Going to South Africa and expecting to see animals in the wild is pretty standard stuff. Most people think of lions, giraffes, elephants and hippos as what they might see from the backseat of a safari vehicle – it’s another thing entirely to walk along a sun-splashed beach and find the sand covered with hundreds of knee-high flightless birds.
Yep, South Africa has penguins – lots of them, actually – and they’re one of the things that should be on your must-see list if you’re headed to Cape Town.
There are a couple of places near Cape Town where you can get up close and personal with penguins (just remember – don’t touch them!), one of which is Boulders Beach on the Cape Peninsula. The African penguins that call Boulders Beach home settled there in the early 1980s, and while the main beach where they nest is off-limits to humans, there are other beaches nearby that are popular for swimming and sunbathing. And of course, since no one can tell the penguins to stay on their own secluded beach, you might end up swimming or sunning yourself beside a little black-and-white bird.
You’ll pay a R45 entry fee to walk down a broad wooden ramp to the main beach where the penguins congregate, called Foxy Beach. On the way, be sure to look into the bushes on either side of the path – you’ll see plastic bunker-like artificial nests that have been put up for the penguins, as well as plenty of nesting penguin pairs hiding out in the grass. Oh, and that donkey-like sound you hear? That’s a penguin call. There’s a reason these little guys are also sometimes known as “Jackass penguins.”
You can get a train from Cape Town to nearby Simon’s Town and then walk the roughly two miles to Boulders Beach, or you can drive. The easiest thing to do is book a day tour of the Cape Peninsula, going all the way out to the Cape Point lighthouse before heading back to Cape Town by way of Boulders Beach. Just be aware that if you do drive, signs in the Boulders Beach parking lot instruct you to check under your cars for penguins before you drive away. The only penguin you should be bringing home is the souvenir stuffed animal every shop in the area sells.
Can’t get enough of the penguins? Back in Cape Town, make an appointment to visit the SANCCOB seabird rescue facility. A one-hour private tour is R40 per person (available Tuesday-Thursday), and you can even adopt – and name – your own penguin chick in the busy June-December season for R500.