It’s difficult to say exactly why I adore penguins but perhaps it’s because I feel a certain kinship with them – I, too, am a funny, waddly bird that is much better suited to water than land. And I am a great shuffler – ask anyone. In fact, people often recognise my approach because they can hear me shuffling away. I think the only thing we’d really disagree on, me and most of the penguins, is that I can’t bear the snow, though having seen several Attenborough programmes about it, the penguins don’t look like they’re really enjoying it either.
A friend from home recently posted a cute film on my Facebook page, about this funny old fish of a penguin who returns to his soulmate, a fisherman in Brazil, each year. They are the best of friends and the penguin appears to be quite possessive of his fisherman friend. The idea that I could land in Brazil, on the coast, and have a penguin come scampering up to me year after year and then refuse to leave my side is quite possibly one of the most wonderful and inspiring thoughts I’ve ever had. What dedication! What perseverance! The love!
I’m now keener than ever to figure out how I, too, can meet my penguin soulmate friend.
When I first moved to the UK, I rocked up to what’s known as Fresher’s Week, which for our North American friends is like Frosh Week. I was 29 years old at the time, and had no intention of watching a bunch of 18-year-olds get plastered on cheap cider. Naturally, I went to Glasgow to visit an old friend, who was also the only other person I knew in the entire country at the time. Upon arriving in Glasgow, and finding myself with time on my hands, since my friend had a job, I took myself through to Edinburgh and went to the zoo. Obviously.
Now, I went not only because I love a good zoo, but because the Edinburgh Zoo boasts an afternoon March of the Penguins. What they do is this: They open the gate to the penguin enclosure on the one side, and shepherd the wee birds out. From there, they waddle about ten or fifteen metres – maybe more – to the other gate, and then are herded back into their enclosure. One penguin, this delighfully bright spark of a bird, tried to make a break for it. His plans were unclear. Did he imagine himself taking up the life of a poet somewhere in the Grass Market? Perhaps a life in the castle? No one knew, but his hopes were dashed when one of the keepers noticed him trying to escape.
I do not believe I have ever been more charmed by a species before.
Then, years later, I learned about the penguins in South Africa, from a very dear friend of mine who hails originally from South Africa. As many times as I’ve had to explain how to dress when we get a cold snap over here, she’s explained that yes, in fact, one can go to the beach and sunbathe with the penguins. That this sentence is in no way made up is quite possibly one of the best things ever in the entire world. What’s even better is that I’ve seen a picture of my friend doing just this: she’s in a bikini, lounging about, and there are penguins everywhere – like throw pillows at The Mom’s house.
The idea that one need only fly to Capetown and hop in a taxi to the beach to meet with some penguins who would obviously enjoy the company is almost too much for me to bear. The even better part of this news is that my friend is getting married – at home! So, there is now a chance brewing for me to sunbathe with penguins. Along with the publication of my first novel, this will be the highlight of my life.
So when The Mom regaled me with tales of her recent trip to meet the penguins on level footing, so to speak, I was in rapture. And I can hardly believe The Mom when she tells me that she didn’t cry with glee and joy when the wee birds began their waddle-shuffle over top the viewing bunker. I have no idea how she managed to restrain herself, and I know that this one evening is literally the highlight of her year. I also know that once I’m home for the summer, the first thing we’ll do is look at her holiday snaps – which will be 90% penguin, by my estimation. And why not?