It was the time of day when you have no shadow, when anyone sensible is indoors, or at least sitting in the shade of a tree. From within our seaside apartment I hadn’t realised just how hot it was. With the sea breeze I am frequently tricked into forgetting the lethal scorching heat of the African sun. We were going to see the penguins.
April emerged like a wet rag from the car after the fifteen minute drive. While she had been dashing around playing less than half an hour earlier, she suddenly melted into a puddle, and clung and moped as we walked through the heat toward Boulders Beach. Curio stands lined the walk from the parking lot to the nature reserve. Wooden snakes, tribal masks and beaded wire animals spilled over batik-clothed tables, their sellers seated beneath umbrellas, socializing, but breaking off mid-sentence to suggest you buy a statue, a keyring, a toy. A toddler in a clean white party dress, white shiny shoes and frilly socks teetered around her parents, adorably dressed for church, I surmised, as it was Sunday.
As we neared the entrance to the beach, a crowd of Chinese tourists appeared like a gaggle of unruly geese, honking and crowding past. As they caught sight of Charlie, her pink marshmallowy legs and ocean-blue eyes, faces lit up, laughter, and hands reached to touch her chubby segmented appendages. Equipped with telephoto lenses that could get close-ups of the moon, they were ready to photograph the penguins, and incidentally also any unsuspecting blue-eyed babies they encountered.
About a hundred feet from the gate is a sign for Table Mountain National Park featuring a life-sized photograph of an African penguin. In front of it is a big rock. April, recovered from her malaise, ran to climb it and as she reached the top, a young Chinese man looked at me and then pointed to the sign.
Yes, it’s a picture of a penguin, I thought to myself. He must have seen the skepticism on my face. His eyes bright, he pointed again, but lower.
“There. In the bush.”
I looked deep into the thick tangled hedge and sure enough, a lone penguin was hiding out, no doubt relishing the cool shade. Suddenly, a crowd swarmed us, as though a gaggle of teenage girls had spotted Ryan Gosling. As Josh was peering down, a woman pushed in below him, her camera clicking as she slammed against his legs.
“Just because you can get below me doesn’t mean you should,” Josh muttered after she had moved on. By this time, most of the other tourists had dispersed, and we could observe the penguin in a more serene manner.
Josh’s latest acquisition is a 2 1/2 inch by 1 1/2 inch sports camera. When he took it out of the packaging, I thought it was a joke. “That’s it?” I asked. It’s small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. It looks like a toy. There isn’t even a viewfinder. But after my initial doubt, I admit that it’s a nifty little camera. It takes wide angle video and photos, can be bashed around, submerged in water, and you can use your smartphone to preview the images. Josh also bought a handle-bar mount with which he secured it to an extendable pole (that was previously attached to the squeegee we washed our windows with). This, in my opinion, is the best part.
He lowered his camera into the bush a few inches in front of the penguin. Curious, it turned its head from side to side and then proceeded to inspect it and peck at it. This continued for a good few minutes as Josh recorded it on video. “It’s trying to eat it!” April squealed. After a thorough inspection, the penguin appeared satisfied that this strange shiny object was not, in fact, edible. Josh withdrew the camera.
“Well, I’m happy. Now we can leave,” Josh said.
I smiled and ushered April on toward the entrance.
Boulders Beach, named unsurprisingly for the massive granite rocks that frame this sandy protected inlet on the False Bay Peninsula, became home to two pairs of African penguins in 1982. Thirty years later, those four penguins have become approximately 3000. It’s an ideal home as it’s protected by indigenous bush from above and 540 million year old granite boulders on the sides. The animals also happily coexist with their human neighbours, eating, swimming and sunbathing alongside the locals and tourists. And there are lots of tourists.
It was only once we were on the wooden board walk that I realised how foolish it was to go on a weekend. It was like going to the zoo. There was crowding, shoving and general mayhem. While we might come from a country where people are so polite that they line up for the bus, evidently none of the other tourists did.
The viewing area penguin colony is on a small strip of white sand beach, amusingly named Foxy Beach (the next inlet over from Boulders). There are a few hundred pengiuns: some standing on rocks like statues, their faces erected to the sun; others were bodysurfing in the shallow waves. African penguins are about the size of a large chicken, and have no distinguishing markings like a chin-strap or colourful crest. They simply look like little penguins. As I surveyed the beach, I noticed a few roosting pairs, with large white eggs half-buried in little ditches in the sand.
“Look April,” I pointed when we had finally managed to find a clear space along the railing, “the babies are the big fluffy brown ones.”
“And the grown-ups are the black and white ones?” she asked.
She kneeled down to get a better view, and was nearly trodden on by another determined happy snapper. Beside us, a Russian man with a massive video camera was filming his adult son. Despite the signs with illustrations clearly instructing one not to try and touch the penguins, this large burly fool was determined to make physical contact nonetheless. He kneeled down on the wooden platform and wedged his body between the bars, trying with all his might to reach the curious black and white birds below.
“He’s trying to touch them,” April announced to me.
“Yes,” I said. “He’s very foolish.”
Apparently he couldn’t understand English. He continued to reach and flap. I secretly hoped that one would bite him. After another minute of watching this, and bored with the idiocy of others, we moved to a different section of railing and waited patiently, once again, for a small space to open up. April looked at the various penguin postures and asked, one by one, what each was doing.
“What’s he doing?” she asked, pointing to a penguin lying on its belly on a rock.
“It looks like it’s sleeping.”
“What that one doing,” she pointed to one standing motionless, face toward the sun.
“It looks like its sunbathing.”
After about ten more penguins, all engaged in equally thrilling activities, we decided we had had enough of the crowd and headed back. As we reached the exit, I noticed a big green sign with white letters.
“Penguins may bite,” it warned.
“I wish it had bitten that Russian guy,” I admitted to Josh.
“Oh,” he said, grinning. “It did.”