Boulders Beach, Cape Town: The best place to see African penguins

It's a truth universally acknowledged that South Africa offers astonishing wildlife. Generally, you enter game reserves to view it. Cape Town's Boulders Beach offers something more – the chance to live among a colony of tiny African Penguins.

These little black-and-white critters - the only penguin species to breed in Africa -  are everywhere within the small residential enclave and generally untroubled by the presence of humans. We leave our house for dinner and four comical creatures waddle along the footpath in front of us. We stroll from our garden to the beach and a loving pair, which we initially thought were statues, gaze out from beneath a shrub. Signs in the carpark warn people to check under their cars for penguins.

 The penguin colony at Boulders is one of only two on the mainland of southwest South Africa and they are mostly a charming presence, examining the contents of your picnic basket, perhaps, or joining you in the waves. Yet they have their less appealing moments. The local residents erect penguin-proof fences because penguin toiletting habits are indiscriminate. The False Bay wind sometimes carries a distinctly fishy pong and during the March to May main breeding season, their donkey-like calls evoke their former name - jackass penguins.

Once a Capetonian, my choice of a Boulders Beach Airbnb initially had more to do with the beauty of this stretch of False Bay than the presence of the penguin colony, which can attract uncomfortable numbers of visitors. Though this is a place of wild splendour, perched on the edge of the African continent, Boulders is sheltered and the water reaches 21 degrees in summer – don't laugh; that's a hot spring compared to Cape Town's Atlantic seaboard beaches.

False Bay is the domain not only of penguins, but also great white sharks and the giants of the southern seas – the southern right whales that practically nudge the shore during their winter visiting season, booming and blowing.

Above rises Swartkop and the sandstone bluffs of Table Mountain National Park, clothed by indigenous fynbos flora, threaded with nature trails. Sit on your deck and False Bay glitters, a place of shifting light. By night, the Hottentots Holland Mountains darken into saw-toothed silhouettes straggling towards the last promontory of Cape Hangklip while lights fringe the shores.

Those who make Boulders their home - whether human, feathered, furred or finned - nestle among coves, inlets and little white-sand beaches tucked between 540-million-year-old granite boulders, from which the area's name originates.

The three beaches and boardwalks all offer penguin sightings and burrows. Foreign visitors who want to view the penguins at their favoured spot, Foxy Beach, pay a conservation fee of about $15 for adults and $7.50 for children.  You can, however, still see the penguins without joining the Foxy Beach throng.

From little things, big things have grown. Boulders' penguin colony sprang from two monogamous breeding pairs which arrived in 1982. African Penguin populations have declined by 95 per cent since pre-industrial times due to a range of factors, including loss of habitat and pollution. The Boulders colony has grown to more than 2000 birds under the care of South African National Parks (SANParks).

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Commercial fish trawling in False Bay has been reduced so there are more pelagic fish, such as pilchards and anchovy, which are a key part of the penguins' diet.

Careful conservation management also means penguins and humans co-habit surprisingly well here. Table Mountain National Park rangers patrol the beaches, no alcohol or smoking is permitted within the nature reserve, parts of the beach are closed to visitors and breeding and nesting penguins are separated from the main beach. Parking is limited and SANParks will close Boulders if overcrowding threatens. Fishing is prohibited, as are vessels, canoes and kayaks.

Getting too close to penguins is forbidden, and unwise – they have razor beaks – but it is remarkable how often you look down to see a little beauty gazing up.

It's worth booking accommodation slightly back from Kleintuin Road, which is where visitors walk from parking to the boardwalks. Our Gay Street accommodation, one road removed, has sea views and an access path to beaches (including the charming Water's Edge), but it is secluded and quiet, even during visiting hours. When the tourists disappear, it's magic.

Boulders is a few minutes from one of South Africa's oldest towns, Simonstown, 35 kilometres from the city. Known for its rich maritime history (it's home to the South African Navy), the town was founded in 1687 as the winter anchorage of the Dutch East India Company and it is full of lovely historic buildings, craft markets and good restaurants. Try The Lighthouse Cafe - which has a coastal/ French Provincialfeel - and serves great breakfasts, home-baked cakes and fresh food, including West Coast moules mariniere.

 Simonstown's history isn't all glorious, however. In 1967, under apartheid, its 1200 well-established "coloured" families were forcibly removed to the desolate and cruelly-named Ocean View township. Never forgotten.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/south-africa

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FLY

Qantas flies daily from Sydney to Johannesburg. Multiple airlines fly Johannesburg to Cape Town. See qantas.com

STAY

Waters Edge Cottage at Boulders Beach is a three-bedroom Airbnb property and costs about $134 a night. See airbnb.com

Alison Stewart travelled at her own expense.

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