First in the line-up: a strong cup of coffee followed by a flight over the desert in Paul’s plane. However, hostile morning winds proved that it was not meant to be, and we instead indulged in a delicious brunch comprising a spread of braaied Kabeljou, Springbok steak, fresh salads, pesto, cheeses, jams, freshly-baked breads as well as a glass of champagne to toast the warm Namibian sun. We reassembled around mid-afternoon for our much-anticipated flight with Paul. The plane could only carry 5 people at one time, which made us feel both privileged and slightly terrified at the same time. Although Paul normally flies alone, leaving him free to do curly wurlies and take aerial snaps from all sorts of interesting angles, today he is making an exception. After a shaky start we were up in the air, relishing every moment. The haunting beauty became apparent when we witnessed the calm ocean and the vast desert alongside each other. We flew over the aptly called Skeleton Coast, sighting little more than dunes, mountains and the odd spot of vegetation. I got that sense of being lost in time, which Paul’s photographs capture in the most honest and beautiful form. I chatted to Paul about the inspiration for his work, Namibian life, and his life’s passions… What inspires your creative eye? I have never thought about this myself. As far as I can remember my first inspiration was the way the painter Adolph Jentsch interpreted the Namibian landscape. It appealed greatly to me and I aimed to also one day do this. When I look back at my work of the past few years I realise that I always look for strong composition. This is something I have been praised for by directors in the film industry as well. I look for shadow and light, textures and colours, lines and objects in my compositions. I try to bring them together to create a pleasing dynamic that would stop the viewer in his/her tracks. I hope it will give pleasure and enjoyment and that people will always find them interesting and never tire of them. What is your favourite thing/ place to photograph? Being a photographer gives me great satisfaction. I am addicted to the act of creating through the viewfinder. This is how I enjoy life best. I don’t think I will ever get tired of photographing the desert – but being alone in the desert also has other meditative qualities. So obviously this is one of my favourites. I also like photographing Africa, people in their environment (urban and rural), and wildlife. I am always looking for a different perspective, trying to attract and evoke emotions. What I definitely do not like is studio photography. How do the fascinating colours appear in the landscapes? Are they an entirely natural phenomenon? I do work very hard to process each picture once it is captured. As Ansel Adams said: “I do not take pictures, I make pictures”.  I count myself in his company as far as the “making” of pictures is concerned. I use classic darkroom techniques in the digital darkroom to create the final piece. At present I use all the elements offered by the landscape to create. I do not change any colours, which would be easy to do in Photoshop or with similar software. Perhaps I will go further and change colours somewhere in the future, but I am not there now. The colours you see in my pictures are the natural colours offered by the landscape. The unique colouring you refer to is caused by algae in some cases and by mineralisation in other cases. 3 words to sum up the Skeleton Coast? Desolate, beautiful, unforgiving. Do you prefer to fly solo or with company? I think pilots generally really enjoy themselves more when they fly alone. But, the camaraderie found among aviators is something special and I really enjoy flying with my son or a good friend. Were you first a photographer or pilot? First a photographer and that is how it will be. What do you hope to convey through your aerial photography? The beauty and magic of the landscape. The frailty of our planet. The importance of taking care of our environment. The wonder of the creation. What is it about raw nature that grabs you and keeps you coming back for more? The relationship between different elements in nature. I am also fascinated by the idea that I might be the first human being to set foot in some of the places I go. In that sense I am a total romantic. Raw nature allows you to open your senses to drop your guard and to soak up all the stimuli. Just relax and enjoy. In urban and high human density environments you train your senses to cut out all the unnecessary stimuli and only allow the information you absolutely need to get by. In nature this is not necessary. That is why people always feel they leave the desert with recharged batteries. Which of your own photographs of the Namibian desert is your favourite? This is impossible to answer. I tend to move on very quickly. Always looking for new challenges and new ways to depict. When I succeed they become my all-time favourites ….until the next one. Describe a typical day photographing subjects along the Namibian coast? I rise early and get out into the landscape before sunrise. Walk or fly, chase the horizon. The desert only offers its secrets if you are prepared to sacrifice. I find that I must really work for the good images. The old thing of 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration, I suppose. During midday you look for shelter from the sun and wait. Sometimes you just sit in a daze. Waiting for the heat to pass. Then in the afternoon the southwesterly breeze starts to pick up and you can start to move again. The sun comes over and the changing light and shadow and colour replaces one another, slowly building to a crescendo, working up to a climax and then the sun is gone. As dusk changes to darkness you have time to calm down and unwind while you capture the last glimpses of soft colour and light. Then it is dark. The night sky in the desert is breathtaking and I really mean it. I love camping, but in a very minimalistic way. Drink some tea with honey and eat something out of a tin. That’s it. When I lie in my sleeping bag next to the Landrover or aeroplane, gazing at the galaxy, the stars hum a soft lullaby and before I know it I am gone. Happy and satisfied. Best time of the day to take photos? Early morning and late afternoon, but do not throw away the harsh contrasts and shimmering horizons during midday. In fact, any time is the best time – you must just enable yourself to see. Which other photographers do you admire? Every photographer that makes a picture that leaves me a with a slight jealous  pang, wishing that it was I who took that picture. In Namibia, definitely Amy Schoeman and Tony Figueira. Around the world, too many to mention. What is your definition of luxury? To have enough diesel for my Landrover and have gas for my aeroplane. Favourite drink? Rum and coke, and South African Pinotage and Chardonnay. Favourite meal? Lamb rib over a slow fire and braai’d on the grid. And also slap chips with salt and vinegar. Favourite way to relax? Behind the controls of an aeroplane. What’s next for Paul van Schalkwyk Photography? I have been invited to exhibit overseas and I am looking forward to that. I often wake up in a panic that my life will be too short for all the things I still want to do – need to do.  All of them related to photography. A few books, more exhibitions and places where I must go. India, China, Nepal, Antarctica, the Arctic, Iceland, South America, more of Africa…. Sometimes it feels like a race I can’t win, but I intend to give it a serious go.   You get the sense that the people living in Namibia have a very personal affinity with their country, and it is easy to see why. Although harsh and isolated, the experience of being surrounded by such distinct beauty is quite mesmerising. For more about Paul van Schalkwyk Photography and to view a captivating gallery of his work, please visit