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Recollections by Rick Rohde, 20 years on

Recursivity in repeat landscape photographs, at the Mirabeb rocky outcrop in Namib-Naukluft Park. The first view (in B&W on the clipboard) is a still from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey for which director Stanley Kubrick used Mirabeb in some of the opening scenes. The film’s still photographer, John Jay, took the first shot here in 1965. This is matched in 1995 with a retake by University of Cape Town geomorphologist Frank Eckardt in 1995 (the colour image on the clipboard), followed by a third retake in 2015 by Rick Rohde and Timm Hoffman. Composite image by Rick Rohde.

My first trip to Namibia in 1992 occurred just after Independence and during the second year of a severe drought. The harshness and bareness of the landscape was breath-taking: its vast emptiness was awe-inspiring but its sparse human population stressed and impoverished due to both economic marginalisation and several years of severe drought. Food insecurity and the death of livestock were the order of the day. On returning to Namibia in 1995 I was relieved to find the country, even the arid west, green and covered in tall grasses. Livestock herds were recovering or had returned from migrations to better grazing areas. This quintessential natural pattern of change – alternating periods of drought and plenty – is often misunderstood by both outsiders like myself as well as Namibians with sometimes short memories of the country’s climate dynamics.


For the next two years my research was split between understanding the environmental history of the region and the anthropology of visual representation. These two strands of interest were taken up again as part of the Future Pasts project and are briefly illustrated in this exhibition through repeat photographs of landscapes and portraits of people who took part in a photography project in 1995.


Environmental history

My approach to understanding the environmental history of west Namibia is to find the exact sites of historical landscape photographs and to re-photograph them and make a careful assessment of plant species, the extent of plant cover and other botanical and ecological observations. The changes observed between the historical and repeat images, especially with regard to long-lived woody species, can be attributed to several inter-related causes such as climate change, land-use change, environmental policy and globalisation. Each set of matched images for a site provides a powerful visual statement of change and/or stability that can assist with understanding present circumstances at specific places. They help us to contextualise projected and predicted environmental futures.

1) Maherero’s Kraal, 1876 (W.C. Palgrave)

2) Okahandja, 2009 (R. Rohde & M.T. Hoffman)


Okahandja, the site of the Paramount Chief Maherero’s kraal in 1876: what was once a pastoral scene of grassland savanna with umbrella acacias providing some shade for mud dwellings and livestock, is now a cluster of 21st century German houses built like Bavarian castles on high square stone or concrete plinths, surrounded by electric fences and barbed wire.


The changes are astonishing – where once there was an open wide sandy river bordering the receding flat Namibian plains (to the left of the top image), now there is hardly an opening in the canopy of thorn-veld. ‘Alien’ tree species such as Eucalyptus (Australian) and Prosopis (North American) now obscure the view of the upper reaches of the Swakop River. These social and environmental changes are emblematic of the reshaping of Namibia since colonial times.

Khan River

1) Khan River Bahn Station, 1906 (F. Lange)

2) Khan River Bridge, 2016 (R. Rohde, E. Erb & M.T. Hoffman)


The top image (1906) depicts two Damara women with children posing in the dry riverbed with the Khan Railway Station in the background. This narrow gauge railway was the first rail link between Swakopmund and Windhoek, built under German Colonial rule between 1897 and 1902.


Today, all traces of the original German railway have disappeared and been replaced by the private Khan Road Bridge. Built in 2015, the bridge was constructed to access and develop the new Husab Uranium Mine, owned by the China General Nuclear Power Group.


These repeat photographs taken of the Khan River in the Namib Desert illustrate the apparent lack of change in the river’s ecology in contrast to the changing political and economic development under colonial and neoliberal contexts.


1) Deutsche Kolonial Gessellschaft, 1896 (National Archives of Namibia no. 2408)

2) Spitzkoppe Community Conservancy, 2016 (R. Rohde)


Prior to 1884, Spitzkoppe was frequented by indigenous pastoralists and hunter-gatherers and subsequently by the Germans who established a quarantine station that was free of the highly contagious fatal African Horse Sickness. Between 1880 and the outbreak of the Rinderpest epidemic (which decimated cattle herds) in 1897, Spitzkoppe became increasingly important as a way-station on the transport route between Swakopmund and the interior. The Deutsche Kolonial Gesellschaft wagon transport and trading station, depicted in the archival photograph, was built during the 1890s. The barren area which surrounded the station in 1896 contrasts with the matched image which documents the recovery of this site during the last 140 years. The site is now part of a Community Conservancy where livestock have recently been excluded.

Gross Barmen

1) Gross Barmen 1876 (W.C. Palgrave)

2) Gross Barmen 2009 (R. Rohde & M.T. Hoffman)


Gross Barmen is a historic settlement and a recreational spa not far from the capital Windhoek. Barmen’s numerous springs first attracted Herero pastoralists who subsequently invited the first Rhenish missionaries to minister to the Herero in 1844. It became an important stop on the ox-wagon route between the coast and the capital prior to the German railway.


In 1977, during the apartheid years, it was developed into a resort centered on the copious hot water springs. Apart from the change in social and economic function of Gross Barmen itself, the repeat photographs depict a transformation from an open savanna to a bush-encroached thornveld. This could be directly attributed to the commercial cattle farming practices that replaced indigenous pastoralism during the 20th century.

