Highway to flamingo zone

Oh, my HEART. I have seen FLAMINGOS. They are GLORIOUS.

And I tell you what, it was a palaver all round, it nearly cost me my marriage and my sanity. But worth it.

Just two weeks ago, we had a disastrous trip to the Camargue in the South of France, near Arles. In as much as a trip anywhere in the South of France can be disastrous – as in not even a tiny bit – but I was tetchy about it at the time. Flamingos are native to the area, in summer there are flocks of thousands and thousands. They migrate in winter but there are some that stay year-round because it’s not that cold these days. But this isn’t summer and I wasn’t going to be here in summer so we went anyway. Even one flamingo would be fine with me. My whole bird-loving life has led me to this point.

I had spent a small fortune on a camera with a built-in zoom lens because they’re shy birds, like most, and they don’t come in that close to shore. We booked a hotel, hired a car to drive to the Camargue. Side note: is there anything more stressful than hiring a car in a foreign city, where they drive on the wrong side of the road AND you have to start the car with an app on your phone AND you have to find your way around a city relying completely on GPS AND you’re running out of phone charge AND petrol at the same time…well…ok, this is a rhetorical question. Is there? No. There isn’t. It is a testament to my marriage that we survived the trip. There was shouting, gritted teeth, white knuckles and eyes bulging with tension, a lot of WHICH WAY, WHICH WAY and I’M TRYING, I’M TRYING and OH MY GOD WE’RE GOING IN CIRCLES and DIDN’T WE JUST PASS THAT BUILDING and STOP SHOUTING AT ME and I’M NOT SHOUTING, YOU’RE SHOUTING and a moment in a carpark at the end where we ran into each other’s arms and leapt about crying and laughing and hugging like we’d narrowly escaped the apocalypse. Want to test your relationship resilience? Or your personal resilience? Rent a car in a foreign country.

Anyway, Arles was gorgeous and the Camargue is divine. It’s a UNESCO-protected area of hundreds of kilometres of salt marshes and lagoons on the Rhone delta, home of the famous Camargue red rice, the “wild” white Camargue horses, bulls and flamingos. We hire a guide and are thrilled with our luck when we find we are the only couple on the tour because of the time of the year. We are not very fussed to learn the wild horses of legend are in fact only a bit wild, and are actually all owned by breeders. No matter. We, at least, I, am here for flamingos. We stop at a paddock to pat a horse on the nose and I ask about flamingos, before whipping out my camera to get a shot of a rather large water rat sunning itself in the pampas grass.

It’s at this point I realise I have a tiny issue with my camera battery. In that, I forgot to check it was charged. This is evidenced by a large flashing light on the display screen which says, battery exhausted. It takes me a minute or two to absorb this devastating news. Ok, it takes me a good 45 minutes to absorb this devasting news. The bloke, who I should mention has very little interest in flamingos, is as exhausted by this stage as my camera battery. He manfully distracts the tour guide with questions he doesn’t want to know the answer to while I get a grip then resign myself to experiencing the beauty of the region with my eyes rather than through a lens. Tres disappointing. We did see flamingos. I think. There were certainly some pinkish blobs out on the water but they may have been shipping buoys. I take some snaps with my phone camera and that’s that.

On the drive home, when we were still recovering from the trauma of the experience and I am planning our next trip back there, we skirt the coastline near the outskirts of Montepellier. I am gazing wistfully out of the window thinking of what might have been, when I notice out to sea some familiar pink blobs gathering just off the shoreline near the highway. That’s right. Flamingos. Flocks of them. It turns out the coast of Montpellier is riddled with flamingos and we could have simply wandered down for a day at the beach if we’d wanted to see them.

So, armed with a camera and a full battery, I set off on my own today. The Gods of Flamingo Spotting clearly did not intend to make my life any easier this trip than the last. It was supposed to be a fairly straightforward 40-minute one-change tram ride to the coast, but they’re doing a bit of work on the lines, which involved trams that weren’t going where they said they were, replacement busses, more trams and a six-lane highway to somehow traverse.

