At least once a year, the Daily Mail reels out a variation-on-a-theme survey on the life events that give adults most stress. In 2015-16 I managed to tick a few off: death (close family member), divorce (close family member), moving house (of deceased close family member), separation (me) and job loss (also me, at the same time as the separation; I kept the coffee machine, he kept the business – to be fair it was his in the first place, the business, not the coffee machine). I considered various coping mechanisms from dying my hair pink (new life new me!) to drowning in a barrel of vodka (“poor m,e my laife is over, i will vdie old and lonely with jusjt cats for company” thanks Drunk Post Translator) but then someone mentioned penguins. Yes penguins. And everything changed.
Have you ever met somebody who doesn’t love a penguin? No you haven’t, and you never will. Not only are they “small smart well-dressed creatures” (beautiful description by a beautiful person) but they are the friendly creatures of our childhood, the happy waddlers in books, cartoons and films, from the cheeky chappies in Madagascar to the gobbledygook-speaking mischievous Pingu. We hold them close to our hearts. So when I was informed that you could HANG OUT WITH REAL LIVE WILD PENGUINS ON THE BEACH IN SOUTH AFRICA, I invited the travel agent to relieve me of euros and asked Air France to deliver me from Palma to Cape Town (via Barcelona and Paris Charles de Gaulle – saved me 400 euros).
I’ll miss out the waffle on the guy who asked for 3D glasses to see the in-flight film better (what planet?!), the waiter wearing pilot goggles in the best coffee shop IN THE WORLD (Truth), and the fact that South Africa has Woolworths (but it’s like M&S Food Hall, but cheaper) and cut STRAIGHT TO THE PENGUINS.
Less than an hour’s drive from the centre of Cape Town (head for Simon’s Town, South Africa’s quaintly Victorian main naval base, and follow the penguin-emblazoned signs) is Boulders Penguin Colony. There are lots of nice big smooth round boulders (hence the name) but forget the boulders, you are here because there are 3,000 (THREE THOUSAND) wild penguins hanging out on the beach. As a protected species, in a protected area (namely Table Mountain National Park) you can’t just rock up and start petting penguins. There’s an entrance fee to be paid (70 rand each, about 4 euros at time of writing), a wheelchair-friendly wooden walkway to be followed and a bunch of tourists to jostle for camera space with, but you won’t mind a bit. I promise. Because there are THREE THOUSAND PENGUINS to admire.
I feel I should do a bit of biology at this point. So, skip to the next paragraph if you were easily bored in double science at school. Of course you are forgiven for associating penguins with snow, ice and general freeziness. Yes, there are seven types who chill (#sorrynotsorry) in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands, including the more-than-a-metre tall Emperor penguin who weighs in at 30kg, but there are also African penguins. These little fellas weigh on average between 2.1 and 3.7kg and stand at only 50cm and are found in 27 sites in Africa. Clumsy on land, they’re epic swimmers and can do up to 24km/h in the water using their wings as flippers.
Right, biology done, back to Boulders Beach. I encountered my first penguin about three metres after slinking through the turnstile and it was a proper magical love-at-first-sight moment. He (she?) looked at me, I looked at him (her?), and gradually sidled closer and closer to get that all-important “hey, here’s me with a cute penguin, on a beach, in Africa!” photo. Then the spell was broken. The vulgar beast let out a projectile white shit (excuse the language) which had me leaping for cover.
Turning a corner on the wooden walkway, one penguin became hundreds of penguins, a noisy monochrome crowd on a perfect sand beach. The camera went into overdrive as I picked out fluffy baby penguins, speedy swimming penguins, amorous hand-holding penguins and, boom, publically rutting penguins. Yes, not only do they think it’s acceptable to shit in a tuxedo, they also think it’s acceptable to noisily procreate in one. I didn’t know where to look. Although I took some comfort in the fact that as a species they’re known to stay loyal to a single partner for several years, so hopefully I wasn’t voyeuring a promiscuous penguin.
All in all it was a highly memorable experience – and I am so grateful that I got to hang out with penguins on the beach, despite their questionable manners. Speaking of questionable manners, the local Simon’s Town residents don’t think too fondly of their furry neighbours. They break through the fences, invade their gardens and enjoy taking refuge under warm cars, which can cause quite a mess if they get run over. Furthermore they have a vicious bite – so never try to pick up a penguin.