[Editor’s Note: We are fully aware that adding this particular post immediately after a post attempting to convey that life in South Africa is not so vastly different from life at home does a great deal to undermine that point. It isn’t to be helped. After a week in Bloemfontein leading our normal lives, we returned to being visitors (as opposed to residents), doing all the visitor things, including putting ourselves in places where we are likely to encounter animals.]
The weather forecast suggested that the weather would be clearer south of Cape Town, so we picked up on a Tuesday morning, hopped in the car (with Aunt Carly in tow), and drove down toward the cape. In the afternoon (more on the morning later), the weather was indeed clearer and we were slowly approaching the southwestern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope. The scenery was incredible – steep, rocky mountains rising along the coast, some of them blanketed in an intense green in lower parts; waves crashing onto rocky shores. En route we saw a rainbow over the sea thanks to the moist, but clearing air. Wonderful.
We reached the Cape Point National Park in the mid-afternoon and wound our way toward the Cape of Hood Hope, where we hoped to go for a hike. Upon our arrival, there were people with cameras gathered around baboons sitting on the rocks near the water’s edge. The people with cameras, maybe a dozen of them, were clearly undeterred by the signs posted throughout the park informing visitors that “Baboons are dangerous WILD animals – DO NOT FEED THEM – Keep Doors Locked and Windows Closed.” I snapped a couple of shots from the car, then, emboldened by the apparent lack of concern of the other humans, got out to get our gear ready for what looked like it would be a terrific hike to the top of the ridge overlooking the cape.
Things became slightly more interesting/concerning as one of the baboons hopped atop a nearby car, then scampered onto a convertible and laid on its back, apparently using the top of the convertible to get at an annoying itch. This was some distance away, so I returned my attention to Ben’s shoelaces.
A minute later. “D, it’s right here,” Carly said with concern, but not really alarm. (in retrospect, it may have actually been Carly’s version of alarm) I continued lacing the shoes, perhaps hurrying a bit after hearing the warning. Quickly, Carly’s voice again, a bit more concerned: “No, D, it’s here!” I pulled out of the car and looked directly up to see the baboon sitting on top of our car, looking down at me. As it lunged to peer into the car, I slammed the door and backed away.
At this point, Sadie and Ben were inside the closed car, Meggan, Carly and I were around the car’s perimeter, and the baboon was on top of the car. Sadie was either laughing or screaming or laughing and screaming. She later confirmed that it was screaming, then laughing. Ben was crawling into the front seat, anywhere to get some distance and safety. Meggan and Carly were taking pictures. I was looking on with a laugh of amazement/shock/worry. The baboon sat atop the car for a moment, scratched itself, then began to peer into the backseat windows. Sadie reported that it was smushing its nose against the window, though only she and Ben could see that angle. Maybe it smelled our snacks and sandwiches?
After a few moments, it perched itself back atop the car, posing for a couple of snapshots before leaping off of the car directly at Meggan, landing near her feet. At this point, Meggan assumed a karate-style position and in a flash, the confrontation was ended as the baboon moved atop another car.
For the next several minutes, we all traded stories about what we saw and how it looked from our perspective and what we were thinking at what point. Highlights from those discussions include: “I was worried it was going to rip off my scalp” (Carly); “I had decided that it was better to lose an arm than a leg” (Meggan); “It was just looking in at me” (Sadie); “It’s a good thing Ben’s hand wasn’t in the door, because I slammed that thing like I’ve never slammed a door before” (me); “Aaaahhhh!!” (Ben)
We caught our breach and commenced our hike, though we were all sufficiently spooked that we spent a great deal of time watching our backs as we climbed. Interestingly, no one else around the area seemed to notice this incident. Some were engaged in their own incidents with baboons, but most were simply taking photos of the coast or exploring the rocks in the ocean to pay much attention. By the time we returned to sea level, there were no baboons in sight. A new group of visitors had arrived and they, unlike those present when we first arrived, would not have even known that baboons were around. We, on the other hand, had the footprints on the top of our car and the noseprint on our window to prove it.