Windhoek South

1) Windhoek South 1919 (I.B. Pole-Evans)

2) Windhoek South (Presidential Palace) 2015 (R. Rohde)


This set of repeat photographs was taken from Wasserberg, the highest hill in the capital Windhoek. The Welsh-born South African botanist, I.B. Pole-Evans, made a photographic panorama from this viewpoint during his trip to the former South West Africa in 1919.


This image shows an undeveloped and sparsely wooded landscape that today is the location for the Namibian Presidential Palace, completed by North Korean contractors in 2008. The expansion of Windhoek into this southern suburb has been accompanied by a severe thickening of the thorn-veld which is most likely the consequence of changing land-use patterns during the colonial and post-Independence periods.


1) Otjimbingwe, 1910 (Roth)

2) Otjimbingwe, 2016 (R. Rohde)


Otjimbingwe is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in Namibia. It was the centre of mining, cattle trading and missionary activities during the mid to late nineteenth century. Since 1926 when the ‘native reserve’ of Otjimbingwe was proclaimed, it has retained its present form as a communal enclave of about 100,000 hectares - a rural ghetto surrounded by comparatively affluent white settler farmers.


The photographic evidence shows that significant increases in woody vegetation have occurred on the surrounding plains, in the Swakop River and in the settlement itself. Riverine vegetation has increased dramatically, due in part to the rapid spread of invasive alien species. Descriptive historical accounts illuminate two essential features of the Otjimbingwe environment: the physical dynamism associated with pulses of drought and flood events in the ephemeral Swakop River and the land’s dynamic and resilient response to heavy grazing and variable rainfall.


1) Goantikontes Farm in the Swakop River, 1900 (W. Dobbertin)

2) Goantikontes 2016 (R. Rohde & M.T. Hoffman)


Prior to the influx of Europeans, Goantikontes was an important watering place for indigenous pastoralists. Later it served as a stock post for Europeans travelling between the coast and the interior. In the mid-nineteenth century Goantikontes was settled by a cattle trader and subsequently by crop farmers who cultivated vegetables for sale in Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. Today it no longer relies on agricultural production, but like so many other farms in Namibia, is a tourist destination with a campsite and a very pleasant restaurant.

The repeat landscape images above tell us something about settlement patterns and the lasting impact of historical episodes in the past. Given the dramatic events that have shaped the present socio-economic landscape of west Namibia – which over the last 150 years have included the establishment of colonial enterprise, a genocidal colonial war, seven decades of apartheid rule, and the ushering in of broadly neoliberal policies since independence in 1990 – it is not surprising that traces of such impacts are inscribed on the landscape. They create layered landscape ‘palimpsests’ in which past influences can be read and deciphered in the present.


In order to ascertain the extent of climate change in western Namibia my work with Future Pasts has extended a dataset of repeat landscape images of more than hundred sites compiled over the past 25 years. Analysis of this dataset shows that changes in land-use associated with colonialism (decimation of mega-herbivores and wildlife browsers, fire suppression and commercial cattle ranching), as well as the effects of atmospheric CO2 fertilisation (through rise in industrial greenhouse gas emissions), provide the most plausible explanations for observed vegetation change in the wetter semi-arid savanna areas of central Namibia. Increases in thorn-bush densities are positively correlated to rainfall, i.e. central Namibia with higher average annual rainfall is more prone to bush encroachment than the semi-arid western areas.


The vegetation of the western arid and hyper-arid areas of the Namib Desert seems to have not been impacted by human development and historical events as much as these wetter parts of Namibia. In the former areas a more complex pattern of change can be observed related to the cold upwelling Benguela Current and an increased temperature gradient between the Atlantic Ocean and the inland savannas attributed to global warming. Climate change is apparent, but our empirical evidence suggests a different trend to that predicted by recent climate models, with increased moisture rather than desiccation leading to higher recruitment of desert-adapted woody species than might be expected.

For more on the environmental history dimension of Future Pasts research see blog here and the video below, which works through an additional sets of repeat photographs for eleven sites in west Namibia.

Repeat portraits, Okombahe

The people in some of the portraits displayed in this exhibition are of individuals and families who participated in a photography project during my stay in Okombahe in the mid-1990s.


Maria Pietersen (above) was instrumental in helping me to get this project off the ground. She was eighteen years old when I first met her, living with her parents who had generously invited me to camp in the deep shade of some prosopis trees next to the wide dry expanse of the Omaruru River close to their house, a few kilometres outside of Okombahe village. Maria introducing me to her friends and neighbours who took part in a photography project using disposable cameras, many of whom became my close friends.


Some of the portraits displayed in the 44AD Gallery were taken at the opening of an exhibition of their photographs at the Namibian National Gallery of Art in Windhoek in 1996. Although I have kept in touch sporadically with Maria, it was only on my return to Namibia some twenty years later through Future Pasts that I was able to contact many of the photographers again and to hear the stories of their lives in the intervening period. For more on this photography project see blog here.


In the mid-1990s there was an atmosphere of optimism and good-will attendant on the recent event of Independence in 1990. The ensuing twenty years brought change, but also a fatalistic disappointment associated with perhaps unrealistic expectations. HIV/Aids has affected several of my friends; some have moved to the townships of Walvis Bay, Omaruru and Swakopmund; alcohol abuse, domestic violence and social dysfunction foster a pervading sense of insecurity. Earning a living is often hard and several of the individuals portrayed here live from day to day without employment, often with the help of their extended family and the meagre State old-age pension. It is not surprising that Evangelical Christianity has found resonance in this remote part of the globalised world.


In spite of the hardships that all my friends have endured, they remain resilient and hopeful. I am deeply indebted to them for their patience and indulgence!

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