Guest Author - Carrie McLaughlin
The second in a six-part series, Earthflight: Africa opens at a cruising altitude high above softly smoky, back lit clouds approaching the legendary, solitary sentinel, Table Mountain, at the southernmost tip of Africa. The film proceeds at a swift clip through jaw-dropping visual splendors and searingly stark savageries.
Hundreds of cape gannets fold sharply and slice deeply into the sardine runs like a military missile bombardment, while aerodynamically sleek dolphins power upward through the fish shoals from the sea depths to break the sardines apart and scatter them - a mutually beneficial hunting technique for both bird and mammal. Bronze whaler sharks knife in, and 50-foot Bryde whales weighing 20-plus tons plunge and arc with gaping gullets gigantic beyond belief, straining and swallowing vast amounts of salt water and fish through their baleens.
Soar next in the thermals with fish eagles and hooded vultures above the super-heated African landscape to an artificial breeding island designed by ornithologist Mark D. Anderson. From high above the earth, and into a dizzying trajectory downward, an enormous, glittering, pink S floating in the blue lake waters is gradually revealed as a huge colony of wall-to-wall lesser flamingos. At ground level alongside the long-legged waders, the flock has the look of a layered pink confectionery - a bottom layer of dark red legs and feet topped with an upper layer of soft pink and deep rose feathers, punctuated by huge, hooked black beaks and glossy black wing tips. Brilliantly glowing, solid red eyes are mesmerizing and otherworldly.
The lesser flamingos filter-feed on blue-green algae from heavily alkaline “soda” lakes like this one at Kamfers Dam.
Once again in the air with the vultures, admiring incredible camera close-ups of flight feathers as they lift and cant and subside over the bird’s body surface. The wing tips flick and hold, tip and spread, with the air currents, and the camera view down the vulture’s back to the tail reveals an effective rudder with the most delicately precise movements.
A brief encounter with a pride of lions results in one disbelieving and unfortunately slow vulture being attacked and mauled by an angry lioness - and, as anthropomorphic as it sounds, the camera’s immediate capture of the wide-eyed gaze and gaping beak of a fellow vulture was astoundingly a look of shocked horror.
Kelp gulls on Cape Point at Seal Island feed on seal meat provided at least thirty times a day by the great white shark. A gull’s eye view, while streaking just above the water as a seal is stalked and run down by a great white, is shockingly terminated by a sudden shift to a frontal view of the shark’s massive jaws and giant triangular teeth horrifically slamming shut on a stunned and struggling seal.
Scarcely has the shock registered when the scene shifts to serene slow motion footage of barn swallow flight while three million of them prepare to migrate across Africa to Europe. Set against a deep red-orange, lowering sky, the camera reveals what the eye can never see in these swift-moving aerial insect hunters. The rippling waters are a deep antique gold as the film captures the swallows first dipping their lower beak as a scoop into the gilded surface, and then tipping their foreheads forward as they tuck their now-closed beaks toward the breast and drink the liquid down - all on the wing without slowing. Bathing is also done while in flight as they angle shallowly under the surface and burst upward in one incredibly swift motion.
Air-surfing with fish eagles over the white mists, vibrant arching rainbows, and turbulent updrafts of thundering Victoria Falls, on the Zambezi River, moves the journey forward to the Rift Valley. The view is miles high over the Serengeti plains as 1.5 million wildebeest impressively stream beneath on their annual migration. A stop at the dark red and muddy Mara River turns into a deadly bottleneck as the wildebeest and zebras struggle across the swift river while crocodiles lunge and rip, and snap and strangle and submerge the panicked, braying animals. But still the herd comes - biologically determined to complete the annual trek with full and terrible knowledge of the perils before them. The vultures, eagles and marabou storks have their feast.
The lesser flamingos, looking awkward and prehistoric, yet somehow also streamlined and graceful in flight, have now landed at a famous traditional stopover - Lake Nakuru. However, due to heavy metal poisoning of the water, the blue-green algae has died off and the tired, hungry flamingos are finding nothing to eat. Weakened thus, they are no match for the hyenas who have recently learned that all they have to do is trot down these magnificent birds - and so they do. The refuge has become a death trap. One kill after another. It becomes frenzied and senseless. Flamingo bodies drift unattended in pink cotton candy piles - the wastefulness is appalling. Another feast for the vultures and eagles.
The cinematic focus on predator and prey in Africa intensifies.
The lesser flamingos struggle upward and onward, seriously flagging and in dire need of sustenance. They are joined by East African flamingos, and they all land - over a million strong- at their annual breeding grounds on Lake Bogoria. Food and rest. Finally.
But no. Heavily muscled brown baboons, running in a pack, burst full bore out of the bushes, to hotly pursue the weak, tired, and desperately hungry flamingos. Overwhelmingly - energetically fierce and determined - the baboons run the squawking, terror-stricken birds down. Mists rise from the hot springs of the lake as broken and bitten and battered flamingos drift lifelessly in the shallows. The baboons rip into some, abandon the rest. Fish eagles, steppe eagles and vultures move in.
Back on the Serengeti plains, the vast herd of ungulates is completing its journey, but must find water and rest at the clay-colored ribbon of the Grumeti River. With stunning and sickening swiftness, just as the beleagured beasts relax to drink, enormous Nile crocodiles with massive jaws ambush the weary and thirsty wildebeests and zebras from under the dark waters. Slow motion footage ensues of the reflexive springing terror of the animals, and the gut-wrenching savagery of the huge reptiles. It is a crocodile carnage. Beyond belief. Mutilated, uneaten bodies are everywhere. Once again, a feast of fortune for the vultures, eagles and marabou storks.
An eagle takes us high above the plains back to the breeding grounds of Bogoria. The eagle’s eye view of that magnificent pink swath of flamingos blanketing the shore and shallows is soothing to see - and everything is calm. The birds are rested and well fed.
Fascinatingly, the eye picks up on a small cluster of flamingos amid the dense hordes. They have begun to move in a stiff, stilted fashion, tightly close together, seemingly as one organism. Gradually, the others join in and the ranks swell until all within sight are synthesized into a synchronized pink promenade of flamingos.
They are dancing.
Mated pairs, within the whole, perform in perfectly symmetrical moves that strengthen the pair bonds, but the entire flock is dancing together. The movements are herky-jerky, yet simultaneously purposeful and balletic. A wondrous sight.
Earthflight: Africa ends with the barn swallows swiftly arrowing across the Sahara Desert toward Europe. Magnificent views of sloping, shadowed, sand mountains - sparsely dotted with the mirrored surface of an occasional oasis - and scarred at times with rocky uplifts. White storks steadily wing their way up the Nile River and arrive at the brilliant, deep blue Mediterranean Sea as they, too, prepare a long and treacherous water crossing to the neighboring continent.