There were helpers at each stop but they didn’t speak English and I don’t speak French. But I was not going to be thwarted again, so I managed to find my way via the medium of waving my phone map about, broken French, and charades. It was the beginning of a great adventure. I got there at last. Et viola!

I could see across the silver sea, not one but two large flocks of flamingos in the distance. Hundreds of them. But no way to get there. Apparently, the locals aren’t as enamoured with access to the native birdlife as I am and there was no nature walk or bike path or any conceivable way around the shore to get to them. Undeterred I went the other way, around the back of some houses jammed right up against the shoreline. After clambering through old fishing nets, a boggy marsh, knee-deep in rotting seaweed and mud, I found, let’s call them a “flock” of ….. three flamingos! Maybe some teenage flamingos getting away from the olds, or the olds getting away from the teenagers. Who knows.

Reader, I married them. Ok, I didn’t but I did fall in love very, very swiftly.

My camera was charged. The light was beautiful. The flamingos were glorious. Oh, you have never seen anything so perfectly delightful. They were an absolute joy to watch. They are cartoonish, elegant, gangly, goofy and all ruffles and beaks, and very, very pink. And white. They wave those long stilt legs around all over the place, I think their knees bend both ways at the joints, I must find out, it certainly looked like it. One of them appeared to be moonwalking backwards for no discernable reason. Another loved to scratch itself above the beak by arching its neck in a kind of reverse loop, then rubbing the top of its head on its back. They are mesmerising. A wonder.

It has been the most wonderful experience. As they say, the journey and the destination. It has been thrilling. I am utterly, utterly dans le rose.

Flamingo facts

A group of flamingos is a “flamboyance.”

There are four species of flamingo, and they are native to the Americas, including the Caribbean, Africa and parts of Europe.

The name “flamingo” comes from the Portuguese or Spanish, flamengo or flame coloured.

Their beaks are adapted to separate mud and silt from what they eat and they use them upside down.

Their colour comes from carotenoids in their diets, which is plankton. The French flamingos are not as red as the American flamingos because there isn’t as much pigment in the plankton they eat.

They honk.

Montpellier flamingo
iPhone flamingo shot in the Camargue

14 thoughts on “Highway to flamingo zone

  1. Just love Love LOVE, reading your adventures and living vicariously through your descriptions, humour and humility …. thank you for capturing your adventures in words and photos, and the generosity of your time to share them with others.
    Excited to share your blog with my flamingo fanatic friend, Catherine… the most amazing community and Palliative care nurse in Albany … who rocks up to a fishing mad clients home in fish inspired footwear on Good Friday to get a smile …. who would just as easily don bathers, inflatable flamingo and a hot pink swimming cap for the right client 💕
    Thank you for writing when you can … no rules !
    We are grateful 🙏

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Absolutely loving your stories of your travels & especially the torturous drive. I was my husband’s navigator in Greece well before any GPS. Believe me surviving my directions gleaned from a much folded map is a true miracle & of my marriage too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. In 2016 we cycled from Bordeaux to Montpellier. The flamingos on the coast were amazing. Thanks for the memory.

    Other interesting villages on the coast and nearby are Adge and Sete. If you brave transport again!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Such a delightful piece of writing – you have a singular gift! The Camargue and a flamboyance or two have sat patiently on my bucket list for years … they are restless now!! Thank you for this early morning delight ….

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Enjoyed reading a raw trip experience. I mean what’s the fun of trip if it’s not full or trouble. That’s where stories are born. Flamingos.. what should I say.. they are one gorgeous bird to witness in their natural habitat. Apparently I too had similar flamingo trip here in India. Check out my blog on same and you may resonate with it as I did 😊👍 . A little hi five from another flamingo lover 🙌

    Liked by 1 person

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