The flamingoes kept up their uniform stride, feeding and feeding. We had taken enough photographs of their scarlet-pink plumage, their hook-scoop beaks, their serial killer eyes. Or so we thought. As we walked back to our car, a girl and her mother beckoned us.
“Do you want to take pictures of them flying?” the girl asked.
“Sure,” we said.
“Hang on, and get ready.”
At this point, we were ready to try anything. We had been looking for Namibia’s famed flamingoes for some time now. The pier at the German town of Swakopmund, a coastal city caught between the Atlantic Ocean and the Namib Desert, seemed promising but all we saw so far, besides a washed-up whalebone, were the usual seagulls and a heron or two.
Suddenly there was a flutter of wings and we scanned the sky, trying to identify the bird. As it soared closer, we recognised the large yellow bill. A pelican. This one was a great white pelican, known to fish in the same shallow lakes as flamingoes. When it hit the water, its lower bill bloomed, forming a large pouch to scoop up water… and fish.
An extraordinary creature, but a pelican was no flamingo.
After consulting with the friendly owner of a nearby bait shop, we decided to make the 30-kilometre trek to the next town, Walvis Bay. He assured us we’d have better luck spotting flocks of our prized flamingoes there.
At the end of the stunning ocean road from Swakopmund, we found ourselves in Walvis Bay (or Walvisbaai in Afrikaans, meaning “Whale Bay”), first discovered by Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão in 1487. The bay forms a natural deep-water harbour, the only one of its kind in Namibia. Its waters are rich in plankton thus drawing many pods of southern right whales, thereby giving the bay its name.
These days, Walvis Bay is home to flourishing fishing and sea salt processing industries. But it is the wide lagoon here that we have come here seeking, specifically the numerous flamingoes it attracts. One of the key wetlands of southern Africa, the lagoon is a hibernation haven for thousands of migratory flamingoes that feed in its shallow waters.
Indeed, even before we had parked our car, we spotted the birds – there were dozens, maybe a hundred in the air alone, soaring and circling before landing on the mud flats. In the air, they were a sweeping gale of pink. Up close, these tall, wading birds with long legs and necks possessed a diverse plumage, ranging from snowy white laced with streaks of rose to a deep, shocking scarlet.
Closer to the water, there were more birds, in the thousands, forming one gigantic flock. Diet-wise, flamingoes feed on both algae (such as spirulina) and brine shrimps. It’s this particular food intake with their photosynthetic pigments that give the birds their signature colour. Pretty in pink.
We admired their bright plumage. We chuckled at their elegant-yet-clumsy gait. Their graceful reflection in the water; their synchronised movements, turning as one unit; their skittish cackling and flapping of wings when surprised. There was simply something magical about the flamingoes that set them apart from other birds.
Once a year, usually during January and February, the flamingoes will take off from the Walvis Bay lagoon for the Etosha Pan further north in Namibia. Part of their annual pilgrimage for the breeding season, the locals told us. One of the most breathtaking bird migrations in Africa, and we believed them. From what we could already observe, the flight of the flamingoes was a bewitching spectacle.
But we hadn’t taken any decent pictures of the birds in flight till the girl offered her help.
She walked to the other end of the pier and then all at once rushed towards the flamingoes, flapping her arms like she’d fly herself. The entire flock flew, swooped around in a graceful, noisy circle, settled back into the shallow waters and continued feeding.
It was but an instance but it was enough. We got beautiful photographs of the flight of the flamingoes, even if it was staged, sort of.
The girl and her mother waved goodbye. We waved back, smiling.