“Ooh I’m not sure actually. Looks a bit nippy.Maybe we should wait a bit.
See if it warms up.
Let’s ask Gladys… She was in earlier.
… See what she says.
I do think it looks cold.
Don’t you think it looks cold?
And a bit wet maybe…
I tell you what – you go first and let me know what it’s like.”
A little known play by Harold Pinter? No. A short extract from an everyday conversation between penguins.
So anthropomorphism isn’t very PC but I defy anyone to resist indulging in a voice-over when looking at African penguins. Visit the colony at Boulders Beach for instance and all you’ll hear is falsetto penguin impersonations in German, French, Japanese, Spanish, Danish and Italian. Penguins are funny in every language.
And now I’ve found a far superior way to view them… from the water. Derek Goldman runs trips every morning specifically to see the penguins along the pretty coastline of Simons Town and I was lucky enough to spend a morning with him.
We were a group of 4 double kayaks of the nicely stable, sit-on-top variety. Standards of watermanship were varied, but it simply didn’t matter, as even for those as uncoordinated as I am (plucked for the school rowing team for ‘being the right shape’ and promptly thrown off again for saying “ooh, look at those daffodils” one too many times) paddling a kayak through the water is a pretty simple process.
The tour starts from the harbour, where little boats inevitably named Sea Lady and Mystic Queen bob alongside massive naval ships bristling, we were told, with AKMs – Anti Kayak Missiles.
There was certainly a feeling of vulnerability when gazing up at these huge warships from our fragile craft, but also a sense of freedom and elation in the simplicity of our situation as we established a rhythmic dip, pull, dip, pull, dip, pull which had us slicing through the water over the kelp which billowed in the clear water below us.
And once accustomed to the matching rhythm of dribble-down-the-wrist-and-drip-off-the-elbow it is remarkable how quickly the tranquillity of being out on the water can whisper through to the soul. We passed the occasional lone kayaker – some with a highly convoluted fishing rig-up – who clearly felt the same way. They’d give a tiny tilt of the chin or the lift of an eyebrow in greeting… but nothing that would disturb the peace.
From June to December there’s a good chance of encountering whales in False Bay, but we weren’t fortunate this time. But penguins are a year-round certainty. Sure enough, we soon came across a group of them dithering on the edge of a rocky island, apparently baffled as to how exactly they had got there and doubtful about how they were going to get off again. The favoured method, it seemed, was to stare hard at the water in the hope it might go away, with Plan B being to Get Someone Else To Go First.
Bobbing up and down close by (and muttering their imagined conversations under my breath) I could quite happily have observed them for hours… then suddenly they were gone. Plan B had prevailed, and once one had taken the plunge they all dived in, instantaneously transforming into sleek, speedy, silent missiles as they ducked and weaved through the kelp under the boat. It was as if a crowd of Nora Battys had whipped off their housecoats to reveal themselves as ninjas.
I was still laughing as we scooted our kayaks up onto the fine sand of a private beach. I felt free and easy, well into the swing of the paddling now. How appropriate then, that I should suddenly find it a struggle to heave my bulk out of the water. Feeling startlingly ungainly, I waddled up the beach on unsteady legs. Bottom numb, shorts soggy and elbows dripping I shuffled to the nearest warm rock for a little R and R. The penguins had the last laugh after all.