South Africa offers plenty of guided options to see its spectacular animals, but sometimes the unexpected wildlife encounters can be just as thrilling
During a stay in Cape Town it’s hard to resist the siren call of the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point, which although no longer believed to be the southernmost tip of Africa, still holds a certain historical importance.
The road from the beaches of Clifton down towards the Cape is one of the most photo-worthy coastal routes around (the most famous stretch is Chapman's Peak Drive, which features 114 bends along its 9km length and is actually a section of toll toad), and it was while stopping to take in the views off the summit that we noticed our first bit of unexpected South African wildlife.
Out in the sea below us was a whale – most likely a Southern Right Whale according to our guidebook. But what species it was didn’t matter; what did matter was that only a few hundred yards from the shoreline was a great big whale, happily flopping about in the water. Stranger still was that no one else driving past seemed to notice, or even care. I needed to be forcibly shoved back into the car so we could be on our way. Admittedly, we had yet to visit Hermanus, where the whales practically beach themselves every 10 minutes much to the delight of the onlookers.
The owner of our hotel had warned us against the raucous baboons at the Cape’s nature reserve – modern day primate bandits who spend their time preying on unsuspecting picnickers – so we were expecting them there. What we weren’t expecting was to see them lining the road, climbing in trees and generally larking about several miles before we even reached the entrance to the park. The camera was taking a beating. And all the while the locals who passed were looking at us like we were crazy for stopping the car and taking photographs.
The baboons of the Cape justly earn their reputation, stalking anyone holding anything that looks like a backpack or handbag and even getting into cars if doors are left open for a split second. The park rangers and their slings are kept busy at lunch time deterring them from attacks. Having ventured to the lighthouse, and braved the packs of baboons, we walked along the footpaths out towards the bay – and duly bumped into two ostriches wandering out of the bushes and straight across the track. OK, so it is officially part of the Table Mountain Nature Reserve - but these were ostriches, and happily-wandering-about ostriches at that; almost too much to bear for someone who gets excited by spotting a rabbit while out in the Lake District.
Leaving our head-burying friends, we walked out to the outcrop of rock at the headland, where we bumped into a veritable clan of dassies (or rock hyrax) – particularly satisfying as we had spent a few hours on the top of Table Mountain (the dassie’s supposed spiritual home) trying in vain to spy one. Apparently, the dassie is the closest living relative to the elephant. Unconvincing but true.
There was just enough time for a slight detour further along the coast before we headed back to Cape Town – round to Boulder’s Beach and its colony of African penguins (formerly known as jackass penguins). There is an official National Park section here with walkways and nesting boxes, but as animals generally have little understanding of man-made boundaries and there are strong waves to negotiate, it’s perfectly possible to see the penguins wandering along the road or turning up on the beach next to the sunbathers, who barely register their appearance.
Most guide books about South Africa will wax lyrical about safaris and ‘the big five’, but there is much more to South African wildlife than that. Safaris are undoubtedly a great way to see the wonderful fauna of the country, but also be prepared to see some pretty special animals where you least expect them. Just remember to act as if it’s the most natural thing in the world...