They zip passed me in a flash of colour, taking off in a plume of pink and blue. The flap of wings and their chirping songs fill the air. I feel like Iâ€™m a young child again, visiting Butterfly World near Paarl in the Western Cape where thousands of tiny winged creatures flit about you as you venture through their enclosed habitat. But this is no artificial sanctuary. Here we sit on a plain right beside the mighty Zambezi River, marvelling at the largest known colony of migrating Carmine Bee-eaters in the world. Just my fiancÃ© and I, and our guide for the tripâ€¦
I have been editing Pompie Burgerâ€™s wonderfully enigmatic birding tales for a few years now. It has been an adventure of its own. Each time he arrives at our offices to drop off his next story (via USB, no email for him!) I get a childlike thrill of excitement. Reading of the first draft always has me giggling away, and then I have to put red pen to paper and scratch out a few slightly offensive remarks here and there. Nothing ugly, but Pompie has a habit of speaking his mind and the writing and editing process has become a sort of game between the two of us. I imagine him finishing a story, snickering to himself and thinking: â€œWhat will she let me get away with this time.â€ As I saidâ€¦ a constant adventure.
Being one of Pompieâ€™s biggest fans, it was thus to my delight that he invited me to come along on a birding expedition. Finally, after years of reading and red-marking his colourful tales of ornithology, I would get to experience it first-hand! No filter, no editing, just straight-up Pompie and his gang of misfits (read: birds). So off we went to Katima Mulilo for a weekend to tick off a major bucket-list experience for myself â€“ the annual Carmine Bee-eater migration.
Pompieâ€™s initial disclaimer upon inviting us on this trip was to declare: â€œIâ€™m actually very bad at birding, to be honest.â€ Well, then there isnâ€™t much hope for the rest of us, is there? But we found him to be most educationalâ€¦ as well as entertaining and adventurous. Not that I had any doubts. Not a man to beat around the bush when it comes to birding, he also had no qualms driving after a bird or two quite literally into said bush. Coucals, lapwings and an epic sighting of an African Fish Eagle with his catch-of-the-day were accompanied by some intrepid off-roading. A bird in the handâ€¦
I hear Pompie call my name and Iâ€™m quick to go looking for him as he wanders amongst the tall trees that abound at Zambezi Mubala Camp. Heâ€™s seen a Schalowâ€™s Turaco, he tells me, and I must hurry! Schalowâ€™s has been my unicorn. Time and again I have heard him, looked for him for hours, scouring the treetops until my neck was aching, and yet he has always eluded me. But with Pompie as my guide, surely old Schalowâ€™s should be in the bag after this tripâ€¦ ticked off my lifer list. Alas, the beautiful green Turaco seems to not like me very much, he flits away into the thick green foliage overhead before Pompie can point him out. Maybe one dayâ€¦
Shortly after our Schalowâ€™s misadventure weâ€™re off in our little rented Duster towards the Carmine hotspot. Along the edge of the Zambezi River, not far from the Gondwana Collectionâ€™s Zambezi Mubala Lodge, holes have been dug out in the sandy wall of the riverbank. Here, and on the adjacent plains, a colony of thousands of Carmine Bee-eaters have started constructing their tunnel homes for the breeding season. These Bee-eaters arrive promptly on the 22nd of August each year (according to Pompie), as if they have booked their holiday long ago. In fact, they probably have some kind of time-share agreement set up, because this is an annual occurrence. And so, here I sit, gobsmacked by the sight before me. Pompie snaps away with his camera, capturing the most wonderful stills of these agile creatures, Iâ€™m sure, while Sean and I observe in amazement. Every now and then I pick up my video camera to record some of their hard work (digging) and aerobatics, but mostly I stare.
What an absolutely awe-inspiring encounter, in every sense of the word. Most definitely one of the Zambezi Regionâ€™s best-kept secrets, and at the very top of all my Namibian experiences lists.