Friday, April 23, 2010

Cape Town's two-foot-tall tourist attractions

African penguins are the star attractions at Boulders on the Cape Peninsula.

An abridged version of this was published in Leisure in September 2002.

CAPE Town is undeniably South Africa’s premier tourist destination. And among its many attractions are some which stand just two feet tall.

Last spring, my family and I paid our entry fee (R10 for adults and R5 for children) and headed along a pathway amidst dense indigenous bush. Bending down, we got our first sightings – in deep burrows and under bushes – of our quarry: the African penguin.

African penguin

Then we heard the unmistakable donkey-like braying which led to the birds previously being named jackass penguins – until it was discovered that several other species of South American penguins make the same sound.

There is always a steady flow of visitors, most of them foreign tourists, at Boulders.

Amid a steady flow of foreign tourists, we reached the start of the two boardwalks which have recently been constructed at Boulders, a sheltered series of coves between Simon’s Town and Cape Point.

The expertly produced pamphlet that comes free with your admission notes that from just two breeding pairs in 1982, the penguin colony at Boulders has grown to about 3000 in recent years.

This is thanks largely to the reduction in commercial pelagic trawling in False Bay, which has increased the supply of pilchards and anchovies, a major part of the penguins’ diet.

But the key to this magnificent tourist attraction is the fact that the Cape Peninsula National Park has provided a protected natural environment within which this vulnerable bird species can wander around and breed freely, while at the same time being observed at close quarters by bird lovers.

Cold and wet, maybe, but Luke and Douglas nevertheless enjoyed the passing penguin parade.

However, no amount of pre-publicity adequately prepared me for what was in store when I finally reached the lookout point at Foxy Beach.

It was like chancing upon a Lilliputian world of two-foot-tall, beaked manikins wearing dapper black tuxedos over their little white bodies. Waddling about on the beach must have been well over 100 penguins, with at least as many frolicking in the nearby crystal-clear waves of False Bay as they broke on the white sands of the Boulders beach.

On one of the many enormous 540-million-year-old granite boulders which give the area its name, another 100 or so penguins stood sentinel, while out at sea, on a small flat island of rock, dozens of cormorants sunned themselves

Even the odd drenching squall, so typical of the Cape at that time of year, failed to dampen the penguins’ spirits, and in fact only added to the sense of drama.

We retraced our footsteps then took the second boardwalk, where we got an even better view of this unique penguins-only beach from the other side. Above the high-water mark we could spot hundreds more birds in and around their burrows under the trees, while all the time they kept up a steady braying.

And to think that these wonderful creatures – so much more impressive in the wild than in an oceanarium or zoo – came very close to being decimated.

African penguin 'flying'

Of the 1,5-million population estimated in 1910, only some 10 per cent remained at the end of the 20th century. The uncontrolled harvesting of penguin eggs (as a source of food) and guano scrapings nearly drove the species to extinction.

The only penguins that breed in Africa, they remain on the Red Data Book as a vulnerable species.

Cape Point

Luke, 11, prepares for the climb to the lighthouse at Cape Point.

No visit to Cape Town is complete, however, without a trip to Cape Point.

From Boulders we headed out along the ridge of mountains on the eastern side of the peninsula. We encountered the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve with its fynbos species in full and colourful bloom.

Examples of fynbos

Earlier, we had taken a walk along the contour path above Kirstenbosch Gardens and seen a coach-load of young tourists (they looked Italian) ecstatically photographing and videoing close-up the many varieties of protea to be found there.

This experience was repeated on the high plateau within the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. Having paid our entrance fee (R25 for adults and R10 for children), we encountered several other groups of tourists snapping pictures of the proteas and other plants.

If anyone doubted the importance of keeping places such as the Van Stadens Wild Flower Reserve outside Port Elizabeth pristine and uninhabited, then this sort of experience should quash all such doubts. People travel from around the world to see our unique fauna and flora, especially our fynbos. The Cape floristic kingdom is the smallest but richest of the world’s six floral kingdoms. It comprises a treasure trove of 1100 species of indigenous plants, of which a number are endemic (occurring naturally nowhere else on Earth).

