However often we visit Cape Town, we never tire of Boulders Beach.
The main visitor centre with the wooden boardwalks down into the penguin colony are great, and lots of other tourists have written excellent accounts of this. However, for us, the bigger attraction is the tiny Boulders Beach about 750m south, where you are actually allowed on the beach - this is also less well known, so less busy and fortunately largely spared the coach tour parties.
In good weather, it is such a ridiculously idyllic setting that it might as well be out of an Enid Blyton book! The beach is tiny and shaped like a horseshoe, and the sand is strewn with enormous granite boulders. The penguins park off on and between the boulders and are pretty unfazed by the tourists except when they get exceedingly close. The cove is very protected and the beach slopes very gently, so it is a perfect swimming spot for kids and yourself, provided that you have a polar bear in your ancestry and thus relish icy water - mind you, you'll forget all that as you see the penguins zipping around underwater like torpedoes, so close that you can almost touch them.
For obvious reasons, the best time to visit is during the day on weekdays and out of school holidays, but any time - and regardless of the crowds - it's a magical place that I would defy anyone not to have a marvellous time in! Then repair to the excellent Boulders Beach Cafe for an excellent lunch and a view out over False Bay to die for!
The Muizenberg-Simonstown railway is probably one of the most picturesque sections of coastal railway line in the world, and if you're lucky, you can watch whales frolicking in False Bay. The line skirts perilously close to the high water mark for most of its route, and it's safe to say that it would never have been granted planning permission today!
This is the southernmost extent of the Cape Town rail commuter network, and certainly isn't luxury rail travel! The carriages are battered and graffitied and the windows are so scratched that it's often difficult to see out, but it's still a blast to clatter along through the sea spray - and at less than R10 for a return trip (2010), it's a bargain that's hard to beat!
There are quite a few stops along the way, so consider getting off somewhere like Kalk Bay for a bite to eat, or stopping off at one of the little beaches along the way. Check out my transport tip for some further details on options for one and two day rail passes that may be of interest.
It is possible to travel on this route right into the heart of Cape Town. I can't honestly say that it's worth it for the scenery, as the inland section is rather dull - still, if you don't have a hire car, it's a practical way to get to explore the False Bay coastline. There is a visible security presence on the train itself (since the Cape Town trains have a reputation for crime) - last time we took the train, we had 4 policemen in our carriage alone!
It used to be possible to travel between Cape Town and Simonstown in a more upmarket restaurant car called Biggsie's, which we did in 2006/07, but I'm not sure whether this service still runs. If it does, it's well worth doing, as the dining car was far more comfortable and well maintained (and you could see out the windows!) but I do recall that the set menu that we opted for was somewhat grim - the toasted sandwiches that our carriagemates had looked a lot tastier and were doubtless much cheaper!
Update (September 2010): clearly I wasn't understating the matter when I said that the rail line was just above the high water mark, as the final section of this line between Fishhoek and Simonstown has been closed since last (Southern hemisphere) spring to repair wave damage to the retaining wall and foundations of the line! Metrorail assure me that repairs are underway and that in the interim there is a bus service operating between Fishhoek and Simonstown.
Further update (March 2011): I am reliably informed by my "Cape Town correspondent' Gerald_D that the repair work is complete and that the section of rail between Fishhoek and Simonstown has been reopened. Oh, and Biggsies seems to have bitten the dust ...
In a corner of Jubilee Square, Simonstown, you can say hello to the statue of Able Seaman Just Nuisance, a Great Dane who was the only dog ever to be officially enlisted in the Royal Navy! Kids love to clamber over his statue and are enchanted by his tale, which merits a room in the Simonstown Museum (see the following, adapted from Wikipedia)
Although the exact date of Just Nuisance's birth is not known, it is usually stated that he was born on 1 April 1937 in Rondebosch, a suburb of Cape Town. He was sold to Benjamin Chaney who later moved to Simon's Town to run the United Services Institute (USI). Just Nuisance quickly became popular with the patrons of the institute, mostly the ratings who would feed him snacks and take him for walks. He began to follow them back to the naval base and dockyards, where he would lie on the decks of ships that were moored up in dock, normally at the top of the gangplanks. Since he was a large dog even for a Great Dane (he was almost 2 metres (6.6 ft) tall when standing on his hind legs) he presented a sizable obstacle for those trying to board or disembark and he became affectionately known as Nuisance.
