WALVIS BAY (Namibia), Feb 19 — We are desperately seeking Namibia’s famed flamingos. The pier at the German town of Swakopmund, a coastal city caught between the Atlantic Ocean and the Namib Desert, seems promising but all we have seen so far, besides a washed-up whalebone, are the usual seagulls and a heron or two.
Suddenly there is a flutter of wings and we scan the sky, trying to identify the bird. As it soars closer, we recognise the large yellow bill: it’s a pelican. This one is a great white pelican, known to fish in the same shallow lakes as flamingoes. When it hits the water, its lower bill blooms, forming a large pouch to scoop up water... and fish.
An extraordinary creature, but a pelican is no flamingo.
After consulting with the friendly owner of a nearby bait shop, we decide to make the 30-kilometre trek to the next town, Walvis Bay. He assures us we’ll have better luck spotting flocks of our prized flamingos there.
En route, we pass by many typical Namibian houses with eye-catching roofs of myriad colours. Even the advertisements here are more colourful and tongue-in-cheek; a hand-painted one on a brick wall exhorts passers-by not to “run out” and buy Marathon Sugar instead.
At the end of the stunning ocean road from Swakopmund, we find ourselves in Walvis Bay (or Walvisbaai in Afrikaans, meaning “Whale Bay”). 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.
Walvis Bay was discovered by Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão in 1487. However the harbour town was only properly founded in 1793 by the Cape Dutch. Two years later, it was annexed by the British so the English ambience of Walvis Bay stands in contrast to the more German Swakopmund to its north.
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 flamingos it attracts. One of the key wetlands of southern Africa, the lagoon is a hibernation haven for thousands of migratory flamingos that feed in its shallow waters.
Indeed we see the birds even before we park our car — there are dozens, maybe a hundred in the air alone, soaring and circling before landing on the mud flats. In the air, they are a sweeping gale of pink. Up close, these tall, wading birds with long legs and necks have a more diverse plumage, ranging from snowy white laced with streaks of rose to a deep, shocking scarlet.
Closer to the water, there are more birds, in the thousands, forming one gigantic flock. But there are actually two species of flamingos feeding at the lagoon — the Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) and the Lesser Flamingo (Phoeniconaias minor), the latter about a third smaller than the former and with a more prominent black marking on its bill.
Both birds can be further distinguished by their feeding pattern: the Greater Flamingo looks for food near the bottom while the Lesser Flamingo prefers feeding closer to the surface, allowing them to co-exist happily. Their lower jaw is much larger than their upper jaw, creating a heavy, bent bill for scooping up and filtering tiny small organisms.
Diet-wise, the flamingos 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 pink colour. We could spend hours gazing at their bright plumage — and indeed, we probably do — and chuckling 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’s simply something magical about the flamingos that sets 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. This is part of their annual pilgrimage for the breeding season. Locals tell us this is one of the most breathtaking bird migrations in Africa, and we believe them; from what we can already observe, the flight of the flamingos is a bewitching spectacle.
Our adventure isn’t quite over. We take a slow, leisurely drive to Sandwich Harbour, a famed freshwater lagoon 48 kilometres away from the bay. Along the way we pass by a large pond beneath a stretch of power lines. What drew our attention to an otherwise mundane place is a scattering of flamingos, probably stopping for a drink or feed along their migratory route.
It’s surreal to see these pink-hued birds against a backdrop of dunes, two power line poles rising from the ground to the sky like twin towers. These rare and unexpected moments of beauty are what makes a trip the experience of a lifetime.
The route gets increasingly challenging — anything less than a four-wheel drive vehicle would find the going tough — but when you’re surrounded by rolling dunes, the scenery makes it worthwhile. We have to walk the final stretch due to the soft sand. When we arrive, we know some spectacular views await us.... and more fabulous flamingos.
Renting a car and driving is the quickest to get to Walvis Bay. Via the main road B2, it takes about five hours from the capital Windhoek or 20 minutes from Swakopmund, the nearest town.