Sunday, January 12, 2014

March of the Jackass Penguins in Simon's Town

What if Cape Town, Auckland's North Shore in New Zealand and Israel's northern Mediterranean coastline had a threesome, and one of them gave birth to a baby who was born in Mystic, Connecticut, spent her first few summers in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and relocated to the Indian Ocean coast of South Africa's Western Cape when she was four. She'd probably grow up to look a lot like Simon's Town.

It's the quaintest of places, dramatically set, like Cape Town, which is only one hour by train away, between mountain and sea, rising from the space in the middle like an 18th-century Dutch toy village. My first thought when the train pulls into the station after a 20-minute journey along the shoreline of False Bay -- as soon as I finish gawking at the mountains, then the water, then the mountains, then the water: What a nice place for a long-weekend getaway. Why did it take me two months to get here (exactly, as I arrived in Cape Town on November 11)? It's quiet enough to offer a respite from the hustle and bustle of the Cape Town's City Bowl, but not so sleepy that it'll threaten to send you into a deep slumber.

But enough about the city! I came here for the penguins, and whoever is responsible for Simon Town's city planning knows the cute winged but non-flying aves are perhaps its greatest attraction, for you can get beautiful beaches pretty much anywhere along the Western Cape coast. This, however, is where you have to go to have an audience with the African Penguins (aka, the Jackass Penguins -- so-called for the braying sound they make), the only penguin species that breeds on the entire continent.

The penguin trail is about 30 minutes by foot from the train station, right off Simon's Town's main drag, and there are two different paths. The paid route (55 rand, or roughly $5, for adults, 25 rand for children) leads to the penguin colony on Foxy Beach, and there's also a free path, Willis Walk, where you can spot stray penguins nesting in the shrubbery.

Beware of the beavers! They're cute and cuddly as they scurry across the boardwalk, but get too close with your camera, and they might bite with those outstretched teeth. I get to experience one's silent bark myself as he jumps up to the top of the fence separating me from its family but I back away just in time to escape its bite.

According to the warning signs along the trail, penguins bite, too, and those sharp beaks can puncture and do serious damage, but they appear to be paying little mind to the humans gawking at them. The first group of penguins that I approach are standing still as midnight, as if at attention, like unarmed miniature Pinkerton guards. I have to get closer to make sure that I'm not looking at a stuffed penguin display. The ones further down the walkway on the shore are more playful and social, waddling and flapping about, as if they don't have a care in the world.

Sadly, they do, as the African penguin is on the endangered list. But in the natural protected sanctuary from Foxy Beach to Boulders Beach, they're treated like VIPs (very important penguins), not locked up in cages or forced to perform stupid pet tricks for humans. As I stare at them in their feather tuxedos, I notice that they seem proud, maybe just a little haughty. I think they're looking down their beaks at us, wondering, What's up with them? Those penguins are so smart. I was just looking at my fellow gawkers and asking myself the same thing.

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