SOUTH AFRICA 1993/2010

Without doubt visiting Africa has changed over the last 20 years. But then so have I.

When I first arrived on the world’s most exciting continent in the early 1990s, I was a fresh-faced (sort of) 24-year-old, eager for adventure and prepared to rough it – sleeping out under the stars with only a flimsy mat and a mosquito net to protect me from the elements.

I travelled on overland trucks, hitched lifts, caught rides on dhows, crammed into the back of lorries along with too many people and bags of rice, and huddled on the steel floors of trains for days at a time.

I went with a desire to see wildlife and experience a new world. And, yes, I found both aplenty, but I also discovered Africa’s people. Many who had nothing, but would give you everything – a sad indictment of our western material existence.

Part of me still yearns for those good old, carefree days, but I’m not sure my body does. More recently, I have had the privilege to stay at some of the finest luxury lodges and camps, but it certainly doesn’t mean the excitement and adventure is any less for it.

I have had some of my best experiences in Africa over the last few years: seeing leopard in South Luangwa, self-driving around Namibia, tracking rhino in Liwonde, getting married on Zanzibar – a place I didn’t like the first time around, but found, on my return two decades later, a hubbub of culture and energy I just hadn’t spotted before, though undoubtedly it was there.

Yes, Africa has matured, but so have I.

Blown away
My first visit to Boulders Beach, in 1993, is a case in point. At a hostel, my now wife and I heard about this beach where penguins were said to wade ashore and waddle around you while you sat on the sand. Not really knowing what to expect, but liking the sound of it, we set off.

Situated on the east side of South Africa’s Cape Peninsula, getting to Boulders involved catching a train out of Cape Town to Simon’s Town – a strikingly picturesque journey, with the track hugging the coast for much of the way – followed by an arresting 40-minute walk through the historic town itself.

On arrival, the beach was deserted – not a soul to be seen, not even a penguin. We sat down on the white sand to wait, with just the sound of the rolling waves for company.

As we began to wonder if the story was an old wives’ tale, a raft of a dozen or so penguins swam ashore, hauled themselves upright onto the sand, shook themselves off and started lurching, in their unique style – as if they’d spent the afternoon in the pub – up the beach.

We sat in awe for what seemed hours – it probably was hours – watching this often-comical spectacle, as they interacted with each other. It was as if they were oblivious to our presence, as they played around us, before they waddled back to the surf or bellyflopped off the rocks and back out to sea.

We felt like explorers who had ‘discovered’ a place no one else knew about; a secret we wanted to keep to ourselves.

It was such a mind-blowing encounter that we returned a few days later to visit our penguins again.

An alternative view
Returning some 17 years or so later, my wife and I were keen to return to Boulders and show these curious black-and-white flightless seabirds to our young son.

But this time we found a gated entrance to the beach, with a nominal fee required to set foot on the sand. While I no longer expected to have this hidden gem to ourselves, I wasn’t prepared for the mob of people on our beach. There was barely a grain of sand to sit on. And the sea was filled with people jostling to swim with our penguins. I exaggerate, of course, but compared to my previous visit it felt as if someone had built a housing estate on the park where I used to play as a child.

Nevertheless, the penguins were at play – and it was a wondrous sight to behold. We ventured into the water and revelled in swimming alongside these alluring creatures, following their every moment as they weaved about between us. But it wasn’t quite the same, and we shortly beat a retreat, somewhat deflated.

Leaving the beach, we ambled down a track leading away from the melee. There was hardly anybody to be seen as we wandered along the coastline… apart from a whole load of penguins, who seemed to have had the same idea as us and were seeking sanctuary from the mayhem below.

We sat on the rocks and enjoyed their company for a while, watching their antics as they scuttled around. We marvelled at the delighted smile on my boy’s face, who was fascinated by these strange-looking toddlers that were even smaller than him.

Conserving the experience
While it was a bit of a shock, at first, to be hit by a charge to see a natural occurrence, it is there for good reason. The entrance fee goes toward the upkeep of the colony, safeguarding the penguins’ environment and creating a safe space for breeding – and it helps to limit the numbers of visitors; it is, after all, humans and the byproducts of our behaviour that are the biggest threat to Africa’s penguins.

So, yes, Africa has changed since I first set foot on its wild lands – often for the better, it has to be said. But as the continent becomes more appealing as a holiday destination, tourism becomes a double-edged sword as a consequence. It is a fabulous part of our culture, it improves our knowledge of the world and hopefully benefits us and the countries we visit, as well as helping educate the generations that come behind us. It is also the lifeblood of many who live in these places, and is essential for conservation. But, unfortunately, the more people that come the more encroachment that can occur. It’s about balance. A balance that I believe Africa, in the main, is getting right. We can still enjoy the penguins, for example, knowing that our contribution means that this endangered species will survive long into the future.

Time and time again Africa throws up experiences you won’t find anywhere else. It’s just sometimes, like with the penguins, you have to look around the corner. And that’s no bad thing.

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