Penguins in Paradise

I discovered yesterday, flipping through my guide book as I sheltered from strong winds and flying sand in a bar in Hout Bay, that there is a penguin colony on the Cape Peninsula. Obviously this rocketed straight to pole position on my list of things to see while on the Cape, so I dedicated the hour before I went to bed to trying to work out how to get there.

The colony is at Boulders Beach, which is walking distance from Simon’s Town, which is about 40 minutes drive south of where I am in Hout Bay (which itself is about half an hour drive south of central Cape Town). This all sounds very manageable except from the fact that I don’t have a car. I arrived in Hout Bay by bus, but there are no buses that go to Simon’s Town, and to get there on foot I would have to have left yesterday somepoint. HELP ME I NEED TO SEE THE PENGUINS!

Then I remembered that this is South Africa and Ubers are not only abundant but astonishingly cheap. A 40 minute Uber ride back home in Edinburgh would likely trigger a bankruptcy letter from Santander, but the estimate for the ride to Simon’s Town was 215 Rand, which is around £13 (or $18). We are Ubering to the penguins. Goodnight.

When I checked for Ubers after breakfast I was unperturbed by the fact there were none available. If anything, this was a bonus opportunity to hang out with Max the dog and sit by the pool while the UV index was below 9.

At around 10:30, Ubers started to appear, but were a little pricey (for South Africa), so I waited another 15 minutes and they were back down to R215 like I saw last night. And we’re off.

After we get out of Hout Bay, my driver asks me if I want to pay the R45 toll to go through Chapman’s Peak Drive or go the other way. I wasn’t sure what Chapman’s Peak Drive was, but it had the words “peak” and “drive” in it so I  assumed it was more fun than “the other way” and said Hell Yes to the toll.

Good choice, girl. Chapman’s Peak Drive turns out to be an absolutely stunning road packed with switchbacks, cut outs and breathtaking views of the variety of coastal scenery along its route – from steep cliffs to massive sandy bays. Worth the toll ten times over.

Simon’s Town itself is dead cute. It’s got scenic surroundings, a yacht-filled harbour and a historic main street lined with pastel-coloured colonial buildings that incorporate both intricate iron balconies (which I love) and Cape Dutch-style gables (which are cool too). It also appeared to have some cool-looking bars which I made a note to check out on my return.

It’s a 20 minute walk from the centre of town where my Uber dropped me to Boulder’s Beach where the penguin colony is, and you know you’re getting close when…

Despite the dramatic warning that penguins were near, I managed to walk past the turning for Boulders Beach and ended up heading towards the sea at a place called Burghers Walk, where there is a gate that takes you on to a walking trail that apparently goes through penguin breeding grounds. I was in no particular hurry to get to Boulders Beach, and this walk also seemed like a fun thing to do, so I did it.

The trail is a narrow, sandy path through the shrubbery and along the coast. I saw a couple of Rock Hyraxes (whose closest living relative is the elephant #factoftheday) darting in and out of the undergrowth and, although it wasn’t breeding season, there were a few penguins sunning themselves on the rocks, giving me my first glimpse of penguins in the wild. Yasssss!

Further down this trail, once we were out of the nature reserve where the penguins breed, I stumbled upon what is as close to paradise as you can get really: a basically deserted white sandy double-cove beach with sheltered turquoise shallows and wind-breaking boulders. Dude.

Again, the penguins at Boulders could wait because I was hot from all the walking and nothing was going to stop me from doing what I think is called “going to the beach” here. So I spread my towel out and chilled the F out. Then I scrambled on some rocks and went for a dip. It’s the South Atlantic so it’s pretty chilly even in these shallow pools – but the air is almost 35°C, so the cold is definitely not an issue. I think this might be my favourite beach ever. (I googled it later and it’s called Windmill Beach)

All beached out, it was finally time to go see the penguins.  An introduction, then, to these wee tuxedoed seabirds and why they’re here:

Boulders Beach, like Windmill Beach where I’ve just been, is sheltered from the wind and the waves by big rocks, making it an ideal place for penguins to breed and hang out. The penguins in question are African Penguins, the only type of penguins you get this continent, and they can be found in colonies like this here and all the way up the coast to Namibia.

To see them at Boulders Beach, you pay a R75 conservation fee, negotiate a turnstile, saunter down a short boardwalk… and there they are.

All the penguins.

Right on the beach.

This is the best day of my life I swear.

With a bit of self control I managed not to stuff one into my bag as I was leaving… something I began to regret somewhat on the walk back to Simon’s Town. Happily, once back in Simon’s Town, I found a bang tidy bar called the Monocle & Mermaid where I could admire the map-based decor and enjoy a local brew until it was time for me to catch an Uber back to Hout Bay.

This time the driver didn’t ask me which road I wanted to take – he was more like “you gotta take Chapman’s Peak, dude” – and I wasn’t complaining. He had been giving me a running commentary of the history of Simon’s Town and the surrounding area as we drove away, and he also stopped right at the top of Chapman’s Peak Drive and made me get out to take photos which I will be forever thankful for because it was BEAUTIFUL.

What I am also thankful for is yesterday’s insane wind and flying sand at Hout Bay, which led me to take refuge in a bar for hours, and read my guidebook intently enough to discover the penguins at Boulders Beach. I can’t say what I would have done today without that, but probably not this.

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