Chapman’s Peak & Penguins

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I take the wheel of a stick-shift rental in left-side driving SA and do what any sane person would–head straight for death-defying Chapman’s Peak…and penguins.


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For more on our month-long road tripping adventure through South Africa, start here.

The Rough Guide: South Africa describes Chapman’s Peak drive as follows:

“Thrilling Chapman’s Peak Drive, a 9km route with 114 curves, is one of the world’s best ocean drives, winding along a cliff-edge to Noordhoek … The road is occasionally closed due to rockfall, so it’s advisable to phone or visit their website in advance to check out the current situation.”

Before collecting our rental in Cape Town and taking the wheel, I admittedly hadn’t read up on the drive. Lori had plotted our route, which would take us out of the city south towards Simon’s Town and Boulders Beach, home of the famous penguin colony, then up to Stellenbosch in the heart of the Cape Winelands where we would spend the first night of our 23-day South Africa road trip.

Browse the interactive map above to learn more about our route.

I expected the drive to take us along stunning ocean scenery with a tinge of the dramatic (we were on the Cape of Good Hope, after all), but Lori had somehow decided not to mention the 114 curves along dramatic cliffs, etc. In fact, it wasn’t until we were sitting in line at a construction area waiting to enter the Drive that I read my first bit of information on Chapman’s Peak. Mild panic can best describe my initial emotion, but it was already too late to turn back.

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I’ve driven on the left side of the road before, and even in South Africa for an extended period of time, but never a stick — that was a new addition — though it’s really not as difficult as you might think. Fortunately, the pedals are all in the same place; your left arm just has to step up to the plate and make it happen. The hardest thing is the spatial differences, for instance, judging the distance your passenger (now your left-hand side) is careening along from that jagged rock wall jutting out on to the road. But don’t worry, it’s not like Chapman’s Peak Drive is a narrow and winding two-lane road…oh wait, it is!

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The nice thing is that if you do the drive from Cape Town, south, to Noordhoek, you’ve got the inside lane the whole way, so your chances of heading off the steep cliff into the rocky sea below are diminished (though still very plausible). Rather, the fear of sailing off the edge of the highway is replaced by running the side of your vehicle into a jagged rock face along the majority of the 9km of the route. Woohoo!

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Luckily, Lori was able to keep a bit of her cool, letting me know [somewhat calmly] if her side of the car was getting a little too cozy with the side of the road (i.e. jagged stone wall).

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The scenery was pretty amazing though (at least, the scenery I actually got to see when the vehicle was stopped). Fortunately, Lori snapped a few shots along the way so I could look back and appreciate the beautiful scenery. Trust me, you don’t see much off to the side when you’re fixated on oncoming traffic and the center line.

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Strangely enough, the one thing I find most difficult about switching sides of the road is the turn signal (indicator) lever. The key and the pedals remain on the side you’re accustomed to, but the turn indicator (along with virtually everything else) jumps across the steering wheel (in South Africa, that means it’s on the right, so you flick it with your right hand rather than your left). 20 years of flicking that stupid little joystick with the left hand often leaves you giving your fellow motorists a nice rousing windshield wiper show rather than the requisite indication of which direction you might be intending to head in. This took a couple of days of getting nailed down, though I’m convinced that driving a manual transmission car helps because your left hand is occupied most of the time anyways.

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So far, we’ve been quite happy with our “Mini Red.” She’s a compact five-door (hatchback) Toyota Etios, similar to the Yaros we rented in Puerto Rico. When I reserved the car online, I fully expected to get a white or silver Hyundai (99% of the vehicles in South Africa seem to be either white or silver) and so I was quite surprised when we were presented with this maroon Toyota. The car is quite nimble and has a lot of getup and go. My only complaint is that the head rest bends forward quite a bit, which make my neck and shoulders ache during long drives.

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After our harrowing 114-curve journey, we finally rolled in to Simon’s Town. Like Cape Town, it was just how I had remembered it. It’s nice to see that some [good] things don’t change after eight years. Parking was easy to find, and best of all, it was completely free for the day!

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We walked around town a bit before making our way down the road to Boulders Beach and the world-famous penguin colony. But first, we stopped in at the same Seven Penguins Market where I had grabbed a pack lunch at in 2006 and…grabbed some fixings for lunch. We found a nice bench at a waterfront park outside of the penguin colony and enjoyed our meal and the view on a gorgeous day.

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I had always assumed that the penguin colony was started when a group of penguins made their way north from Antarctica and found a little strip of land to call home in the deep south of Africa. In reality, however, the colony was started by just two penguins who were brought here from another part of South Africa in an attempt to save an endangered species. The land was protected and access was limited. Decades later, the colony is a thriving mass of penguins — I’m not sure how all that works exactly, given the implied inbreeding and all, but nonetheless, there it is.

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Two star-crossed lovers enjoying a warm afternoon at the beach.

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These guys have staked out a nice claim on one of the giant boulders for which the park is named.

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And now, the main attraction. Penguin City!

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Get it…? She’s not his type. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

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Dancing Penguin! Doing the Penguin Dance! Dadadada…dadadada…

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Requisite Posing with Penguins picture.

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View of the main platform from the other side. Yep, it’s a busy day. Can’t imagine what this place looks like in the summer time!

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Having gotten my eight-year dose of Penguinmania, we hit the road again bound for the Cape and then on to Stellenbosch for the night. By the time we got to the gates of the Cape of Good Hope National Park, it was getting too late to justify paying the entrance fee. We also had quite a bit of driving left to do before reaching our destination, so we pointed Mini Red north and headed on, content in knowing that we’d be reaching the southernmost point in Africa in a few days’ time.

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You know those signs in the U.S. that say “Soft Shoulder”? I wonder what the signmakers would think about these shoulders?

Related Article:  Hiking Nature's Valley

Lovely. Now, bring on the wine!

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