You’ll meet hundreds of jackasses in South Africa.
Jackass penguins, that is. Before you ask, let me explain. These adorable, flightless birds were given this unfortunate name because of the donkey-like braying sound they emit. In more recent years, however, they’ve become politely known as African penguins.
Now that we have that out of the way, you want to know where to see penguins in South Africa, right? Birds of a feather certainly flock together — colonies of the country’s famous residents can be found on a number of islands but these two mainland locations in the Western Cape are your best bets and easily accessible from Cape Town (you will go to Cape Town during your stay in South Africa, won’t you?).
Surrounded by — you guessed it — giant granite boulders, this sandy cove in Simon’s Town is part of Table Mountain National Park and the most popular spot for penguin viewing. In fact, over 2,000 of them call Boulders Beach home and attract 60,000 visitors each year, and why wouldn’t they? They’re irresistible. The little tuxedoed critters can be seen waddling across the shoreline, darting in and out of the ocean and soaking in the sun like Charlize Theron on her last beach holiday — or meditating. It was hard to tell.
You’ll be confined to the boardwalks that snake through green flora and, every now and then, you’ll cross paths with a penguin or two resting in the shade amongst the vegetation just a mere few feet away.
Don’t get too close though. Despite their overwhelming cuteness, they may nip your fingers with their sharp beaks. No taunting, no harassing, no feeding — and you’ll emerge from the nature reserve with your digits unscathed.
But to get truly up close and personal, continue along one of the boardwalks until you hit Foxy Beach, a pristine stretch of soft white sand and calm, warm waters. Here, you can hit the ocean with the penguins but don’t try to keep up — they’ll outswim you by miles. They’re even known to join sunbathers on their beach towels! I didn’t have such an opportunity for this kind of intimacy (it was too cold), but I hope you do.
Fee: R65 for adults, R35 for children.
Getting there: From Cape Town, Boulders Beach is a one-hour drive south on the spectacular Cape Peninsula Route and on the way to the Cape of Good Hope, making an excellent day trip (read this post to learn more). For flexibility, renting a car is best but many bus tours include the beach in their itineraries.
You can also get your penguin fix at this picturesque seaside town in the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve. Once you find the colony at the abandoned whaling station at the Stony Point promontory, you’ll enjoy fewer crowds and a smaller fee than those at Boulders Beach. Unfenced until the 1980s after a leopard attack, the breeding grounds have grown from two to over 3,000 of the white-bellied birds. In fact, a broken fence wreaked havoc in 2012 when local properties were invaded by troops of loud and mischievous penguins, but you don’t live there so that’s not your concern.
There are no beaches for swimming but you can closely observe the penguins’ quirky antics from the boardwalk along the rocky outcrops. It takes about 10 minutes to reach the end but, of course, it will take longer — you’ll want to spend quality time with our feathered friends.
The best times for viewing are after their fishing excursions in the early morning and late afternoons. It would be wise to bring a sweater as the winds can get chilly.
Fee: R10 per person.
Getting there: Betty’s Bay is a gorgeous 60- to 90-minute drive southeast of Cape Town on R44 and an ideal stop on the way to Hermanus (read this post to learn more about this whale-watching and wine-sipping town).
Despite the amusing anecdote of intrusions at Betty’s Bay, African penguins in South Africa are teetering on the edge of extinction. Habitat loss, oil spills and the depletion of the fish on which they feed are among the reasons they’ve been on the endangered list since 2010. Visit the penguin colonies in their natural habitats at Boulders Beach and Betty’s Bay and you won’t just be entertained, you’ll help ensure their survival.
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