Nuisance was allowed to roam freely and, following the sailors, he began to take day trips by train as far afield as Cape Town, 22 miles (35 km) away. Despite the seamen's attempts to conceal him, the conductors would put him off the trains as soon as he was discovered. This did not cause him any problems, as he would wait for the next train or walk to another station where he would board the next train that came along. Amused travellers would occasionally offer to pay his fares, but the railway company eventually warned Chaney that Nuisance would have to be put down unless he was kept under control to prevent him boarding the trains or had his fares paid.
The news that Nuisance may be put down spurred many of the sailors and locals to write to the Navy pleading for something to be done. Although somebody offered to buy him a season ticket, the Navy instead decided to officially enlist him; as a member of the armed forces he would receive free rail travel, so the fare-dodging would no longer be a problem. It was a good idea: for the next years, he would be a morale booster for the troops serving in World War II.
He was enlisted on 25 August 1939: his surname was entered as "Nuisance" and rather than leaving the forename blank he was christened "Just". His trade was listed as "Bonecrusher" and his religious affiliation as "Scrounger", although it was later altered to the more charitable "Canine Divinity League (Anti-Vivisection)". To allow him to receive rations and because of his longstanding unofficial service he was promoted from Ordinary Seaman to Able Seaman.
He never went to sea, but fulfilled a number of roles ashore. He continued to accompany sailors on train journeys and escorted them back to base when the pubs closed. While many of his functions were of his own choosing, he also appeared at many promotional events, including his own "wedding" to another Great Dane, Adinda. Adinda produced five pups as a result, two of which were auctioned off in Cape Town to raise funds for the war effort.
Nuisance's service record was not exemplary. Aside from the offenses of travelling on the trains without his free pass, being absent without leave, losing his collar and refusing to leave the pub at closing time, his record shows that he was sentenced to have all bones removed for seven days for sleeping in an improper place: one of the Petty Officer's beds. He also fought with the mascots of ships that put in at Simon's Town, resulting in the deaths of at least two of them.
Discharge and death
Nuisance had been involved in a car accident which had caused thrombosis which was gradually paralysing him, so on 1 January 1944 he was discharged from the Navy. His condition continued to deteriorate, on 1 April 1944 he was taken to Simon's Town Naval Hospital where on the advice of the naval veterinary surgeon, he was put to sleep. The next day he was taken to Klaver Camp, where his body was draped with a Royal Naval White Ensign and he was buried with full naval honours, including a gun salute and the playing of the Last Post. A simple granite headstone marks his grave which is on the top of the hill at the former signals centre. A statue was erected in Jubilee Square in Simon's Town to commemorate his life.
Simon's Town is located at the False Bay and the whale you are most likely to see in this Bay is the Southern Right Whale, although other species of whales also visit the area (Bryde's Whale, the Humpback Whale and the Killer Whale). If you are here at the right time of the year, which is during the winter time from June through November, you'll be amazed how easy it is to spot the Southern Right Whale!
The Southern Right Whale lives on plankton and tiny crustaceans like copepods, krill, etc. They are filter feeders that swim slowly with their mouth open, constantly eating. They become on average 50 years and the maximum size of an adult female is 18.5 metres and the weight is around 130 tons. The main characteristics and the way to quickly recognize a Right Whale from other whale species is the fact that it has no dorsal fin on its back, and the presence of callosities on its head. The 'callosities' are quite distinct and make each individual unique. They show as white spots on the head and are in fact white warts or rough skin patches covered by whale lice.
