CAPE TOWN, South Africa ― It was the penguins that made me fly to South Africa. Strange, I know, since South Africa is renowned for its hot climate and penguins are supposed to live in the frozen Antarctic. Ever since I discovered that penguins live in South Africa, I’ve longed to fly there and check.
Hence, at Christmas, I was in one of South Africa’s penguin colonies paddling, walking on the beach and taking a nap with the birds.
My friend and I took a one-hour drive to Boulders, located on the east coast of the Cape Peninsula, from a backpackers’ hostel where we stayed near City Bowl, paying a pricey taxi fare of 600 rand ($84). When asked if it’s a bad idea to get close to the penguins, the taxi driver said, “No,” and he laughed. “They are friendly, sometimes too friendly.” After asking him to pick us up five hours later, we disembarked in the parking lot where a signpost read: “Warning. Please look under your vehicles for penguins.”
At the entrance the ticket clerk said we had a choice. We could go to the penguin colony at Foxy Beach or we could visit Boulders beach and simply enjoy the sunshine. I took the penguin colony without hesitation, as many others did, assuming that it’s the right place to observe penguins. After walking a few steps on a well-constructed, narrow boardwalk I was thrilled by the first penguin I had ever seen in its natural habitat. The penguin was lying on its belly in the shade of some dense bushes to avoid the blistering sunshine. It was blinking, as if to fight against sleep. It was weird to see a penguin lying about on dry ground, hundreds of meters from the ocean, with no icebergs around. There was not even a little artificial ice of the kind found in aquariums. The penguin was also smaller than I expected. I thought it was a baby, but I soon found that an adult African penguin is usually only about 50 centimeters tall. After walking a few steps further, I found a couple of penguins sleeping while standing bolt upright under some trees. Like any other penguins, their heads and back were black, as if wearing a helmet and a suit, while their bellies were white. But they also had black spots on their belly, black breast bands that linked to their wings, and a white head band, along with what looked like pink eyeshadow. The African penguin has feathers that are shorter than its Antarctic cousin. As I walked by I saw some were incubating eggs in sheltered nests that they had dug out under the bushes in order to protect them from the heat and aerial predators such as Kelp Gulls. Penguins are monogamous and take turns to look after their young ― one bird incubates the egg while the other goes to the sea to get food.
At the end of the narrow trail, an open space emerged before me. Hundreds of black dots could be seen on the shore, all of them penguins. At the viewing platform, many people screamed with glee at the birds’ antics. Others were busy taking photos of the penguins tottering and sliding into the ocean. It was amazing to see so many penguins in this hot weather, even more so considering this was their natural environment. However, I was a bit disappointed. It felt like visiting a zoo, because there was a wooden fence between visitors and the birds, preventing anyone from getting too close. I saw photogenic penguins, but not the “friendly” ones the taxi driver had mentioned. To be friendly, they would need to be closer to me.
So, I headed to Boulders Beach, thinking my “penguin tour.” was over.
The beach was crowded with families. As numerous as the people were the huge granite boulders that give the place its name. To look for a secluded place, we kept walking. I had to climb rocks and crawl into the spaces between them. I nearly fell. As soon as I recovered from this dangerous moment, I saw a short black thing walking in front of me. It was a penguin! And he was not the only one.
The further I walked, the more penguins there were and the human population diminished. When I finally reached the end of the beach I encountered a sign that instructed me not to go beyond that point. There, I spotted a small, quiet, beautiful beach. The big rocks behind me separated me from the noise of the main beach. I felt like having my own beach so I kept going, although I had to share the secluded spot with many penguins and another couple.
The penguins also took advantage of the rocks, taking naps in the shade. A couple of penguins had squeezed between two rocks to cool themselves down. In fact, it was hard to lie down because the penguins had taken all the good spots. My friend and I took a corner of the beach that offered some shade.
The penguins didn’t seem to care about the intruders on their territory. When I got closer, to take photos of them, they looked at me and turned their heads, as if saying “Pheww, what an ugly creature.” They were lying down on the beach just next to me, and some tottered around just before my feet, swinging their short tails. I could have touched them but didn’t, as it was prohibited.
And then I heard “someone” sneeze. I looked around, but there was nobody nearby. “Was it a penguin?” I asked. “They sneeze,” said the female half of the couple who shared the beach with us. “They sound like humans. But don’t worry, it’s not bird flu!” We all laughed.
Some of the other penguins made weird sounds like a car horn honking. People often think that this sound is like a donkey’s bray. African penguins are also called Jackass penguins because of this braying call. When they strut in the sun and make this noise they look like angry little men in tuxedos.
As the tide got higher and the temperature dropped penguins that had spent the day time resting in the shade began diving into the clear water to fish. Some jumped around on the ground like sparrows , lifting both feet at the same time. Although my guidebook warned me that they could smell unpleasant, I smelt nothing except the salty tang of the ocean. I was probably too enthralled by their appearance to notice any odors.
Time passes quickly with the penguins so make sure that you get off the little beach before the tide overtakes you. It really comes in quickly and an unwary visitor could be cut off. We escaped from the situation thanks to the rain that started to fall just around the time our taxi driver was due to return.
How to get to Cape Town:
There is no direct flight from Seoul. Either transfer in Bangkok via Thai Airways or in Hong Kong via South African Airways to Johannesburg. Make sure you have ample time for the transfer. From Johannesburg to Cape Town, contact budget domestic airlines, such as Kulula (www.kulula.com), 1time (www.1time.co.za) and Mango (www.flymango.com). Sometimes, British Airways (www.ba.com) offers better deals as does South African Airways (www.flysaa.com).
How to get to Boulders:
Taxi is the best and safest public transportation. Taxi fares can be negotiated if you’re traveling a long distance to places like Boulders . I paid 600 rand ($84) from The Backpack to the beach for round trip. One way trip costs 400 rands.
There is also a metro commuter train to Simon’s Town, near Boulders. It’s cheap, but staff at my backpackers’ hostel said it was not recommended.
To enter both the Penguin Colony and Boulders Beach: Adults must pay 25 rand for entrance while a child pays 5 rand.
The Backpack (www.backpackers.co.za) 72 New Church St, Tamboerskloof; 021-423-4530, from 95 rands.
Cape Town Backpackers (www.capetownbackpackers.com) 81 New Church St; 021-426-0200, from 90 rands.
(Note: I wrote this for the Korea JoongAng Daily.)