The Rift Valley Lakes of Kenya and Tanzania provide the incredible spectacle of immense flocks of flamingos gathering to feed and breed on these otherwise inhospitable stretches of sodic water. The juxtaposition of their delicate pink plumage and the almost lunar landscapes is a photographer’s dream, and makes for an unforgettable flamingo safari.
Our afternoon game drive along the shores of a Great Rift Valley Lake proved to be a real highlight of our luxury safari in East Africa. We were here primarily to see the thousands of flamingos that had gathered on the lake to feed, but as so often on this trip, we ended up seeing far more than we’d anticipated.
Although we were back in an open 4×4 vehicle, our excursion to the lake was taken at the sort of leisurely pace we’d been enjoying as part of our slow safari. Rather than having to speed up from time to time to make particular sightings, this was a game drive we could take at our own speed. The flamingos themselves seemed to move almost in slow motion, and we agreed that they were on to a good thing.
The Rift Valley Lakes attract flamingos for two main reasons – they are full of the algae and small shrimps that these tall, slender birds have evolved to feed on, and the flamingos feel safe from predators out on the lake. There are several you can visit, including Lake Manyara and Lake Magadi in Tanzania, and Lake Naivasha, Lake Nakuru and Lake Elementeita in Kenya.
We learned a lot from our guide as we approached our chosen lake. Flamingos are filter feeders, and the algae they consume actually causes their feathers to change colour, giving them a delicate pinkish tint. ‘Like a blushing bride’, Jacob joked. We reasoned that flamingos must have an incredible sense of balance, as they are able to stand with their heads inverted, often on one leg, for hours at a time while they feed.
Despite our newly acquired knowledge, and the pictures we’d seen online while researching our flamingo safari, nothing could quite prepare us for not just a lake, but a sea of pink. There were thousands of these beautiful birds moving slowly through the shallows, and turning the lake a lovely rosy hue.
In the foreground, two zebra stood alert, their black and white stripes in marked contrast to the colourful vista just beyond them. I’ve always felt that zebra are one of the most photogenic of all African animals, but these ones were rather upstaged.
The flamingos reminded my partner of ballerinas wearing tutus, which made us wonder: imagine if Degas had been a wildlife painter? The flamingo safari scene before us seemed almost too idyllic, and we asked Jacob what dangers the flamingos faced. He mentioned baboons as perhaps the most notorious of the creatures that prey on them – the areas surrounding the Great Rift Valley Lakes often attract these primates, and several troops have developed the tactic of dashing into the lake and seizing one of the hapless flamingos, before returning to shore to pluck their prize.
I was grateful that we didn’t witness this on our flamingo safari, although the baboons that we did see were certainly stealing glances towards the mass of birds. In fact, the only danger that appeared came from an entirely unexpected quarter – above.
We heard the unmistakable call of a fish eagle, and then watched with bated breath as one swooped down into the flock of flamingos. The sudden appearance of this raptor caused panic, and almost as one, hundreds upon hundreds of flamingos ran through the water, beating their wings as they tried to take off.
The fish eagle disappeared among them, and our attention was diverted by the breathtaking sight of many pairs of pink-and-white wings gleaming in the morning sunlight as the flamingos flew to safety. For a moment that had started in drama, this was an astonishingly gorgeous sight. After circling two or three times, the flamingos began to settle again.
Meanwhile the bedraggled fish eagle left with empty talons. We couldn’t quite understand how he had missed every single flamingo, but we weren’t too sorry that he had. ‘Perhaps he should follow his name next time, and stick to fish, smiled Jacob as he drove us a little further along the lakeshore to where our bush breakfast was waiting.
After the excitement of the eagle’s unsuccessful hunt, the flamingos seemed to have relaxed again, and we soon did too, enjoying our breakfast as we gazed out over an endless expanse of pink to the hills beyond. We toasted our new-found love for the slow-safari experience with a glass of chilled Prosecco each – pink of course.
As we ate, Jacob told us more of the secrets of the flamingos of the soda lakes, including the place they go to breed: Lake Natron, a body of water so caustic and alkaline that few other creatures can venture there. The flamingos are able to take advantage of temporary sodic islands in the lake caused by evaporation.
Towards the end of breakfast, my partner laughed and reminded me of the kitsch pink plastic flamingos lawn ornaments we’d seen on sale at our local garden centre. The gnomes have to go, I jokingly replied, our garden will look prettier in pink!