How this whale got its name of "Southern Right Whale" is rather cynical and sad however. It was called "Right" because it was the 'right' whale to catch: they are slow swimmers which makes them easy targets (they swim at a speed of between 0.5 and 4 km per hour, however can reach a top speed of 18 km per hour). They are also rich in oil and baleen which the whale hunters were after and as an added bonus they floated in the water when killed. This made that the family of the "Right Whales" became one of the most ruthlessly hunted of all species of whales. The hunt started as early as the 11th century, and the right whales were endangered by the mid-1800's. The positive news is that the right whales were world-wide protected around 1935, although the situation for the northern cousin of the right whales still looks bleak. It just breaks my heart that this species has been hunted to the edge of extinction.
But back to the here and now; what absolutely fascinated me about watching these impressive whales was seeing some of their typical behaviour. Some movements you can watch from the shore are:
* Sailing: (photo 1) this is a when the whale raises its tail and keeps it vertical for long periods of time. Why the whale does this isn't a 100% certain but possibly it is a means of temperature control.
* Breaching: (photo 2) this is the most spectacular move of them all, and you'll be without a doubt in awe the moment you see the whale 'hop' out of the water and splash down again with amazing force. It is so impressive to watch this oddly graceful leap out of the water and then see it fall back in the water with a great splash.
* Blowing (or spouting): when air is blown from the lungs through the blowhole.
* Lobtailing: a whale will raise its tail and slap the water hard: probably a signal of some sort; a sign of alarm or annoyance. It is often seen with mothers and calves.
* Spyhopping: the whale lifts its head above the water and appear to be observing what's happening on the surface. And well, that is exactly what they are doing!
Oh my word, can you imagine a better way to go penguin spotting than from a sea kayak?
Given the glorious coastline, it's no great surprise that Capetonians are bonkers about water sports, and in recent years, sea kayaking has become increasingly popular. Simon's Town is located on the comparatively calm False Bay side of the peninsula, so is a favourite spot for kayakers, and it is possible to hire kayaks from the jetty in the harbour (see the website below for details, although I must stress that I haven't personally used this service provider).
Sea kayaking is immensely rewarding as you can paddle along the coast of the neighbouring Boulders nature reserve, which will give you a very different perspective on the penguins.
Just a few words about safety. Firstly, if you're not familiar with these waters, it's probably wiser to join a guided tour, which will not only help you to find the best spots, but also lends an additional measure of safety should you get into trouble. Note that most service providers will not accommodate smaller kids due to safety considerations (the service provider listed below has a minimum age of 10).
Secondly, the Simon's Town naval docks and neighbouring marina are busy places, so give these a wide berth: if you find yourself in the path of an oncoming frigate, then you're bound to come off worst!
Thirdly, stay close to the shore, particularly in whale season (June-November), when the whales come in fairly close to this section of the coastline. The whales will not do you any deliberate harm, but neither will they necessarily sense your presence when they decide to surface or breach - in which case, the resident Great White shark population will probably be happy to welcome you into the water!
Lastly, however glorious it might be when you get onto the water, keep an eye on the weather: Cape weather is notorious for its changeability, and often delivers 'four seasons in one day'. Weather systems can move in from the ocean with startling speed, so make sure that this doesn't leave you exposed.
Simon's Town, or in Afrikaans named 'Simonstad', is located to the south of the city of Cape Town. This little town is situated on the shores of the False Bay on the eastern side of the Cape Peninsula. For me this little town was the home base for a few days while exploring the Cape Town area. The location to me was superb, the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve was just around the corner and the city of Cape Town was still in easy reach. But maybe best of all of this location were the gorgeous views over the False Bay.
Simon's Town has been and still is an important Naval Base and it is also said to be a lovely picturesque little town. Maybe I had my expectations up too high, I don't know, but I have to admit that I didn't fell under the spell of Simon's Town itself. Not that there is anything wrong with it, it just didn't have 'it' to me.
We made a little stroll through the town's centre and admired some of the traditional architecture (see photo) which was nice enough, but didn't have the wow-factor to me. The natural surroundings on the other hand of the Cape Peninsula are breathtaking and for that alone I would love to revisit Simon's Town and, most of all, to visit the Cape Peninsula again.
Simon's Town is surrounded by mountains and from the water's edge the land rises steeply up the slopes. We were lucky enough to rent a little apartment build on one of these mountain slopes just to the north of town. And what can I say, the views from here were fantastic! The main attraction from our little balcony were the whales that visit the False Bay during the months of June to November. Being here at the beginning of October was excellent timing to see the whales.
