Unreformierte Photographie

Aesthetik des Verzichts

A Desert Sojourn

There is a farm in Namibia called Niedersachsen. Situated on the edge of the Namib desert and the foot of the Khomas Hochland, just north of the Khuiseb Canyon, it’s one of the older established farms, and comprises approximately 18,500 hectares – or 71 square miles, 45,715 acres, 185 square kilometres if you prefer.

It belongs to a family with whom over the last decade I have struck a close friendship. But aside from the companionship what draws me back to Niedersachsen is the solitude.

I admit that I am introvert, and occasionally I need to be completely alone for a time. And on those occasions I will occasionally pack my gear into my old Land Cruiser and head out there for a few days. There is a campsite on the farm which is about 7.5 kilometres away from the house – if I climb a nearby hill, I can just about see the lights of the house at night. But otherwise the place is absolutely, utterly peaceful; it’s just me and the zebras and the occasional jackal.

I have to bring my own food, of course, and I have to bring my own water, because Niedersachsen is – to put it mildly – arid. There is no real cellphone reception, and certainly no internet. There is not much firewood because there are very few trees, and euphorbias are best not put in fires.

I am not the first whom this patch of solitude has sheltered.

In 1940, a pair of German geologists named Henno Martin and Hermann Korn fled into this part of the Namib, to escape internment and the complications of the second world war. The South African administration of the Southwest Africa territory – which would become Namibia in 1990 – had decreed that German men were to be interned for the duration of the conflict in order to prevent sedition. Martin and Korn had come to SWA in order to escape the coming storm in the first place, and so they formulated the phrase for which, in German, they are famous: Wenn es Krieg gibt, gehen wir in die Wüste; “If war comes, we’re going into the desert.”

They packed as much equipment, fuel and supplies as they could fit into a car, a light truck and a trailer, laid a false trail to the area surrounding the Brandberg mountain, and disappeared into the rough, inhospitable badlands surrounding the Khuiseb.

They lived in a series of hide-outs, one of which is located on the farm Niedersachsen, and eked out something like survival for two and a half years, when Hermann Korn fell ill and the difficult decision to return to Windhoek was made.

After being briefly detained and paying a fine, they were set free.

Henno Martin later wrote a book about their experience, entitled The Sheltering Desert, which is in my opinion a mandatory read for anyone travelling in this region.

As it happens, Hermann Korn was also an introvert and known for his need for solitude; I feel a certain kinship with him.

And so I return to this campsite, which is perhaps two hours’ walk from the geologists’ hideout, and I seek its quiet.

When I began to address the many technical challenges associated with shooting collodion wet-plates in the Namib (more about which in another essay, I decided that the place I wanted to field-test the mobile lab was Niedersachsen. And so in early September 2013 two friends and I drove out to this remote place and with their help I was able to create four or five plates – of which the three ’keepers’ are presented here.

I feel that they successfully capture the atmosphere of this magical place, and I am pleased to share them with you.