Up close and personal with penguins is quite oar right

December 23, 2009 Edition 1

Bianca Coleman

THEY say you should never ask the question unless you are prepared to hear the answer so perhaps I should not have pursued my idle ponderings about penguins.

Call me sick and twisted if you want, but we do eat all sorts of other animals so, while thinking about this story, I wondered what would happen if I Googled "penguin recipes". It was a quiet day, okay?

As it happens, you get quite a few hits although I'm still not sure how serious they are. I don't see any reason why they wouldn't cook and eat them up there in the cold part of the globe, along with a side order of seal, but down here in the warm south we're rather fond of the waddly little birds and don't look at them in quite the same way as we view a nice little lamb. Or even a duck.

In fact, we love them so much that we've given them their own colony, and we pay good money to access a beach where we can swim with them, just the other side of Simon's Town. There's also another way to get up close and personal with the African Penguin (formerly known as the Jackass Penguin but it seems PC-ness catches up with everyone sooner or later), and that's to paddle a kayak.

Kayak Cape Town offers daily (weather permitting), two-hour guided paddles, departing from Simon's Town harbour to Boulders and back again. Like most outdoor activities in Cape Town, apart from kite surfing, it's best to schedule this trip for the morning, before the dreaded south-easter picks up. I was supposed to do this one last year for EsCape Times and was gutted when guide/operator Derek Goldman said it was too windy.

"Rubbish!" I yelled over the howling gale. But he was right, of course. This time the weather gods smiled upon us with a perfect, windless, hot day and an ocean as smooth as glass. By the time we got back though, the wind was picking up and the water in the harbour was getting choppy. So you have been warned.

Anyone can kayak; no experience is necessary. The kayaks are very stable and the billboard at the meeting point promises, rather rashly I thought, that you will not fall off. I called Goldman on this and he assured me that it is extremely unlikely and only happens when people (read: silly teenagers) foolishly mess around. Even so, you are equipped with a little flotation device and since you'd be a whole new breed of fool to go out there if you can't swim, I don't think there is much to worry about.

There's no need to dress - swimming costume under shorts and a T-shirt or vest will do it - but do slather on the sunblock. One of our party, a foreigner, had skin as white as milk and I had some concerns. Axel was his name, and he was paired up with me in the two-seater kayak.

Before setting off, Goldman showed us how to paddle and steer properly. "Will my arms hurt tomorrow?" I wanted to know. "Not if you do it right," he replied. "But you probably won't, so yes." Goldman has a very dry sense of humour and cracks plenty of jokes.

Then he went and put my co-ordination skills under serious pressure by placing me in the back seat of the kayak where I also had to control the rudder with my feet. It's a lot to concentrate on, but I caught on quickly. I was far happier being in charge of our direction than after the halfway stop when Axel took over. We'd already had a tiny difference of opinion as to how to reverse out of a shallow rocky bay and I was not confident about his steering skills. "Would you please not head directly for the rock?" I sniped, paddling furiously to turn the way I wanted to go.

Apart from the control issues, it was beautiful. We saw penguins, we paddled up to seals, we stopped at a secluded beach whose name I am not going to share, and we raised gigantic flocks of birds. Goldman would know what kind because he's clever like that.

The paddling was indeed easy enough, especially with Goldman on our starboard side giving tips. And there was only a small bit of stiffness.

From land, you can see penguins in their colony, or at Boulders Beach. It's a dinky little bay, completely protected from the south-easter and access is limited. This could also be because at high tide the beach is only about 30cm wide. All right, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it's close. It's a fantastic family beach because it's so small and the water is so calm.

Entrance to Boulders costs R35 but if you're a local, I suggest you get yourself a Wild Card for just R75. It's valid for a year and will give you 12 entries into various Table Mountain National Park sites, as well as discounted entries into others. You can use it on your own, or with up to six people (maximum four adults), which each person counting as one entry. Sites include The Cape of Good Hope (Cape Point), Boulders Penguin Colony, Tokai, Silvermine and Oudekraal. In addition, the card offers free use of the braai and picnic areas at the Newlands and Perdekloof picnic sites.

To get a Wild Card you'll need your SA ID and proof of Cape Town residence. They are available at: Cape Town Tourism, corner Strand and Burg streets, Cape Town, 021 423 8005
Noordhoek Tourism, Noordhoek Farm Village, Noordhoek, 021 789 2812
Peninsula Tourism, Kirstenbosch Info Centre, Kirstenbosch Gardens, Newlands, 021 762 0687
Tokai, Tokai Forest, Tokai, 021 712 7471
Boulders Info Centre, Kleintuin Road, Simons Town, 021 786 2329
Westlake, Westlake Square, Westlake, 021 701 8692
Silvermine, Ou Kaapse Weg, 021 789 2456/7
Canal Walk Info Centre, Entrance 3, Canal Walk, 021 555 3600
Cape Town Tourism & Events, Shop 7, Tygervalley Centre, Bellville, 021 914 1786

A guided kayak tour costs R350. For information and to book call 065 707 4444 or go to