I had hoped to see one or two whales from the balcony, but once I started searching the sea with my eyes I spotted dozens and dozens of them. Some very close to shore, some a bit further away in the bay. But no day passed by without admiring the whales; it was totally fascinating and I couldn't get enough of it! And not only from our little balcony we got these amazing sights, also driving along the coast we spotted several very close to the shore and even at the harbour of Simon's Town.
We had originally planed to visit the town of Hermanus, which is located on the other side of the False Bay. This little town is famous for its whales and even has a Whale (Town) Crier to announce where the whales are. But why drive all that way when the whales giving such a spectacular show right here, at Simon's Town? Don't forget to bring your binoculars though! Or if you enjoy taking photos a good zoom lens.
The attached photo was taken from our balcony with a 500mm lens and a tripod.
Although I personally loved seeing the whales, Simon's Town is mostly known for its penguin colony. Yes, you read that right, penguins!! They live on their own beach outside of town, approximately 2 kilometers south of Simon's Town towards the Cape Point Nature Reserve.
The Calendar Of "Penguin Activities" For Boulders
January : Juveniles moulting and adults feeding up for breeding season.
February To August : Breeding season.
September To October : Penguins at sea, feeding up for moulting.
November To December : Moulting season.
See the penguins at Boulders Beach. It is a very touristy place, but if you have never seen penguins, this place is a great place to get close and get some good shots. Boulders Beach is a small cove with big boulders everywhere. The penguins are here all year. There is a swimming area that is popular with parents with small children that is well protected from the sea because the large boulders act as breakers. The penguins sometime swim with the people which is neat. The other section just north of the swimming beach is Foxy Beach and has viewing platforms where you can close to the penguins and take good photos. While I was there in July the penguins were molting. Be prepared for a stentch though, these animals really stink!
The penguin colony is now a part of Table Mountain National Park and I believe the cost of admission is R10
Of all the gorgeous buildings in Simon's Town, I think that the British Hotel is my absolute favourite.
This glorious building dates back to 1871 and, for me, epitomises the very best of Victorian colonial architecture. The balance and proportion of the building is just exquisite, and the three level arrangement of verandah and balconies, whose balustrades are garnished with 'broekie lace' wrought iron detail is simply lovely.
It has now been converted into self catering holiday apartments (from family friendly units to loft apartments), some of which offer sea views from their balconies. I haven't stayed here myself, so can't provide a review of this accommodation, but if the interior facilities are anywhere near as wonderful as the external appearance of the building, it must be a tremendous place to stay.
Get up close and personal with the inhabitants of this Jackass penguin colony (but not too close, they are wild animals, so give them some respect).
Boardwalks run through the colony and the penguins seem oblivious to the visiting throng.
There is an entrance fee (10 Rand I think).
Boulders Beach has a fairly large population of jackass penguins. The only place where these small penguins live is at the South African coast, mostly on the islands between Namibia and Port Elizabeth.
Jackass penguins brood the year round, mostly they lay 2 eggs and after 38 days the little penguins appear!
The actual jackass penguin population would be around 120.000 with the largest colony on St. Croix Island (Port Elizabeth). Except for Robben Island, all the locations where penguins live are protected nature reserves and the penguins are behind a fence. At Boulders Beach you can find some that are just walking on the public beach.
Go towards the beach of the Boulder Coastal Park and walk between the ropes and between the penguins. There were lot’s of penguins walking around here and you could get very close to them.
The penguins you see here weigh between 2,1 to 3,7 kilo’s and are a 50 cm high.
The Boulder colony started in 1983 with a pair of African Penguins on the Foxy beach at Boulders and in 1997 they counted already 2350 adult birds. This due to migration from Dyer Island and reproduction.
For more information and photos see my travelogue: A daytrip in the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve
...and sunbath amongst some wonderful, weird shaped rocks......contain your surprise when a Jackass penguin waddles by your towel! Nearby is their breeding area, they are wonderful creatures! An experience not to be missed....