Cape Point

But as much as the fynbos and some 150 species of birds are an attraction, it is the geographical location of Cape Point itself which draws tourists like a magnet to the tip of Africa. Sure some would argue, correctly, that the southern-most point of Africa is actually Cape Agulhas, but it is that delicate finger of land at Cape Point which is popularly perceived as the tip of the continent.

We stopped at the large but unobtrusive parking area and bought a cup of hot coffee at a well-stocked fast-food outlet, as a throng of tourists milled around. I have visited several of the world’s biggest tourist attractions in Britain and Europe, and have rarely observed the same sense of awe and expectation as I witnessed that day among visitors from around the globe.

We decided against taking the funicular railway (the only one in Africa) up to the lighthouse, instead opting for the steep path to the summit of this narrow promontory at the southern tip of a huge and imposing continent, which today is recognised scientifically as having been the cradle of mankind.

There are other sites around the world which have a strong spiritual, or mystical, presence. Many of them are ancient Christian centres of pilgrimage, which are considered “thin places” because you feel so much closer to your creator there.


I have taken a ferry from Oban on the west coast of Scotland to the island of Mull, and driven around the island from Craignure to Fionphort, from where a smaller people-only ferry took me to the little island of Iona, an ancient Christian site dating back to the Irish monk, St Columba, in the sixth century.


Similarly, in Ireland, I have experienced the sixth century monastic site founded by St Kevin at Glendalough with its 1000-year-old, 34m-high round tower, just south of Dublin in the Wicklow Mountains.

Holy Island

Off the north-east coast of Northumbria, in northern England, I have visited the ancient Christian monastery of Lindisfarne on Holy Island, founded in the seventh century by St Aidan, an Irish monk from Iona. The island can only be accessed by car along a narrow road at low tide.

While not a religious site, I sensed a similar sort of pilgrimage was under way as a steady flow of people – young and old, black and white – took the meandering pathway up to the small lighthouse viewing platform 678 metres above the sea at Cape Point. As the Cape of Storms lived up to its reputation, interspersing warm sunshine with sudden showers of rain, we reached the top.

Southern right whale breaching

But initially we could see nothing – except a throng of decidedly excited foreign tourists. They not only took in the magnificent view of two oceans – the warm Indian and cold Atlantic – merging their currents in the great expanse of water beneath those craggy slopes. But – the cherry on the top – at least three southern right whales were cavorting a few hundred metres off-shore. Clearly visible with the naked eye, through binoculars I watched at close quarters as they regularly breached, often leaving their huge tails suspended above the surface for several seconds at a time.

Table Mountain

Back in the warm embrace of Table Mountain we visited the Two Oceans Aquarium, one of the major attractions at the beautifully appointed Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. Packed with numerous interesting features, including the new boarding point for boat trips to Robben Island, the waterfront is yet another reason why Cape Town has become one of the world’s great tourist destinations.

And the aquarium itself is world class, cementing the city’s long and close association with the sea and its creatures.

Here in the Eastern Cape we need to gear our attractions – and there are many – to meeting the expectations of foreign tourists in particular. There are levels of safety and service excellence which overseas visitors expect for the thousands of rands they have paid, and if a city cannot provide these at each site, it will lose out. We can’t hope to compete with Cape Town (I haven’t mentioned the cable car up the mountain, the wine route, the museums and art galleries, the plethora of historic buildings, and so on), but we can offer a uniquely Eastern Cape experience.

And to do that we have to accept and celebrate all the positives that arose with the first meetings in this area of Boer, Khoi, San, Xhosa and, in 1820, the British settlers.

We cannot do so, however, if the white component which brought Western-style towns and cities, business and agriculture, roads and other infrastructure, continues to be dismissed as colonialist and exploitative.

In the new South Africa, in order to boost tourism and our own sense of self worth, we need to accentuate the positive and build on our common history as joint developers and protectors of our environment.

Cape Town is an object lesson in how that can successfully be done.


  1. Simon’s Town is, steeped in history and natural beauty with stunning views in the most beautiful environment of the Cape Peninsula. Boulders Penguin Colony is home to a growing colony of the vulnerable African Penguin.
    Simon's town history

  2. What a lovely place to live near. I love our beautiful Northumberland scenery and we can walk from one side of the UK to the other along the Roman Wall.