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The Flamingo Brief

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A boy’s first sight of the flight of the greater flamingo

My son Ronan loves birds and his favourite is the greater flamingo. I think it’s their unusual ara-ara-ara call, which is the one he most loves to imitate of all the birds in Sasol eBirds of Southern Africa (Struik Nature).

 

A couple of months back I saw a photo on the cover of the Argus newspaper showing a flock of flamingoes in the Black River. It seemed too good to be true: flamingoes in the wild. Gill and I take Ronan to the World of Birds at least once a month (we have a family membership, which is great value) and he loves the flamingo pen. If you walk around the one side of their coral you are literally within touching distance. It’s stunning – I could sit there staring at them for hours and listening to their tribal cackling. But it’s still not the same as seeing them out in the wild. I know we should take him to Strandfontein Sewage Works or out Blaauwberg side to see the flocks there, but we just haven’t gotten around to it.

One workday I drove past Black River and, BANG, I saw them: a flock of around 300 flamingoes floating and standing around in the same river that I’ve become accustomed to (for a couple of decades) seeing as a lifeless, barren river. I couldn’t stop because of the cars around me, but seeing those magnificent birds just kicking back in the river made such an impact on me that I promised myself to get Ronan there within the week.

Sunday morning came and I revealed to him: ‘Son, this morning we’re going to take you to see…’

‘Wha-aaaaa-aaaat?!?!?!?’ his excitement bubbled over.

‘Flamingoes in the wild!’

What can be better than watching your child bouncing off the walls in pure, unbridled delight?

However, it was tricky finding the perfect viewing spot amid the Sunday morning traffic along the busy highways and byways that skirt around the Black River. Ronan was getting agitated that we were going to miss them as we doubled back and looped around twice before we found a half-decent spot to pull over near our chosen flock of flamingoes… and we then had to slowly reverse back about 200 metres on the side of the road before pulling off near a walkbridge… then slowly driving our little Renault over a dirt, stone and, probably, broken beer glass road.

It wasn’t as if we were out in the wild (what with the office blocks and Vodacom Golf Village all located within a decent 3-wood distance from where we parked), but it was eerily quiet and away from the road and close to a lot of overgrown bush. Gill stayed in the car with the engine running, just in case. I had the camera primed to capture this great moment when boy meets flamingo… but between his anguish about us battling to find a place to stop and then the pretty strong wind it all proved a bit much for Ronan. After a few minutes he was back in the car asking us to drive to see some other flamingoes further down the river.

Compared to the World of Birds, it must have seemed more like star-gazing than birdwatching as the flamingoes were over 100 metres away from us. (Perhaps it was also our insistence that he couldn’t climb down the bank and into the water to go touch them that left him feeling a bit short-changed by the experience.)

This is the challenge of being a parent, but also the lesson to keep remembering.

At the World of Birds, Ronan tends to dart from one bird enclosure to the next, whereas Gill and I would love to linger and take in the spectacle of one gaggle of birds in for five or 10 minutes before moving on. For Ronan a minute is probably enough exposure before he has to rush off to check the next birds out, or to talk to Douglas the honey badger, or call Eric the porcupine out from his wine barrel. So it seemed like a bit of a waste at the time, but in hindsight the young mind has a short span of attention before its eye is attracted to something new. I know he was chuffed to see them ‘for real’, even if it was for such a short time and from so far away.

We saw another flock further down the river as we drove for home, and of course, the cherry on top was seeing three flamingoes flying high over our car. That was a real wow moment. You tend not to think of flamingoes as fliers, and they seldom do – but what a majestic sight, stretched out high in the sky, long legs trailing behind and massive wings stretched out to the sides. We’re so used to seeing the oval body standing on thin legs with that gracefully curled neck… so to see a whole new shape to these great birds was awesome. And the sense of power in its flight was quite dramatic – they can fly at almost 60 km/h so they’re not to be taken lightly.

I was feeling a bit downhearted not to have captured that perfect picture of Ronan with flamingoes in the background, but the experience of being a parent and a lover of the great outdoors puts (I believe) a higher premium on enjoying the experience rather than capturing it for posterity in the most perfect picture. Rather have a quickly taken snap off your camera phone but enjoy the experience than get the perfect HD picture (but with everyone left feeling miserable because the cameraman has turned a simple snap shot into Ben Hur Part Two!).

It had been a 25 minute drive from home to the Black River, which was a nice little outing for a Sunday morning, but it felt wrong to go home so soon, so we followed our instinct (and the road side marker boards) and stopped in at the Oude Molen Eco Village on the other side of the river, past Vincent Palotti Hospital (we once visited the fertility clinic there in the hopes of falling pregnant… just a few months before Gill fell pregnant perfectly naturally with Ronan).

At the eco village Ronan got to enjoy his first substantial pony ride (all 10 minutes of it, at the most gentle of lopes on the back of the rescue horse which was only too happy for the fresh air and friendly people) while we walked alongside, snapping away like ‘those parents’. What can I say? We went with the moment!

Ronan must have felt like a little prince, and isn’t that just what every kid needs to feel like sometimes?

After the ride we wandered around the little village to pat some horses, gawk at the hens and chicks, pat the resident dogs and enjoy a coffee and muffin at the outdoor café while Ronan kept watch from the tree house. The views are great, the rustic nature is charming and the atmosphere is Sunday morning perfect. The flamingo experience might not have been exactly what I had hoped it would be, but the morning proved a success.

The kid was happy… and that’s what it’s all about.

Did you know: the backward bending ‘knee’ of a flamingo’s leg is actually its ankle. If you want to see the real knee you’ll have to look up close and under some of its plumage (if it’ll let ya!). The ankle also snaps shut to ‘lock’ the joint in place, allowing the flamingo to maintain its balance on one leg.

 

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