I was not in the mood for more penguins. It was cold, windy and overcast, and I was fighting the early stages of a nasty head cold. We had been driving for hours from Cape Agulhas (the southern tip of Africa) with far too many stops along winding coastal roads, and all I wanted to do was get to our next hotel in Cape Town and sleep.
We were past halfway through our ten-day visit to the Cape Town area from our expat home in Pretoria, South Africa, and I was satisfied with the penguins I had already seen at Boulder’s Beach in Simon’s Town several days earlier. When my husband parked the car at the Marine Reserve at Betty’s Bay, home of the Stony Point Penguin Colony, his invitation to join him on the walk was met with a barked “Leave me in the car. Can’t you see I’m dying here!?” My throat was searing and my head ached. I lifted it a little to watch him zip up his jacket, puffing out with the wind, and cross to the boardwalk.It was nearly twenty minutes that I twisted and turned in the little folded down seat of our rented VW Golf before I began to expect him back. But as I glanced from the time on my cell phone to the nearly empty parking lot (because all the non-crazy people, I presumed, knew to stay inside during such weather!) the panic, along with a phrase from my childhood, struck me: “I shall not pass this way again.”
This quote has been attributed to several 19th century American leaders, most notably among the Quakers of Pennsylvania. Those words, from my own Pennsylvania upbringing, became a mantra over the years, and anytime I feel too sick or too exhausted, the sentence resurrects from somewhere in the back of my mind to stir me to action.
This time it took about twenty minutes before it nagged me enough to get out of the car. The drizzling rain had begun moving sideways in the increasing wind, and I argued with my increasingly painful throat and head that this was the right course of action, and before I knew it I was pushing the car door closed against the wind, and zipping my light jacket to the top.
There was no way to know if we would return here again. Expat life comes with the limitations of vacation time from work, and any extra uplift pay for living in a foreign country we use to pay off college loans. With so many iconic places to see in South Africa, I began to wonder if this might be both the first and last time I would see African Penguins in my life.
I thought back to the time when I was sixteen, days after my father died, when my older brother and I drove Dad’s pick-up truck from Utah to Pennsylvania; a trek of nearly 2,000 miles. My brother repeatedly tried to wake me to the magnificent hues of sunrise on the red rock canyon walls, but I, depressed and exhausted, would not open my eyes. I have always regretted not sharing that experience, and even the grief, with my brother.
I thought of a similar trip with my husband when we were newly married, returning from Las Vegas to Pennsylvania via a different route. I had a cold and let him hike solo to Delicate Arch near Moab. That time, the quote kicked in after an hour and I at least met him partway, enough to see the arch from a distance. But I had missed hiking all the way to the national treasure, which can now only be hiked to a viewpoint, not as far as the arch itself.
The memories were jostling in my head as I crossed the little patches of dirt and gravel, beach and grass, to reach the beginning of the raised boardwalk. I paid the small entrance fee at the booth and found my husband taking photos of some baby penguins fluffed and cuddled together against the wind. Adult African Penguins are notable for their pink eyelids, and the parents take turns watching the nest. The chicks seemed to like the dreary weather and only retreated to their den when I got close. Separated from the birds’ habitat by a raised boardwalk, our presence nonetheless made the young wary when we stood too near above them. The adults took our presence in stride.
While the exact number of African Penguins at Stony Point fluctuates with incoming breeding adults from Dyer Island, this endangered species counts only 55,000 total and is rapidly declining. Stony Point is also home to breeding pairs of rock dassies and Cape Cormorants. It was early November for our visit (springtime in South Africa) and my walk was greeted not only by the grey downy coat of baby penguins, but also Egyptian goslings and a number of rock dassie cubs who seemed to be taunting me as they darted from between the boulders along the path.
Adult penguins body-surfed along the shore and we listened carefully, trying to memorize the braying sounds of the adults (known as “Jackass Penguins” for how similar they sound to donkeys) and of the chicks, whose shrill, almost wheezing call could be mistaken for sea gulls or other water birds. I wondered at how well nature disguises itself sometimes. My body still felt miserable, but I was happy I had forced myself out of the car, into the windy drizzle to the midst of this aquatic chaos.
Kurt put his arm around my waist and I leaned into him as we stood just watching the penguins playing. We listened to the calls of the birds and the waves on the rocks. I was grateful for that nagging quote that got me out of the car and in the midst of these birds. It struck me that while I might not pass this way again, this dwindling population may simply not be here to pass again.
Marla is a freelance writer and global explorer. She creates travel adventures for herself following in the footsteps of her favorite authors. An American expat, she currently lives in Pretoria, South Africa, where she blogs her adventures on travelingmarla.com and is revising her first manuscript.