Earlier in the day, we had visited one of our South Africa bucket list items, Boulders Beach, near the small beach town of Simons Town, along the east coast of the cape. Boulders Beach is famed for its colony of African penguins, one of only three such colonies in the world. We were rewarded almost immediately as a half dozen penguins that we presumed had been assigned “Arrivals” duty were in the grassy dunes bordering the parking area. We made our way along a path through a bushy area about 100 meters from the coast, twisting toward the main entrance to the grounds. Along the way were penguins at virtually every turn, hidden in the bushes, often paired up or in larger groups, but sometimes meandering on their own.
It was raining off and on and we stopped periodically to huddle under a tree – I was regretting my resistance to packing our rain coats, a decision made in a fit of frustration about how much we could really fit into our bags. At one such huddling point, we overheard what sounded like a desperate moaning noise that we assumed was being produced by nearby penguins. Soon after, we found a fairly large group in a small clearing beneath some bushes and indeed, there was a pair of penguins engaged in some sort of dispute, it seemed. One was moaning loudly and utilizing its beak to bat away the other, who appeared to be attempting to bite the first’s neck. It was quite a strange sight – interesting, but strange. This continued for some time, maybe a couple of minutes, and since we had been hearing the noises, seemed to have been going on for a while previously. We stayed to watch and to avoid the rain. After a few minutes, the moaning penguin ceased moaning and slowly lurched forward off of the spot it had been occupying, revealing an egg beneath it (her?). The other penguin (He?) then moved into the abandoned area and took control of the egg, cuddling it onto its feet “March of the Penguins” style. We are not 100% certain that we witnessed the laying of a penguin egg, but it certainly seems like it.
We continued on to the main area of the preserve, which was mobbed by both tourists and penguins. The centerpiece of the attraction is the beach, where hundreds of penguins stood, waddled, dove and swam. They climbed atop rocks and into the bushy hill. It was fascinating and close, though not quite intimate given that the whole thing was set up like a naturalized zoo display. We were with the penguins and the penguins were in the wild, but we weren’t really “with” them. I recognize that this is a bit of a spoiled perspective – by any normal measure, standing on the African coast and watching penguins do natural things in their natural habitat as they have for generations is pretty real. However, we were amidst of fairly large group of people standing on a fenced boardwalk and given our recent (and upcoming – ahh, the baboon!) animal interactions, this felt a little different.
One highlight of the viewing platform, though, was the work of entrepreneur Ben. As we walked from our car to the main penguin area through the rain, Ben did not pay much attention to the various penguins lining the path. Instead, he spent his time grabbing leaves and twigs and tying them together to create miniature umbrellas of about the same size as umbrellas you might find in a tropical drink. As we stood in the rain, he graciously offered me an umbrella, which I dutifully (and uselessly) held over my head. By the time we reached the viewing platform, Ben had a couple extra umbrellas and he began saying very loudly to anyone who would listen, “Umbrellas! Umbrellas for sale! Umbrellas for people who forgot their umbrellas! Only two rand!” (conversion note: 2 rand = 16 cents)
This continued at various decibel levels for several minutes as the rain continued to fall onto us. There were indeed many people who had forgotten their umbrellas, thus a potentially strong market of customers. In the end, he “sold” both umbrellas to game fellow visitors. Half of his profits were later donated to a penguin preservation fund in the park shop. This whole thing is typical Ben. He is a born capitalist, but also a born bleeding heart.
We trudged back to our car where we enjoyed a picnic that we had planned to eat on rocks surrounded by penguins but actually ate crammed in our seats in the car. The rain subsided and after lunch, we returned to a separate entrance point that we had visited earlier, but had been discouraged by the attendant, who insisted it was only for swimmers and who would want to swim on such a cold, wet day. Though we certainly did not want to swim, we did want to visit the beach, so we passed on through after lunch and made our way onto the sand and, shortly thereafter, onto the boulders. As a side note, these are really boulders – huge ones that seem to have been placed deliberately and artistically along the coast and in the water.
On the first boulder was a solitary penguin as though he had been waiting for us, waiting to be “with” us. There were others as well, one that waddled along the beach and hopped up some nearby stairs to rest in the shade, and another that darted in and out of the water. We spent nearly an hour climbing the boulders – even Sadie and Ben got fairly skilled – and collecting shells and just being among nature and a couple of penguins on what turned into a lovely early afternoon on the cape.
[More photos from our first few days in Cape Town available here]