In pursuit of penguin romance and reptilian peril on South Africa’s rugged and dangerous Eastern Cape

Edith Hancock
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This is not a snake. It is a penguin. It is relatively harmless.

With a landscape marked by destruction, choppy waters and forest fires, there couldn’t be a more appropriate setting for a melodramatic soap opera than Shipwreck Coast. In front of me a pint-sized love story was playing out between two birds at SANCCOB, a penguin sanctuary in South Africa’s Eastern Cape.

“Lola is almost totally blind,” sighed a volunteer as we gazed wistfully at the waddling pair, “but Flipper doesn’t seem to care. He never leaves her side.”

South Africa is brimming with adventure activities, but watching penguin East(cape)enders was a welcome injection of cute after four days of adrenaline. In a day that took in a death-defying sea kayak safari, a few fortifying pints of local beer with lunch, followed by a surfing lesson on Shipwreck Coast, a sundowner at the sanctuary was necessary.

To the west, the Cape of Good Hope has been known by locals as the “graveyard of ships” for more than five centuries, but Cape St Francis gives it a run for its money. A guided walk from the opulent Dune Ridge Country House hotel takes in mountainous dunes, a forest scorched by a rogue flare in January and the ruins of a 19th century British gunboat. The HMS Osprey sank here in 1867, ten miles off Seal Point Lighthouse. One man was lost, and Shipwreck Coast was born.

Mind you, there’s as much drama in the African penguins’ lives. The volunteers are dedicated to minimising human impact through emergency rescue and rehabilitation. The sanctuary’s residents all have names, personalities and intertwining sub-plots that tourists can watch for free.

Thankfully for those who prefer thrillers, there’s almost too much to be seen of the Eastern Cape’s wildlife. Tourists from Cape Town flood the region every spring to experience nature in a new way.

Further south, just a half hour drive from Port Elizabeth sits Addo National Park, where even the bird watching is serious business. I was 13 when I last manned a canoe, taunting mallards on a lake in Suffolk. This time, I sank my oar into the snake-infested waters of Addo River to spend three intimate hours with the park’s smaller game. River tours at Addo start from just R500 (around £29), and include a constant flow of complimentary beer and cider. Of course, if being slightly sozzled around highly venomous boomslang snakes isn’t your idea of a laugh, soft drinks are also on offer.

Both Addo’s canoes and Tsitsikamma’s kayaks are a two-man job, making them perfect for couples seeking a romantic holiday with the sort of sexy frisson brought about by potential surprise snake attacks and the kind of horrible coastline tragedies Michael Buerk warned you about.

Addo’s 600 elephants are legendary, but can be elusive, roaming the 630 square mile National Park and rarely leaving the comfort of the herd. Lions were introduced to curb the grazing animals destroying the park, but you won’t find giraffes or wild dogs here. “The trees here aren’t the right kind,” said our guide Craig, “there isn’t much for them to feed on.”

If Addo’s rolling hills and death-snakes seem like a safe option, then head north to Tsitsikamma. A protected area on the Garden Route and Eastern Cape, the park is famous for its hiking trails and dramatic coastline where Storms River crashes into both the Indian and Atlantic oceans. The sheer cliffs carved over thousands of years, the frenzy of waves; it almost seems like the work of a team of CGI artists for the latest Tarzan film. What a place to learn sea-kayaking.

Unsurprisingly, alcohol wasn’t offered this time, but Storms River is still a great day out for large groups. Novice rowers will be glad that Untouched Adventures, which offers kayak and lilo tours of the mouth of the river starting at R450, provide careful instruction and all the necessary swimwear and gear to break you in gently.

Both Addo’s canoes and Tsitsikamma’s kayaks are a two-man job, making them perfect for couples seeking a romantic holiday with the sort of sexy frisson brought about by potential surprise snake attacks and the kind of horrible coastline tragedies Michael Buerk warned you about.

The locals have found innovative ways to take in all of Tsitsikamma’s natural wonder, but try to pace yourself. The guides at Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours, where you can explore the forest through a series of ten zip-wires suspended from some of the tallest trees, were crestfallen that this was not the first time I had been on a zip-line, and not even the first that week. A group of Americans behind us were cheering all the way through, but this was our last day. We had ridden the longest zip-wire on the continent, rowed with river snakes, quad biked, hiked, surfed and nearly capsized at the mouth of Storm River all in less than a week. By this time, trees were about as thrilling as the penguin sanctuary romance.

Wildlife isn’t the only way South Africa is breaking the mould. The country’s wine is far more famous, but local entrepreneurs have developed a taste for craft beer. The Tsitsikamma Village Inn by Storms River has its own microbrewery. The beers are typically lighter than you’d get in the UK, and often less alcoholic. You can’t go wrong with refreshing IPAs and pale ales, but adventurous beer nerds should try the stout, which is surprisingly light despite the strong taste of dark roasted coffee. The hotel itself is great for couples – every room is built to look like a small house mirroring the country’s colonial architecture.

British holidaymakers might be wary of flying to Europe right now with the pound weaker post-Brexit, but you can still get a great deal in South Africa. Pints at the microbrewery cost around R30, leaving you change from a £2 coin. Now that’s a thrill.

South African Airways flies from Heathrow to Johannesburg with onward connections. Lead-in rates to Durban and Port Elizabeth start from £958. To book visit flysaa.com or call 08443 759080

Rooms at Dune Ridge Country Lodge start from R2024 for two sharing. To book visit duneridgest​francis.co.za

To book at Addo National Park, visit crisscrossadventures.co.za

To book at Tsitsikamma visit untouchedadventures.com

Rooms at Tsitsikamma Village Inn start from R940 for two adults sharing. To book, visit tsitsikamma​villageinn.co.za

For more about South African Tourism, visit country.southafrica.net

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