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Monday, December 22, 2014

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Forget the safari: here animals are everywhere

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Seal watching on the beach. [L.Kramer photo]

When a 300-pound seal jumps six feet from the harbour to the concrete floor a few steps away from where you’re standing, it’s hard to look away.

I was watching the fishermen offload their catch in Hout Bay, a seaside suburb of Cape Town on the southernmost tip of Africa, when this massive, whiskered fellow leaped from the ocean with the grace of a ballerina. Once there, the seal stared me straight in the eye, a bored expression on his face. Then, with a flippered splash, he was gone, a dark figure swimming away effortlessly in the turquoise marina.

If You Go: The Drakenstein Lion Park is open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Info: www.lionrescue.org.za.
Swimming with the penguins at Boulders Beach is a well-kept local secret, located about a 45-minute drive from Cape Town. The scenery en route is magnificent and the destination is well worth the commute.
Shark-cage diving is available through a variety of operators out of Gansbaai, a three-hours drive from Cape Town. For information, visit www.whalecoast.info.
Cape Point is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Info: www.capepoint.co.za.
Where To Stay: The Mount Nelson Hotel, located on the slopes of Table Mountain in Cape Town’s city centre, is one of the city’s finest hotels and caters well to kids, with a teen lounge, a playroom and an irresistible swimming pool. Info: www.mountnelson.co.za; (011) 2721-483-1000.

As thousands of tourists flock to South Africa in December and January each year to bask in the heat of an African summer, many of them opt to take a safari and see some of the area’s famed wildlife. But when you’re travelling with kids, as I was, a safari in the African bush can be risky – particularly when it comes to malaria. The disease can be contracted by something as seemingly innocuous as a mosquito bite, and if you’ve not taken anti-malarial medication ahead of time, it can be life threatening. Pediatric doses of that medication can be hard to come by, particularly for kids who weigh less than 80 pounds, and since my crew fell into that category, a safari was out of the question.

Still, as I learned quickly at the Hout Bay harbour, you don’t necessarily have to take a safari to see wildlife, even while enjoying the conveniences of a bustling city like Cape Town. Animals are an intrinsic part of this landscape, and though their appearance can sometimes spell danger, they are respected and protected as often as possible.

Take the Great White Shark, for example. One of some 95 species of shark that inhabit the warm waters off southern Africa, the Great White is both respected and feared. Along the False Bay coastline, shark alerts are common, and in the summer months shark spotters are employed to watch over the popular bathing beaches from strategic viewpoints on the mountain.

Every couple of years, though, an unfortunate swimmer or surfer fails to heed the warnings, ventures too far from shore and gets “taken” by a Great White shark. Infrequently they escape – minus an arm or a leg, and with jagged teeth marks in whatever is left of their surfboard. More often, though, the only remaining trace of that swimmer is a pair of sandals on the beach. The rest is shark food.

In the last decade, tour operators have been offering shark-cage diving tours, where they head by boat into open water and lower a metal cage of wetsuit and snorkel-clad visitors into the ocean. Some of them use bait to attract the Great Whites, a lure-and-view technique I wasn’t keen to support.

Instead, I took my kids on a drive to Paarl, a city just an hour from Cape Town, and one famed for its rich vineyards and spectacular wine route. It wasn’t wine tasting that drew us there, though. Alongside those vineyards lies the Drakenstein Lion Park, a 50-acre refuge for 35 lions who spent the earlier part of their lives in captivity, often subject to unspeakable abuses. The refuge contains 18 large enclosures for the lions, who started out in European circuses, in captivity in Chile and in hunting farms in South Africa, where they are bred, raised and kept doped and tranquilized specifically so foreign tourists can shoot and bring down a lion.

The males are given a vasectomy soon after arrival, because the park’s owners believe there’s no point raising more lions in captivity. Then they’re left to acclimate in an enclosure that approximates their natural environment as much as possible – with the exception of its 10-foot electrified fences, and the carcasses of dead chickens, donkeys and horses that constitute their food.

 “Most of these lions had never seen trees and birds, had never walked on grass before they came here,” confides Elzette Lategan, manager at the park, as she walks us past the enclosures of sleeping lions. It’s the middle of a hot day, and the lions, who are inactive 20 hours each day, are in a deep sleep and oblivious to their spectators. But spend a night at the refuge, which offers tented accommodation, and you would likely hear their roars, audible up to eight kilometres away. 

In the heat of summer, as the mercury climbs to 33 C, we seek relief by visiting a series of small beaches along the False Bay coast called Boulders, beaches made unique by the colony of African penguins that lives there. A spunky bunch, the penguins cavort in the surf, their tuxedoed little bodies dodging seaweed and swimmers and moving lithely between the swells. Children delight in their close proximity to the little birds, commonly known as jackass penguins because of their braying voice. The sand is powder-like and the ocean temperature is a comfortable reprieve from the hot sun. Add the entertainment of penguin-watching and you have a blissful day at your fingertips.

The Indian and Atlantic oceans meet at the tip of Africa, and some say that if you visit Cape Point, a windy outcrop that constitutes the actual tip of the continent, you can see the colour contrast of the two oceans as their salty water mixes. The drive to Cape Point is an exquisite one, with mountain ranges on one side of the highway and precipices dropping to the ocean on the other. Those rugged, rocky mountains are home to several troops of baboons, and the primates can often be seen along the side of the highway, toting their young on their backs.

For visitors it’s an irresistible spectacle that calls immediately for open windows and photographs. What they don’t know, though, is that the baboons often get aggressive, reaching into the cars and snatching cameras, keys and food. Over the years, these smart primates have learned to associate humans with food. The altercations that result are a natural consequence.

For many locals who share their landscape with baboon troops, the baboons are pests at best and dangerous at worst, particularly to women and children. “They trashed my house one time,” says Samantha Droomer, whose community in the seaside village of Pringle Bay is home to two large troops. Today electrified fences deter the baboons from entering her property, but prior to that she came home to a disastrous mess after baboons lifted a locked, sliding door off its hinges and proceeded to raid the pantry, swing from the curtains and litter the house with feces. 

Learning to live in the context of a rich animal kingdom is just one aspect of life in South Africa. For visitors to Cape Town, that means a rich wildlife experience is possible without ever having to venture into the bush on safari.

 

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