The last time I eyeballed a penguin it was underwater – swimming with the knee-high Humboldt bird while they torpedoed around me – in the Galapagos many years ago. This time I was on land, thousands of miles in another direction, staring up at its cousin, the petite African penguin on its favourite beach in South Africa.
Boulders Beach, south of Cape Town, is the African penguin's favourite sunbathing and nesting spot. Thousands of these black and white birds with their distinct pink eyeshadow marking congregate on the golden sands, sheltering from the elements, and hemmed in by the picturesque giant granite boulders after which the beach is named. As part of the Table Mountain National Park, the area is protected: successful conservation measures have seen numbers soar from two breeding pairs in 1982 to around 3,000 penguins today.
Peering at the penguins on Boulders Beach
I'd wanted to see the penguins, and the Cape of Good Hope, but with no transport of my own, I decided to join a tour which would whisk me around the famous spots south of Cape Town in one day. I booked with Cape Convoy, led by owner and guide Rob Salmon, whose quirky knowledge and patter appealed.
We headed out of Cape Town early to beat the crowds. Parking up to head out to the viewing points and boardwalks of Foxy Beach, right next to Boulders, on False Bay, Rob had already started prepping us for close-up penguin encounters with unusual facts. He told us to keep an eye out for drain openings on the kerbside, a favourite hideaway for the birds, and sure enough we saw one sheltering.
The penguins, once known as jackass penguins for their braying call, are endangered due to oil spills, and thieves who rob their eggs. This thieving threat was very real Rob told us: certain foreigners were using selfie sticks to hook eggs from the boardwalks on Foxy Beach. Needless to say selfie sticks are now banned by park authorities. You wouldn't find this info in the guidebook...
The day we visited Boulders, it was windy, and hundreds of the birds were huddled together as they braced the wind but this meant we could spy them all at close quarters as the wind fluffed their feathers. It was quite a breathtaking sight.
Our group almost reached peak penguin facts, Rob knows so much – about their eye lids, their genitalia, their parenting skills, their moulting patterns, and horror-movie danger from their flying avian relative: the kelp gull lures penguins away from their eggs, snatches the eggs, drops them from a height just to crack the shell open and sucks out the contents. We all recoiled at this true-life nature horror story.
Wild and windy Cape Point
After seeing the penguins, Rob was keen to get going on the road south to the Cape Peninsula, a wild, wind-whipped slab of land slapped into the fierce seas of the southern Atlantic. His reasoning being to escape the traffic jams that build up later in the day. We did catch a glance of snoozing seals at a port on the way, though. The seals must be used to human activity as they didn't budge when we approached with our cameras.
As ever, Rob brought the landscape and history to life when he told our group that in 1486 King John II of Portugal sent maritime explorer Bartolomeu Dias south to the base of Africa to find a trade route to India. King John had asked: "Good hope of reaching India?" That's how the Cape of Good Hope got its name, Rob said:
"It wasn't until years later that another Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama returned with maps and rounded the Cape of Good Hope. He headed east but was blown into the Bay of False Hope. He got stuck for four days. He eventually got to India in 1498."
The drive south to the point passed rocky, shrubby, gorse-peppered open plains pegged with peaks framed by an infinite blue sea on the horizon. The views were mesmerising but it seemed like a fairly hostile environment – to humans that is.
The "beware of the tortoise" road sign raised a smile and brought home to us that some South African wildlife has taken to living happily on this remote Atlantic headland.
The wildlife bounty was unexpected and a huge bonus. We saw pale orange protea flowers, hairy baboon, and black ostrich. Some of us got out of the van to get a closer look at the Chacma baboons but their skill at snatching sandwiches out of the hands of other unsuspecting visitors saw us racing back for cover!
Rob had got us to Cape Point, the southern most tip of the peninsula early, to beat the crowds. It's a climb up to the lighthouse at Cape Point but worth it for the feeling of raw wildness and to witness the rage of the Atlantic. The less able – or the lazy – can take the Flying Dutchman funicular up to the peak.
On the lower ledges we had to brace ourselves when taking photos as the wind was so powerful. Peering over the ledge towards the rocky point the teal green sea merged with an inky blue before a white spread of foam splattered about the shore as the ocean slammed into the Point. No wonder the explorers had had trouble rounding this continental point, I thought, as the crazed winds blew boisterously around us. In fact, Bartolomeu Dias had named it Cape of Storms when he finally rounded the southern point in 1488.
We visited the exact Cape of Good Hope area on our return journey with our group trying to take selfies, unsuccessfully, in the wind in front of the sign that marks the spot. On our return route we spied Eland antelope, and the gorgeous dazzling white crescent beach named Dias after the explorer.
An organised trip with a group of travellers is a fun way to see the Cape, and with a fish and chip lunch stop at the pretty naval town of Simon's Town on the return journey, we were back in Cape Town early afternoon with time to catch plenty more sights before the day was out.
No time for a trip to the Cape? You can see African penguins and their cousins at the fantastic Victoria and Alfred Waterfront Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. Or, if you're headed to Robben Island, you can see them toddling about on the beaches there.