Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

I took a deep breath and slowly put one foot in front of the other, fighting a wave of nausea as my body rebelled against my decision to start hiking before sunrise.  The narrow beam of my head lamp illuminated the rocks beneath my feet as I struggled to find the will to keep walking.  I was dizzy, exhausted, and my stomach felt like it was being strangled.  I wanted to give up and just sit down on the trail and let the others go on without me, but I suddenly remembered a time three years ago when my family was doing a morning hike to the summit of Old Rag Mountain in Virginia.  Caleb had been sick to his stomach the entire night before and wanted to wait in the car while the rest of us hiked, but I insisted that he go with us up the mountain.  He was ill for our entire ascent, but when we finally reached the top, he was elated by the view and completely glad he had pushed through his sickness.

Now Caleb was keeping a faster pace in front of me as we plodded upward toward the peak of Lion’s Head.  I knew deep down that if I hadn’t let him give up on Old Rag, I had no excuse to give up here, so I kept walking.  We were in total darkness for a while, the lights from Cape Town flickering far below us, but soon the sun’s light began to gingerly seep onto the horizon.

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The very beginning of sunrise

The trail up to this point had been a constant uphill walk, but now we were reaching the rock scramble near the top of the peak.  I was nervous about the scramble because I was so dizzy, but I shouldn’t have been because this section of the trail was significantly less strenuous than the first.  It was very easy as far as rock climbing goes, so it came as a relief to me, and the hike no longer felt like it was draining every last bit of energy I possessed.  I was able to move faster, and it wasn’t long before we were approaching the summit of Lion’s Head.  The view was spectacular, and as the sun began to warm the air around us, my stomach ache melted away.  I looked around, absorbing the sights in every direction.  To the west, we could see the long shadow cast by the peak in the early morning light.

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The shadow of Lion’s Head

Once at the top, we took some time to enjoy the remainder of the sunrise and appreciate the view that we had worked so hard for.


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Spectacular sunrise
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Table Mountain as seen from Lion’s Head

All too soon, we begrudgingly began our descent.  We still had a long day of activities planned, and we had to pick up our rental cars and stop back at the hotel to grab Jess, who had skipped the hike, before we could get started.  When all of that was done, the Fasburg Seven (the nickname given to us by the rest of the Percussive travelers) jumped into the two rental cars, and we took off in the direction of Cape Peninsula.  I had planned a self-drive tour, opting out of a bus tour in favor of being able to control how much time we spent at each of our stops.

We drove to the Peninsula by way of Chapman’s Peak Drive, one of the most scenic highways in Cape Town, and it more than lived up to its reputation in that department.

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Chapman’s Peak

After an hour’s drive we had reached our first stop, Boulders Beach.  Boulders Beach is home to a colony of endangered African (also called jackass) penguins.  For a small admission of R35 (about $3), visitors can enter the beach and view the penguins up close.  We paid our admission and walked down a short trail that opened up into a view of huge round rocks, crystal clear water, and most importantly, Penguins!

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The first pair of penguins we encountered

After squealing in excitement over our first couple of penguins, we started climbing up and around the boulders to look for more.  Our efforts were rewarded with more penguins, and spectacular views of the beach.

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Boulders Beach
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African Penguin

We even saw some penguin chicks!

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Baby penguins!

After exploring for a while we returning to the cars to change into our bathing suits.  The water was extremely cold, but we braved it anyway and were able to observe some penguins swimming.

By this time we were all getting a little hangry (we had been up before sunrise and hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch so this wasn’t unsurprising) and we decided it was probably time to look for some food.  We drove straight to Cape Point at the end of the peninsula, where we were able to grab a quick bite to eat.  We had spent so much time at Boulders Beach that we were feeling the pressure of the impending park closure at sunset.

We scarfed down our late lunch, then crossed the parking lot to a trailhead that lead down to the Cape of Good Hope.  The Cape looked lovely with the late afternoon light playing with the constant haze that hung in air near the coast.

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Cape of Good Hope

In this case however, we were more interested in another wildlife sighting than we were the gorgeous view.  From the parking lot we had spotted a few ostriches, and we were eager to get a closer look.  Our wish was granted.  As we descended a hill towards the giants birds, they paid no attention to us at all.  We remained cautious, approaching slowly, and stopping at a safe distance to just watch them for a bit.

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An ostrich near the Cape of Good Hope

This experience was even more exciting for me than seeing the penguins because although I knew ostriches frequented the cape, they were not a guaranteed sighting.  As a self-proclaimed bird nerd, seeing my first two species of flightless bird in one day had me giddy.

The ostriches were great, but now we were really crunched for time.  We had one more hike we wanted to complete before sunset so we returned to the cars and drove back the way we had come.  It was another 30 minute drive to Olifanstbos Beach where we were planning to hike to a shipwreck, and sunset was around 6:00.  We had no idea how far away the wreck was, so we determined a time that we would have to turn back no matter what, and started walking at a brisk pace.  We quickly realized that the beach was rugged and beautiful, and that it was a nice walk even if we didn’t make it to the shipwreck.

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Olifanstbos Beach
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Olifanstbos Beach

We hiked up into some small sand dunes to try to get a better view down the beach, but we still couldn’t see the shipwreck so Jordi pulled out his drone to try to spot it from the air.  The rest of us went back to the shore and kept walking, hoping to spot it from that direction.  We walked almost until the turn around time.  There was a small peninsula up ahead, and we decided that if we couldn’t see the wreck after that bend, we would have to turn around.  Just as we thought we were out of luck, we rounded the bend and the saw the wreck!  I jumped up in excitement, but Vince brought me back down to earth by urging me to run ahead if I wanted to take any pictures before we had to leave.  I sprung into action, running through the sand as Jordi’s drone flew toward the vessel above my head.

Suddenly, I was stopped short by another large object on the beach.  There was a sun-bleached whale skull resting in the sand.

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The whale skull at Olifantsbos Beach

This was an unexpected find and Caleb, who had caught up to me when I stopped to photograph the skull, was more enthusiastic about it than he was the wreck.  I snapped a few shots and resumed my jog over the the wreck of the SS Thomas T Tucker, an American cargo ship that had run aground due to navigational errors while transporting supplies to allied troops during World War Two.

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The wreck of the SS Thomas T Tucker

We only spent about five minutes at the wreck because the sun was drifting dangerously closer to the horizon.  We enjoyed an ethereal, golden sunset as we walked back to the cars.  On the drive back to Cape Town, we reviewed the day’s adventures and eagerly anticipated the next day’s upcoming shark dive.

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Sunset at Olifantsbos Beach

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